Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Slow to Change: Despite Legal Ramifications, HBCUs Have Yet to Fully Embrace LGBTQA Students and Employees

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Slow to Change: Despite Legal Ramifications, HBCUs Have Yet to Fully Embrace LGBTQA Students and Employees

Article excerpt

Earlier this summer, a gay White professor at Alabama State University filed a lawsuit in federal court against Alabama State, an HBCU, alleging that he and his partner had been the targets of discriminatory practices at the school.

Dr. John L. Garland charged that he and his spouse, Dr. Steven B. Chesbro, who is dean of the College of Health Sciences at ASU, were retaliated against after they spoke out about a pattern of discrimination at the public HBCU.

While ASU declined to comment on the allegations, news of the lawsuit made national headlines, raising an urgent and pressing question: How do HBCUs fare overall when it comes to ensuring that members of the LGBTQA community--students, staff and faculty --are afforded the same rights as others?

"Not so good," says Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black LGBTQA individuals. "I don't think were being too hard on HBCUs. They are just far too behind when it comes to this issue."

Though HBCUs have a long history of being culturally and religiously conservative, guidelines established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) make it illegal for colleges and universities--particularly public ones--to discriminate against LGBTQA employees.

And yet, the number of EEOC complaints filed against HBCUs as a result of discrimination based on sexual orientation appears to be growing, according to legal experts, scholars and LGBTQA activists. Other LGBTQA faculty and administrators like Garland have opted instead to use the courts to seek remedy.

At a time when other "isms" have been routinely frowned upon within academia, some say that overt and subtle forms of discrimination directed against the LGBTQA community have been allowed to fester, as many institutions lay claim to social tradition when the issue is raised.

But that's not an excuse, says Lettman-Hicks, who has been pushing for HBCUs to adopt non-discrimination policies and to become compliant with federal and state laws.

"The federal government repealed 'don't ask, don't tell' and HBCUs should follow suit, says Lettman-Hicks. "This is a no-brainer. We have to pass inclusionary measures that say that we want to create a professional climate for those who work at our institutions."

'Sense of struggle'

While predominantly White institutions across the country have long provided health and other benefits for same-sex partners, many HBCUs have been slow to recognize civil unions or gay marriage, which is now legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C.

"I went to my HR department with my marriage certificate to get my husband added to my benefits and the director looked at me like I was an alien," says one HBCU faculty member who married his husband in Washington, D.C. last year. "My HR director either was in deep denial or had no idea that marriage was actually legal in parts of this country and I spent several weeks trying to desperately convince her that I was not lying; she seemed to be in absolute disbelief."

The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges should take up the case, says Lettman-Hicks, on helping HBCUs get up to speed, since they are responsible for "modeling the priorities of what the Obama administration is about."

But getting buy-in from many HBCUs--including their boards of trustees and alumni--may prove difficult, particularly at private HBCUs that have a church-based affiliation. …

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