Intentional Change How HRC’s Justin Calhoun and LaTayna Purnell Help to Further Inclusivity and Diversity Within the Organization

The Human Rights Campaign has ramped up efforts to empower and mobilize communities of color and marginalized communities. In doing so, HRC has attracted powerful and passionate advocates working within the intersection of racial and LGBTQ+ equality to join the organization professionally. Such is the case with Justin Calhoun (he/him) and LaTayna Purnell (they/theirs), HRC Foundation’s program manager of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities program and associate director of the Welcoming Schools program, respectively.

Both Calhoun and Purnell became acquainted with the HRC Foundation’s work by being involved in other progressive groups and entities. Their individual passions and convictions for both racial and LGBTQ+ equality had brought them into spaces where HRC’s and the HRC Foundation’s work was present and active. It is in these spaces that they had better familiarized themselves with the work of the organization that helps to advance LGBTQ+ equality in everyday life, such as schools and workplaces for LGBTQ+ people, especially for those who re part of communities of color and marginalized communities.

For Calhoun, it was his vision of a campus that appreciated and valued his “queerness as much as his Blackness” that eventually connected him with HRC.

I have always had a passion for creating spaces of inclusion. I knew I wanted to leave a legacy at my HBCU, one that was as queer as it is Black. Howard University is a utopia for Black diverseness, and at the time I envisioned a world where my queerness was included in campus life just as much as my Blackness was."

Justin Calhoun, HRC Foundation’s program manager of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities program


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After being advised by a colleague, Calhoun joined CASCADE, the first openly LGBTQ+ student organization at any HBCU. “It was through CASCADE that I was introduced to the HBCU program at HRC,” said Calhoun. “I learned that HRC was the only organization that is actively serving LGBTQ+ students and staff at HBCUs nationally. My mind was blown. This was my dream job, being able to help Black queer youth at HBCUs thrive. When I learned that HRC’s HBCU program offered a leadership development experience, I knew I had to attend. My experience at the HBCU Leadership Summit transformed the way I thought about HBCUs at large and helped to turn my passion into my life’s work.”

Purnell’s intersectional identities also drives their advocacy for LGBTQ+ equality. Their own passions and interests in seeing themselves reflected within their professional and personal endeavors inspired them to join a progressive social movement like that of HRC. With over 25 years of experience as a K-16 educator and administrator as well as a youth-serving professional, Purnell recognized the need to further LGBTQ+ equality and competence across the country’s learning communities. They first joined Welcoming Schools as a national facilitator before moving into their current role.

“As a professional, and many times in my past professional experiences, I was often the only BIPOC, and also at times the only non-binary person in the space,” said Purnell. “Because I know that my presence is vital to the students who need to see someone that looks like them, or who is queer like them, I wanted to find a larger platform like HRC to make sure folks like me are represented and can connect to more educators and students. I have gotten emails and texts from past students thanking me for modeling what it means to be a non-binary person of color.”

Purnell said that they believe it is in their intersecting identities where they find the motivation to do the work they do.

It is hard not to participate in advocacy work when you are squarely in the community. As a Black, non-binary, sex-assigned-at-birth female, it is hard not to do the work because it is about survival for myself and others who identify like me. The advocacy work I did before coming to HRC was within my local community doing phone banking and candidate outreach, but I also worked to increase LGBTQ+ competency in classrooms by training educators and administrators. I came to realize that my identity and that of many other queer individuals needed more recognition. As a Black woman, my voice was and continues to be needed to ensure justice and equality. As an educator, I have always felt the need to serve as a role model for the marginalized youth I worked with. My current work allows me to continue to serve this community. I was drawn to this type of work because I have been and am a part of a marginalized group and know the need for role models and support for others who look like me."

LaTayna Purnell, associate director of the Welcoming Schools program
Bre B., Rae James, LaTayna Purnell, and Cheryl Greene at the Welcoming Schools National Day of Reading in 2023 (Joy Asico/AP Images for HRC).
Justin Calhoun and others at the HBCU Summit in 2022.

At a time where many communities of color and marginalized communities experience a harsh social climate brought on by the onslaught of discriminatory legislation and its direct impact in forms of book bans, educational censorship and bills blatantly targeting LGBTQ+ people, Calhoun and Purnell know that their work is more important than ever before.

“With recent events such as the Supreme Court ruling on 303 Creative, and in states like Florida where the governor recently just signed a new law prohibiting any state and federal funding from supporting diversity or LGBTQ+ programs at colleges and universities, it’s obvious that our work is under attack,” said Calhoun. “Florida now joins 19 other states where diversity, equity and inclusion programs are under attack. It is alarming, and something has to be done about it. For me, this speaks to a larger need to organize a movement. This movement needs to include HBCUS, young Black queer folks and other marginalized groups who are often left out of the political process, yet directly feel the impact of it.”

Purnell agrees that folks with multiple marginalized identities need to be part of the conversation.

“What is most difficult about my current job responsibilities for me is knowing that many times, I and other Black, BIPOC, non-binary people are not invited to the table to have open conversations and debates about what is best for the BIPOC LGBTQ+ community,” said Purnell. “Instead, we are often labeled as ‘the other’ and told what is best for our individual communities. Often, policies and laws are created and enacted by a group that does not have BIPOC or LGBTQ+ cultural competency but instead uses faith and religious beliefs to marginalize people.”

This, Purnell said, helps to shape the work that the Welcoming Schools program does with school districts and educators, directly combating the impact of such policies and legislation.

As HRC continues to increase and strengthen its connections and work with communities of color and marginalized communities, staff members like Calhoun and Purnell are helping to steer the work toward tangible impact, one intentionally designed to meet the unique and specific needs of these communities.

“HRC’s work with communities of color wasn't always as intentional, but as it has centered much of the work on BIPOC and addressing all marginalized community members, my urge to join HRC’s efforts increased, and it’s a great time to be part of the organization,” said Purnell. “Also, as an educator, Welcoming Schools offered a way to help understand and provide role models for positive and educational conversations about the LGBTQ+ community.”

Calhoun agrees and says that in his specific role, he hopes to continue inspiring young Black LGBTQ+ students to “write their own story.”

“Ultimately, through my work with the HBCU program, I want to cultivate a community for Black queer students to feel welcomed and celebrated," said Calhoun. "What constitutes liberation is defining your life for yourself, and that’s something myself and my team aspire to teach others to do. Earlier this year, the HBCU team hosted 20+ students from the Texas-based HBCU Wiley College. One student left us with a comment I will always remember: ‘I’m so glad to see Black LGBTQ+ people from the South who are successful in fields like advocacy and politics. It’s something we don’t get to see often.’ As a Black queer man born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, this meant so much to me and reminded me of my personal commitment to empower the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth.”


Read additional profiles of HRC staff members in previous issues of Equality.


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