Historically black colleges and universities have long struggled with a reputation of being unwelcoming, if not overtly hostile, to gays and lesbians. It's a problem sometimes attributed to the conservative faiths that many students, and some of the institutions, are affiliated with.
So several years ago a group of HBCUs joined together to tackle the issue.
Their goal was to encourage senior administrators at black colleges to take concrete steps toward openness and equal protection by adding sexual orientation to nondiscrimination policies, integrating discussions of sexual orientation into relevant academic courses, and creating "safe spaces" and resource centers on campuses. Since the three-year project ended, in 2011, progress has been steady but slow, conversations with leaders of national advocacy groups and college administrators suggest.
"The work has been much more challenging and complicated than we would have liked it to have been," says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women's studies at Spelman College and a leader of the project. Supported by the Arcus Foundation, it involved 10 of the country's 105 or so historically black colleges.
The 2011 hazing death of Robert Champion, a Florida A&M University band member who was gay, highlighted the risks for students who are open about their sexual orientation. Following Mr. Champion's death, the university formed a fact-finding committee to help improve the climate for lesbian, gay, and transgender students, faculty, and staff.
Committee members looked at a variety of institutions to see what they had done to make their campuses more inclusive."We came up lacking," says Tanya Tatum, director of student health services and chair of the committee. "Seriously lacking."
One problem for many historically black colleges, observers say, is that administrators and faculty and staff members are often uncomfortable talking about sexual orientation. That discomfort derives from a blend of social conservatism and concerns about their university's public image.
"When you're an institution marginalized by rankings and may not have the infrastructure and resources to stand proud, you work hard to find points of pride and go out of your way to cover up things perceived to go against that," says Terrell L. Strayhorn, an associate professor in the department of educational studies at Ohio State University, who has conducted research on the experiences of black gay men at HBCUs.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman's president, says historically black colleges ignore these conversations at their peril: "You don't want to make your school off limits to some segment of your population."
Equally important, she adds, colleges must be inclusive if they expect to train the next generation of leaders in industry and government. She cites President Obama's evolution in thinking on gay rights: "An effective leader has to be an inclusive leader."
Despite the slow pace of change, a few of the nation's historically black colleges have made significant strides. Bowie State and North Carolina Central Universities recently opened resource centers. And more institutions are willing to host speakers and other events to discuss issues around sexual orientation, observers say. The all-male Morehouse College, which just four years ago was criticized for including in a new dress code a ban on "clothing associated with women's garments," offered a course (taught remotely by a Yale University scholar) called "A Genealogy of Black LGBT Culture and Politics." And like Florida A&M, Morgan State University has organized a presidential advisory board to ensure that its campus has the academic, social, and legal structures in place to support its lesbian, gay, and transgender community.
Still, gay-rights advocates say, HBCUs lag when compared with larger, more racially diverse campuses. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil-rights group, only about a quarter of the nation's historically black colleges have student groups for gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other sexual-minority students.
Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which along with the Human Rights Campaign offers support to historically black colleges looking to develop LGBT programs. Her group has been pressing the U.S. Education Department to require the colleges to amend their antidiscrimination policies to include sexual orientation. Only about a quarter have done so, she estimates, and "25 percent in academia is failing."
The Human Rights Campaign runs an annual leadership and career summit for LGBT students from historically black colleges. Donna Payne, the campaign's associate director of field outreach, sympathizes with administrators, who are often struggling to keep their cash-strapped institutions afloat and secure financial aid for their students. Because of these ever-present pressures, Ms. Payne says, the concerns of gay and lesbian students "get lost in the sauce."
Student surveys suggest that colleges should put their energy into offering more residence-life support. Gay students often feel unsafe in residence halls and may avoid the campus because of that, notes Mr. Strayhorn, of Ohio State. He and his colleagues have been conducting surveys of gay black men on historically black campuses since 2008 (and recently expanded the surveys to include women).
Kenneth Pass, an openly gay senior at Morehouse College, says he would have become another dropout statistic if a few key students and faculty members had not offered him support. Instead he became active on the campus, working as a resident adviser and talking with other students about sexual-orientation issues. He has also been a leader of the gay-straight alliance, called SafeSpace. He is encouraged by younger students, who he feels are more "open and willing to learn about differences—more open than my class was."
But he also feels that the mantle for change is being carried by just a few people: himself, a couple of other students, and a few faculty members and administrators. "We're not the worst," he says of the environment for gay students at Morehouse. "But we're not the best."
Mr. Pass's experience is a common one, say gay-rights advocates. Given that most historically black colleges lack an infrastructure of support for gay students—like protection policies and safe spaces on campus—progress at many institutions comes at the hands of a few activists.
Colleges that have made strides toward building that infrastructure have found that dedicated employees and external support—and not necessarily lots of money—can make a big difference.
At Bowie State, Adrian Krishnasamy, an assistant professor of speech and public speaking, says the administration has been fully supportive of the new Gender and Sexual Diversities Resource Center, which opened last year. But Mr. Krishnasamy himself also does a lot of work to keep it running and to continue the conversation on campus about sexual orientation and gender-identity issues. He volunteers as the center's director, speaks to classes, connects with outside groups for speakers and support, and trains faculty and staff members who want to get more involved.
"Believe in what you do and really push the agenda," he advises colleagues on other historically black campuses who are looking to build similar support systems.
At North Carolina Central University, Tia Marie Doxey, director of student-life assessment, has been working to improve the climate for LGBT students since arriving, in 2004. Today N.C. Central offers a resource center, has sexual orientation written into its nondiscrimination policies, boasts support groups for faculty members, students, and alumni, and provides "safe zone" training for employees who want to offer support for students.
"It's not an overnight process," she cautions. "It doesn't mean we don't still have work to do."
At Florida A&M, Tanya Tatum is optimistic that her university can make great strides. The committee has been pushing the administration to amend the nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. It is also advocating for more discussion of the subject across the campus—at new-student orientations, in classrooms, and in residence halls—to make all students feel welcome.
"There's enough change in the environment," she says. "There's enough demand among students, and there's a recognition in the administration that things have to change."