Life is not easy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students at the nation’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where the subject of same-gender-loving people and lifestyles remains largely taboo. The reality is that most black colleges have not accepted sexual identity diversity as an issue with which they need to be concerned. A number of reasons have been suggested — among these, a level of social and religious conservatism within the black community.
Whereas nearly all majority institutions long ago developed programming and institutional support systems to ensure that same-gender-loving persons are able to live authentically, only three HBCUs — Bowie State University, North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University — have created a center or dedicated full-time administrative staff to LGBT affairs.
Moreover, few black colleges have codified anti-discrimination policies related to sexual orientation. As a result, the LGBT communities within these schools are vulnerable to unchecked discrimination, forcing many to live in the shadows; masking their identities and suppressing their human potential in order survive. By not valuing and validating sexual identity diversity, black colleges create enormous losses in terms of human capital and opportunities for increased excellence, both for the black colleges, for black LGBT persons, and for society. There are no winners here.
According to the Harvard Business Review, LGBT persons comprise 5 to 10 percent percent of the working public in the United States and, we extrapolate, a substantially larger proportion of college enrollments. Estimates are that family and friends of LGBT persons extend to 60 percent of the American population. In terms of wealth, the LGBT community in the United States represents an $800 billon marketplace that is growing.
Data show that development and execution of a campus-based LGBT diversity and engagement strategy can both improve institutional outcomes and campus climate by providing a welcoming environment that fully engages all students, faculty and staff to contribute their best. Indeed, successful LGBT diversity and engagement strategies can enhance an institution’s reputation, overall student satisfaction, and fundraising opportunities — each providing new levers for marketability. And student and staff morale are lifted when an institution is seen to be inclusive. But perhaps most importantly, fully inclusive institutions garner the best talent, increase employee retention and productivity, and decrease their legal vulnerability.
With a collective enrollment of some 300,000 undergraduate and graduate students annually, black colleges play a critical role in shaping the black community. It is imperative, therefore, that black colleges take a national leadership role as agents of social change by adopting a campus diversity agenda built around the emerging needs of their LGBT communities.
At the core is a recognition that black colleges lag woefully behind their peers nationally in developing welcoming environments for LGBT persons, with most displaying benign neglect and some outright hostility to LBGT concerns. The presidents of these institutions must have the courage to stand up for diversity by aligning their institutions’ operations with their stated values of inclusion.
Black college presidents should invest in 1) understanding their campus climate with an emphasis on LGBT concerns, 2) developing a language and framework to engage with the issues of sexual identity diversity constructively, and 3) creating strategies, plans and the infrastructure to ensure that the needs of their LGBT members are met. Concurrently, all who care about black colleges must step out of the shadows of fear or indifference and help them write a new chapter in their ongoing tradition of inclusiveness.