The recent spate of legislation targeting LGBTQ identities is threatening to negate some of the progress Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have made in providing safe spaces for members of the community, advocates warn.
Over the past decade in particular, HBCUs have made a concerted effort to address the community’s concerns, from establishing LGBTQ centers on campus to changing admissions policies to allow transgender students to enroll. But now some fear the new legislation, which many seen as discriminatory, could have a chilling effect on that progress.
Leslie Hall, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s HBCU program, told The Hill the laws could have an “enormous impact” on the institutions.
“When you put an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum or you want to start a LGBTQ center on campus but you have to worry about a legislature saying that there’s no value in this so this is unnecessary or we’ll strike out your budget appropriation for this year, it’s very scary,” Hall said.
“It puts HBCUs in a very, very precarious situation because they’re already underfunded in many cases, and they just really can’t afford that type of treatment.”
According to HRC, more than 340 anti-LGBTQ laws have been introduced in state legislatures, with 150 specifically restricting the rights of transgender people. These laws range in limiting health care for transgender people to bathroom bans to prohibiting diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campuses. Many of these laws have been passed in states home to HBCUs, most of which are in the South.
In 2021, there were 99 HBCUs in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fifty were public institutions and 49 were private nonprofit.
Established in the 19th century, HBCUs originally provided Black Americans with educational opportunities denied to them by white institutions. Today, 19 HBCUs have land-grant status under the 1890 Morrill Act.
Those HBCUs, as well as public HBCUs, receive some state funding, though not in equal amounts as predominantly white state schools. Still, with the spread of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, non-compliance with these laws means these colleges and universities could lose their state funding, and many don’t have the coffers to make up the difference.
But HBCUs are thought of as a space of acceptance and Black excellence, said Florida State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a graduate of Florida A&M University.
“These campuses are teaching students not just based off them being Black, but it’s teaching them how to operate and thrive in this society, this place we call America, in a place where we weren’t welcome,” Jones said. But the spread of anti-LGBT laws, Jones added, is causing professors and administrators “to walk on eggshells.”
“It’s also causing HBCUs to have to go back to the drawing board to try to figure out who we are,” Jones said. “And that’s dangerous, because I think HBCUs are pivotal to our community, they’re pivotal to our society, they’re pivotal to this country.”
That doesn’t mean HBCUs were always a safe space for LGBTQ students.
In 2002, a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College viciously beat another student with a baseball bat. The attacker’s defense was that he felt the student, who is gay, looked at him “in an inappropriate way.” Violent incidents against LGBTQ students at HBCUs continued over the years, with another student at a different campus later being sodomized in the shower. Eventually, HRC stepped in and the HBCU program was created.
“We’re not just this silent group that doesn’t experience any harm just because we’re all at an HBCU and we’re all Black,” said Quenessa “Q” Long, a third-year law student at Howard University in Washington D.C. and president of Howard’s OUTlaw LGBTQ organization. “We do experience a lot of displacement and a lot of it has to do with the fact that people aren’t acknowledging the things that we’re going through.”
Hall said HBCUs have historically been slower to adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies, in part due the complex history between the LGBTQ community and the Black community, but also because many HBCUs were formed in basements of churches, and the religious beliefs of those congregations became embedded into the campus community.
But lately, Hall said, HBCUs have been doing “really great work.”
In 2012, Maryland’s Bowie State University became the first HBCU to establish an LGBTQ center. In 2018, Spelman College, a historically all-women school, began accepting transgender women. One year later, Morehouse began reckoning with its past and announced the historically all-male school would begin accepting transgender male students.
And at Howard, Long and Frank Cunningham, OUTlaw’s vice president, have begun to host campus-wide events, like the group’s recent Pride Week, to encourage and build community awareness and acceptance.
All these things, Hall said, have been proven to make a campus more inclusive, respectful and safe for everyone.
Still, Long said, Howard – and other HBCUs – can do more.
“Where it will be a shortfall of Howard is if they don’t come out and say, ‘Yes, we care about historically the fight for, like, Black people but we also care about these other civil rights … we care about Black queer people and these identities that stand alone,” Long said.
But in some states, these actions could have legal backlash.
In Florida, the state legislature is debating a bill that would ban programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion in colleges and universities across the state, as well as majors in women’s studies or gender studies.
Hall expressed concerns that the spread of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and what some call anti-Black legislation, could lead to a mass exodus of Black and LGBTQ folks from Southern states.
So far, these laws haven’t impacted HBCU attendance just yet — in fact, the very opposite seems to be happening.
HBCU enrollment has been increasing over the last few years, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting last year that the percentage of Black students enrolled at HBCUs increased from 8 percent in 2014 to 9 percent in 2020.
“I think in protest, a lot of young people want to make sure that our history is preserved, and preserving that history is attending HBCUs,” Jones said.
But Cunningham, of Howard, thinks it goes even deeper.
“We as a Black community have to begin to see the fact that we can’t simply just focus on the racial issues,” he said. “We have to focus on the fact that Black people are actually a part of many different communities and also different groups. And so we have to be for the complete liberation of all Black people.”
That’s why Cunningham wants to see HBCU alumni networks pick up funding where state governments are passing legislation targeting identities.
“This is the time that the alumni have to step in to really fund and protect these schools from the risk of getting their funding taken away,” Cunningham said. “We ourselves have to figure out a way to ensure that our HBCUs are actually protected and are not weakened by demands from racist, homophobic and hate-driven governments.”
HRC’s Hall said he’ll be interested to see if the rate of enrollment at HBCUs keeps increasing but acknowledges it’s too soon to tell. Still, he had advice for students during this time.
“Students need to appeal directly to the state legislatures. They need to start running for office in many of these legislative districts,” he said. He also encouraged students to use social media campaigns to inform others of the impact these laws could have on them.
“Students have an opportunity to really show some leadership on this issue because they can’t get fired, state legislatures can’t withhold pay from them,” Hall said. “This is an opportunity for them to really use their voices because we’re approaching a very dangerous time.”