January 2020 – Monthly Post for ACPA’s Coalition for Sexuality and Gender
Zakiya Brown | CSGI’s Practitioner-in-Residence | Lincoln University of Missouri
Eighth-grade English are my earliest memories of acknowledging my attraction to the same gender. She was the epitome of Black Girl Magic, skin like Lupita Nyong’o and as brilliant as Michelle Obama. In my 12-year-old mind, she was beauty personified. But, like many young people who first acknowledge their attraction to the same gender, I could never find the words or courage to tell her how I felt. My next memory is of when I was 16 when, and again, I never found the words or courage to say anything. I was 23 when I first verbally acknowledged that I identified as Queer and lived openly in a same-gender-loving relationship.
But this blog post is not about my coming out story, but about the progress that historically Black colleges and universities have made over the years in providing a safe space and community for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff. After struggling through high school with understanding my identity, I believed that college would give me space and environment to explore and discover who I was. Yet, as a student in the early 2000s, there was not a culture of inclusivity for LGBTQ students at my small public HBCU. There was no Safe Zone Training. Or an LGBTQ student organization or group. Nor were there faculty or staff who were serving as advocates for LGBTQ students. From what I could see, the campus did not have a space for students like me who were trying to make sense of their feelings among other like-minded people. As a student, I never found my community.
However, upon graduation, I was privileged to start my Higher Education Student Affairs career at my Alma Mater. My overall experience as a student was life-changing, so I was eager to create the same for other students. But, I also wanted to be a part of the change that was taking place across higher education by being a voice for marginalized students. HBCUs have found themselves in similar conversations regarding challenging practices, cultures, and environments that did not recognize the presence of LGBTQ students, but also excluded them. Within my second year in higher education, I began to realize where HBCUs were not present. For example, Campus Pride hosts annual college fairs across the U.S. in various regions, and at that time, HBCUs were not participating.
But things began to change. In 2008, I began challenging my institution. I asked questions about housing accommodations for Trans* students and gender-neutral housing, questioned the preparedness for addressing potential hate crimes that targeted our LGBTQ students, and what messages our policies and practices sent regarding inclusivity. I also began working with students to understand their experiences truly. With their assistance, we created a student organization, found funding to send them to leadership conferences, and helped establish scholarships for LGBTQ students who desired attending an HBCU. I was able to be a part of the changing narrative.
Unfortunately, this advocacy garnered some resistance. During my time at my Alma Mater as a professional, I presented an idea to establish a dedicated resource center to providing support and services for the LGBTQ student community. The proposal called for hiring a full-time program coordinator, establishing office space, hiring graduate assistants, and funding for professional development and programming. Admittedly, I knew that funding was limited, but I also knew that the students deserved someone whose attention was dedicated to their success and not split across the campus. In sharing this proposal with a senior administrator, the feedback was that I did not have the expertise to speak on what services and resources were necessary for students, particularly LGBTQ students. Although their response unexpected, it opened my eyes to other instances where the campus culture did not present itself as being inclusive or developmental. It was two years after that conversation where the institution established an LGBTQ Program Coordinator role as an ancillary position.
Ten years after that experience, I look around to see several HBCUs recognizing the importance of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for students. In 2018, Spelman College, Dillard University, Howard University, and Claflin University were among the group of HBCUs who gathered in Washington, D.C., with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation to discuss current issues impacting the national LGBTQ community and develop strategies for supporting LGBTQ students. Schools like Prairie View A&M University, Fayetteville State University, Virginia State University, and North Carolina Central University have created LGBTQ resource offices. Also, the Human Rights Campaign hosts a national HBCU Leadership Summit that works to empower HBCU LGBTQ students to be change-agents on their campus.
As I look back over the 15 years that I have served higher education student affairs, I recognize the challenges we have faced on several fronts. Yet, I also acknowledge our successes. As a graduate of an HBCU, I am familiar with the difficulties of changing culture. For some, there is an awareness of what is needed, but funding is a challenge. For others, the culture is a reflection of the greater society, which could be more challenging to change. Overall, things are changing. It is a slow process, but it is one that aims to serve the needs of all students.
I share this post with the Higher Education community for two reasons, (1) to recognize and celebrate the progress that is happening among historically Black colleges and universities regarding our LGBTQ students, and (2) to acknowledge that growth and change are inevitable, but they take time. As the 2019-2021 Practitioner-in-Residence for the Coalition for Sexuality and Gender Identities, I aim to highlight challenges and successes across higher education that impact the LGBTQ community. Our work continues because change and progress are inevitable.
To engage more about this topic, suggest others, or to connect with CSGIs
Practitioner-in-Residence, Zakiya Brown, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zakiya Brown has served higher education student affairs for over ten years. Her experience includes residence life, student engagement and development, diversity and inclusion, and student conduct. However, she currently serves as Title IX Coordinator at Lincoln University of Missouri.