LGBTQ+ Student Experiences at HBCUs

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.

Published on October 20, 2021 · Updated on November 18, 2021

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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LGBTQ+ Student Experiences at HBCUs

At historically Black Colleges and universities (HBCUs), it remains essential to listen to, learn from, and discuss the experiences of LGBTQ+ students. To build inclusive and supportive spaces for all students, HBCUs must engage in practices that empower LGBTQ+ students.

Since the first campus-based LGBTQ+ center opened in 1971, LGBTQ+ students continue to fight for safe and communal spaces at HBCUs. Administrators, faculty, and students can develop inclusive practices for LGBTQ+ students using the guidance and resources provided below.

History of LGBTQ+ Inclusion at HBCUs

Student activism has pushed HBCUs to make strides on LGBTQ+ inclusion on campus. As a student and activist at Howard University, Chi Hughes founded the first openly LGBTQ+ student organization at an HBCU. The Lambda Student Alliance (LSA), chartered in 1979, established a sense of community among LGBTQ+ students despite lacking more institutional support.

Ongoing policy and organizational changes have expanded inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students at HBCUs today, though there is still a long way to go.

In 2012, Bowie State University formed the first LGBTQ+ student center at an HBCU to openly identify itself by name. Currently, of the more than 100 HBCUs, fewer than ten have LGBTQ+ centers.

In 2017, Spelman College expanded its admission policy to admit transgender women. Individuals who identify and live as women, regardless of their gender assignment at birth, can apply to study at the single-gender institution. Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU, also opened its admission policy to admit individuals identifying and living as men, as well as nonbinary and gender non-conforming students.

According to Campus Pride's HBCU database, 31 HBCUs offer LGBTQ+ courses or program options. Among all HBCUs, Spelman College employs the only tenure-track professor in Black queer studies.

Students continue to speak out about LGBTQ+ needs and the ways HBCUs can work to become more inclusive.

Challenges and Issues LGBTQ+ Students Face

An unnamed problem. HBCUs struggle to acknowledge LGBTQ+ issues. Administrators must recognize the experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ students in order to establish inclusive practices. Solving a problem first requires naming it. HBCU administrators often lack the depth of understanding needed to address issues LGBTQ+ students face, leaving needs unmet.

Inadequate mental healthcare. According to The Trevor Project, while Black LGBTQ+ youth experience similar rates of mental health conditions as non-Black LGBTQ+ youth, they are much less likely to receive professional mental healthcare. Without identity-affirming mental healthcare, students face additional challenges as they attempt to support themselves.

Lack of accountability. HBCUs that lack disciplinary or accountability structures for anti-LGBTQ+ acts jeopardize the welfare of LGBTQ+ students. Homophobic and transphobic actions at HBCUs, including verbal and physical violence, aren't always met with adequate consequences. A lack of institutional action on this bigotry allows it to continue.

Problematic gender norms. Antiquated gender norms — including traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity — can make life particularly difficult for LGBTQ+ students on HBCU campuses. Faculty, staff, and administrators who reinforce stereotypical gender roles or negate varied expressions of gender can negatively impact LGBTQ+ students' feelings of belonging and acceptance.

Resistance. Protests against LGBTQ+ inclusion foster feelings of exclusion. Resistance to inclusive efforts by students, faculty, or staff can be harmful to LGBTQ+ students seeking support and belonging. Administrators who resist the creation of LGBTQ+ centers at HBCUs create roadblocks to student success.

Ways HBCUs Can Improve Support for LGBTQ+ Students

Allyship. Learn and discuss issues relevant to the LGBTQ+ student population. Attend LGBTQ+ events and support the development of safe spaces around campus. Take courses on LGBTQ+ histories, like those offered at Fayetteville State University, Miles College, and 29 other HBCUs.

Engage in learning experiences. Train HBCU staff on the collective needs of LGBTQ+ students. Advocate for the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ+ students. Join organizations that provide training and resources for leaders and students such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), National Center for Black Equity, and the National Black Justice Coalition.

Accept transgender students into HBCUs. Spelman College and Morehouse College led the way by accepting transgender students into their schools. Follow the example of schools like Howard University by providing gender-neutral housing and gender-inclusive bathrooms.

Update nondiscrimination policies. Use inclusive language that avoids binary representations of gender. Ensure that all staff receive training on new policies to ensure the safety of LGBTQ+ students across campus.

Establish LGBTQ+ centers. Every HBCU should host a center on campus that operates as a safe and inclusive space for LGBTQ+ students and allies. LGBTQ+ centers also provide inclusive learning tools for the campus community and identity development opportunities for students, and serve as a center for advocacy work on campus.

Resources for LGBTQ+ Students at HBCUs

HRC HBCU Project: The HBCU Project sponsored by HRC offers training and leadership opportunities for LGBTQ+ students. The leadership summit welcomes all students interested in supporting the safety of LGBTQ+students across HBCU campuses.

Campus Pride HBCU Clearinghouse for LGBTQ Inclusion: Campus Pride produces a yearly report on all HBCU policies, programs, and practices related to LGBTQ+ inclusivity. The organization shares the status of nondiscrimination statements, LGBTQ+ courses and programs of study, LGBTQ+ affirming counseling support, and allyship programs at HBCUs.

National Black Justice Coalition: NBJC's HBCU Equality Initiative provides guidance for supporting LGBTQ+ communities on HBCU campuses. The organization advises on policy and helps develop affirming environments for all students.

To remain competitive institutions of higher learning, HBCUs must support LGBTQ+ students in tangible ways. Inclusion practices like admission policy changes, the addition of mental healthcare services and LGBTQ+ centers, and the creation of accountability structures support the safety of LGBTQ+ students and enhance equity within the diverse populations of HBCUs.

Feature Image: Rushay Booysen / 500px / 500px Prime / Getty Images

Our list of resources can help aspiring and current HBCU students. Learn insider tips for applying to an HBCU and how to prepare for campus life. Learn about the experiences and challenges of transgender and nonbinary students, and find resources to help you choose a gender-inclusive campus. Explore common experiences and challenges of LGBTQ+ college students and learn how you can ensure your campus supports and affirms LGBTQ+ students.