There is little doubt about who is welcome at the Gender and Sexual Diversities Resource Center at Bowie State University in Maryland: Everyone.
The safe space is open for LGBTQIA+ students and their allies, with this caveat: “Faculty, staff, and students are expected to demonstrate respect to each other. Any individuals or groups that do not respect and support others on the basis of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity will be asked to leave.”
Bowie State is one of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) that have made LGBTQ+ inclusion a top priority on their campuses, recognizing that institutions have an obligation to provide learning and a sense of belonging to all students. Many are embracing similar statements and going beyond by updating admissions policies, providing new housing options, and offering new health and wellness choices.
Their groundbreaking work is highlighted in the new report Modeling Inclusion: HBCUs and LGBTQ+ Support from the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation. In it, it showcases the efforts several HBCUs have undertaken in assessing outdated policies, implementing changes and then fostering a welcome community by creating spaces and new mission statements to serve those students.
“It is inspiring to see so many HBCUs take historic steps to foster an environment of inclusion for LGBTQ+ students,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. “This is exactly the sort of future we envisioned when we first started our inclusion work with HBCUs 15 years ago. But there is still much more to be done before all LGBTQ+ students at HBCUs can feel safe and welcome at the schools they call home. As we continue this work, it is our hope that the successful models highlighted in our report will encourage more schools to invest in LGBTQ+ inclusion efforts.”
How they are making an impact
In its report, researchers note the extraordinary efforts of four HBCU institutions – Spelman College, North Carolina Central University, Morehouse College and Bowie State – which have paved the way for change and can serve as examples for other colleges and universities who might be slow in fully embracing the community.
Spelman College, a highly acclaimed single-gender, all-woman serving institution in Atlanta, for example put together a task force in 2017 to look at updating its admissions policy to include transgender women. In its new policy, it now considers for admission “students who consistently live and self-identify as women, regardless of their gender assignment at birth.”
Morehouse College in Atlanta, a men-serving institution, updated its admissions policy to reflect the embrace of those who change gender while at the institution, stating that ““if an enrolled student begins to self-identify as a woman, we will offer guidance and resources to assist in making choices that are best for that student.”
Those types of updates to existing policies, says Brandy Jones, Director for Programs and Communications at the Rutgers Center and lead author of the research brief, not only create a more welcoming community but also build a stronger foundation of talented and diverse students coming onto campus.
“Inclusive policies and practices yield positive outcomes across several metrics, including retention rates, academic success and student happiness,” Jones said. “Further, by committing to provide a safe and supportive environment for LBGTQ+ students, HBCUs can start to map a future where they can attract the best and brightest no matter their sexuality or gender expression and positively impact the lives of their future alumni.”
Still work to do, but some are moving forward
Researchers do note that there are many institutions “grappling with enacting policies” that keep pace with changes happening in society and provide that extra level of support to students. One of biggest concerns on campus is housing for LGBTQ+ students, and authors note that only one HBCU, Howard University, offers gender-neutral housing.
“Institutions need to make more of an effort to create accessible resources for LGBTQ+ students,” said Sergio Gonzalez, Research Associate at the Rutgers Center. “Just because they are enrolled into the universities does not necessarily mean that they feel as if they belong or as though they can thrive.”
Two shining examples of institutions that have provided those resources are Bowie State and North Carolina Central, according to researchers.
Bowie State was the first HBCU to launch an LGBTQ Health Center, which provides services such as counseling, mental health, drug prevention, health care, plus guidance on safe sex practices. It also does so in a positive, accessible manner for students.
Like Bowie State, North Carolina Central also created an LGBTA Center several years ago that offers unique initiatives such as Transgender Awareness Week and Safe Zone Trainings to address issues within its community of students. Researchers note that NCCU also also provides programming such “sensitivity training, an LGBTQ+ prom and a homecoming drag show.”
The authors of the story stress the importance of colleges and universities to be open-minded and forward-thinking in their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.
“Similar to the experiences of other underrepresented students, LGBTQ+ individuals often face multiple stressors while living on college campuses,” researchers say in the report. “Thus, it is important that institutions are actively and intentionally promoting LGBTQ+ support services and safe spaces for this community.”
To that end, they offered several recommendations to help bridge those gaps and create an all-inclusive environment:
- Use resources to undertake school-wide policy changes: That includes updating admissions forms from those that specially ask applications to make a choice on gender
- Make it easier for students to change their gender identity in student records: Find ways to alleviate painstaking processes for those who wish to make name changes
- Establish an office or space specifically designed for LGBTQ+ students: This is one of the most important, say researchers, in colleges offering support. Provide resources to engage the community and their allies and offer current, relevant programming about LGBTQ+ issues.
- Offer mental health resources that address the distinct challenges facing LGBTQ+ students: The LGBTQ+ community, in particular, has struggled with mental health disorders because of a lack of understanding, lack of belonging and bullying. Provide access to practitioners and information that can truly change these patterns.
- Demonstrate high visibility and support from campus leadership: Clear messaging from leaders that shows an embrace of the LGBTQ+ community can go a long way in having a healthy, safe and inclusive campus.
- Provide LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum: Researchers note that colleges and universities that do provide educational programming should be aware of “potential bias or harmful depictions that misrepresent the experiences of LGBTQ+ people.”