Keep your t***** out of our bathrooms. Thanks!
#DIE No f******* allowed! We don’t want you here.
Keep Spelman safe. We don’t want you. F*** you freaks. No queers.
Those vile and violent messages, scribbled on torn and wrinkled paper, were slipped under the dorm rooms of LGBT students at the end of the spring semester at Spelman College. Amber Warren, former president of Spelman’s LGBT student group Afrekete, got the first one in early April.
The notes were a blow to her gut—a sign that Warren’s work since her freshman year to make the historically black women’s campus in Atlanta more inclusive of LGBT students hadn’t gone as far as she wanted.
“I honestly feel like, in a weird way, I let my campus down, but Spelman just failed me. There’s only so much that I can do as another student,” said Warren, 22, who received a note the day that Pride Week activities were announced at Spelman. “I felt like it was a slap in the face to not be protected by my campus nor supported by my student body…. I felt like it was hard to get people to care.”
Historically black colleges and universities are making overtures to be more inclusive of LGBT students. Spelman announced that it will start accepting transgender students this fall. Bowie State, Fayetteville State, and North Carolina Central State universities have LGBT student centers, and more black colleges are offering courses about black queer history. Despite the incremental progress at HBCUs, there is still resistance that makes black queer students feel like outsiders at home.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, PhD, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College, has worked to make the college LGBT-inclusive since 1981, when she became the founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center. Part of its mission is to address LGBTQ issues. Spelman has gone further than other HBCUs in advancing LGBT issues, but there is still room for progress, Guy-Sheftall said.
“It has been difficult to create what I would call a queer-friendly campus because we haven’t acknowledged as an institution the deep and persistent issues around homophobia that exist in the community—and HBCUs are a microcosm of that,” Guy-Sheftall said. “We would have to say out loud and on a regular basis that we have issues around this and address them as an institution.”
Spelman is perceived as a leader on LGBT issues at HBCUs because Guy-Sheftall’s center led many of those efforts, including a three-year research and advocacy project around LGBT issues at HBCUs with a grant from the Arcus Project. In 2011, nine HBCUs gathered at Spelman for a historic summit. In 2017 Guy-Sheftall established the Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program, which awards scholarships to LGBT students and hosts LGBT-related programming on campus. Spelman is the only HBCU with a tenure-track professor in black queer studies, Guy-Sheftall said, and last year the school announced that it would begin admitting transgender students this fall.