Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been in existence for over 160 years; continuing the trailblazing tradition of Black Excellence and creating light in an academic space which once was dark. These institutions have birth some of the greatest Black thinkers, pushing back against an American narrative intent on suppressing the advancement of African Americans education and culture. However, missed within the dear old walls and hallowed grounds is a Blackness encompassing the ever-growing LGBTQ presence on these campuses.
I often think of the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” when I pull my experience around being Q at an HBCU. “Life ain’t been no crystal stair” as it has “tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up, and places with no carpet.” From academics to Greek life, there is an intersection missed which creates the erasure of part of our identity in effort to be accepted as we are at institutions many consider meccas for Black education. Rooted in historic church traditions, many of these institutions have failed to turn the page on accepting people who live outside of a heteronormative existence. Or for that, even acknowledging their presence and providing the resources necessary for their survival at these institutions.
I was only 17 when I moved to Richmond and attended Virginia Union University. I remember feeling like I was a shell of myself; still outgoing and funny but not accepting of the identity I knew I had always been. Within the first few weeks, I recall several people questioning my sexuality, for which I always responded that I wasn’t gay, knowing that wasn’t the case. I knew from the beginning that life on the campus was going to be hard and I did everything I could to protect myself. In a sea of about 1300 people I was alone, with very few speckles of people who identified as I had felt. I was too afraid to come out, but struggling with the suppression of keeping my identity in. Campus culture wasn’t conducive to the “coming out” narrative I so longed for, and it was honestly fear of rejection from students that kept me quiet about who I was.
It was my 3rd year of college when I decided it was time for me to start living, still not identifying as gay but ready to become George. With that, I joined Alpha Phi Alpha with the hopes of not only creating new friendships, but finding men that could help with masculinity; an ideal I thought I longed for. I became a member, and created even more problems. My vocal activist nature, intertwined with my femininity, wasn’t quite the leader my org was looking for. But I persevered and continued to fight for my existence as I was, and not how many wanted me to be. I would do years of work within Alpha with my fair share of battles. During that time, I began working at the college which gave me introspect into a different side of HBCU culture around the LGBTQ.
As an admin, I had no safe place; reminiscent of my times as a student. However, I was able to do more work to ensure that students could begin having those conversations to create the needed changes within the archaic culture. Admin and professors have it just as hard as the students on the campus, as their identities are often suppressed as the campus culture is not ready to be that diverse. I remember times when LGBTQ students would use my personal office as a safe space to talk, and not feel that they had to be defensive. Allyship between students and admin became the safety net for us all. The campus truly lacked the cultural competency to understand the different needs of students, faculty, and staff who identified as LGBTQ; doing little to ensure policies and procedures were equal for all.
11 years since becoming an Alpha, and 10 from graduating, I learned that you can’t have a Blackness without a Queerness. These institutions which started out of resistance and providing a setting of learning for African Americans must do the active work to provide equity among the identities who fall within their student populations. These campuses and institutions must be a representation of the totality of Blackness, with any erasure being a detriment to our survival as institutions of higher learning, and our existence as Black people.
George M. Johnson is the Journalist and Activist located in NYC. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, EBONY, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
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