When Howard McQuirter Jr.’s parents found out he was gay, they disowned him. Stripped of his car, cell phone and financial support just two weeks before starting his educational journey at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), McQuirter says he was forced to make some serious adjustments in his life.

“It was hard; I didn’t really have anyone,” said McQuirter, 20, who is now a junior at WSSU. “It was a bit of a struggle emotionally.”

Despite the hardships he endured, McQuirter resolved he would never again deny who or what he was. He says he’s glad he doesn’t have to hide anymore.

“It’s really a burden carrying that secret,” he commented. “I had to make a decision within myself that I wasn’t going to be scared of (people’s reactions)…If I was going to accept my sexuality fully, I had to be ready for whatever came my way.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Di’Tarrie Hooper, a mass communications major, says he’s grown accustomed to the persecution.

“You hear little ignorant comments, people whispering and saying stuff like, ‘Is that that faggot?’” he reported. “I’ve been called everything you can call a gay person, but I’m fine with it. I’d rather be me and not be accepted as much than to act like somebody else and be respected. You just get a thicker skin and you grow from everything that you’ve been through.”

When the world beats them down, McQuirter and Hooper say they now have somewhere to turn, thanks to the formation of the GSSA (Gay-Straight Student Alliance) on the campus of WSSU.

More than 100 students have signed on to be a part of the organization, which promotes mutual respect and understanding among people of diverse lifestyles and sexual orientations, when it debuted at the school’s organizational fair on Sept. 3.

“I think it’s very needed on campus,” GSSA Co-Advisor Thomas Clarke Jr. said of the organization. “(Homosexuality) is something we should discuss. I think students should feel comfortable talking about it with one another…That exchange can be a healthy factor.”

In addition to being a safe haven for LGBT students and their allies, the organization promotes academic and professional growth through a variety of activities. Most recently, the GSSA sent a handful of its members to the Out for Work career conference in Washington, D.C. Designed specifically for LGBT individuals, the conference offered workshops and opportunities to network with representatives from a smattering of Fortune 500 companies.

Rashad Little joined the group as a straight ally.

“I do disagree with homosexuality because I grew up in the Bible Belt,” he related, “but I’m not going to discriminate against somebody because of the way they are.”

Little says he hopes his a participation will encourage other straight students to get involved in the alliance.

“When they asked me to be a member, I was delighted to do it,” he commented. “Being a straight ally is very significant. I really am going to set an example for straight students…we need to be educated.”

The creation of the club is a matter of social justice, says Chevara Orrin, a WSSU employee who serves as co-advisor for the GSSA.

“It just seemed hypocritical to be on a black campus and to have people who are oppressed and not do something about it,” she said. “With all of the oppression we’ve faced (as black people)…how do we not show compassion to a group of people that’s part of us that’s being oppressed?”

Members are concerned that WSSU is one of only a handful of schools in the University of North Carolina system that does not include language to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in its constitution. WSSU’s Marketing and Communications Director Aaron Singleton says the school is looking into the matter.

For more information about the GSSA, call Clarke at 336-750-3333 or Orrin at 336-750-2121.

This article was originally published by The Winston-Salem Chronicle on Oct. 9, 2008. It is reprinted here with permission.