From November 10 through November 14, 2022, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) program is hosting its 16th annual National HBCU Leadership Summit, a convening of Black queer students in leadership spaces who are committed to advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion and social justice on their campuses and in their communities. Thirty-four Black and queer students are joining the convening of young advocates who are leading the charge on the future of LGBTQ+ equality in and beyond HBCU campuses.
Among those leaders are Erica McPheeters, who attends Kentucky State University, and Laten Jordan, a student at Howard University. Erica and Laten are amongst many Black and queer student leaders who are striving relentlessly to ensure that their campuses, and many HBCU campuses, are inclusive, inviting, safe and affirming spaces for other Black LGBTQ+ students like themselves.
HRC wanted to know more about their lived experiences and what the HBCU program has meant to their identities and lives as Black LGBTQ+ people obtaining an education while advancing equality without exception:
I grew up in Kentucky, a place where my identity has always been seen as an outcast. When I was younger, I always longed for a place that would completely accept me as I was. In a society where Blackness and queerness are viewed as different and wrong, I have decided to become a changemaker for this.
LGBTQ+ inclusivity is more than important on my campus. It is essential to help me understand myself, my community and how I fit into the world. College is a place where people go to learn more about themselves and the world. To celebrate Blackness is to celebrate queerness. At Kentucky State University, this is no different. Students deserve to have a campus where all parts of their identities are celebrated, included, and treated with respect.
In my everyday life, my identity shows up in two ways: when I walk into a room and when I open my mouth. Being a Black, queer woman, I find that all of my identities are acknowledged when I am open with the world. I choose to share my queerness in my everyday life because it is the part of me that can not be seen on the surface. I believe being myself in my everyday life is vital to my happiness and self-love. I am also willing to take the risk of being judged and excluded based on my identity because it means more to me to be who I am everywhere I go. I want to advocate for myself and others whenever I speak and it requires me to share parts of my identity with the world.
Intersectionality plays a role in how my community shows up in the world and I want to create spaces to highlight this. Black queer people deserve to be and I want to encourage others to fight against discrimination and continue advocating for our community. I aim to help students make their own spaces in their communities that include every part of them as they experience the realities of society.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s HBCU program has enabled me to become the leader I want to be in the world. Although I am young, HRC sees my potential and continues to facilitate my growth in and outside of the student leadership summit. There are not many institutions or organizations that are devoted to making HBCUs more inclusive. In fact, I was motivated to participate in the leadership program after learning about the impact HRC has made across multiple HBCU campuses.
My campus could benefit from having more courses that discuss gender and sexuality. HRC has introduced me to a network of activists, practitioners, and higher education professionals who have enabled me to advocate for these types of changes on my campus. With HRC’s help, I am confident that change is possible for my campus. I would like to continue building a relationship between Kentucky State and HRC, particularly HRC Foundation’s HBCU program, because my campus does not have many opportunities to learn about queer experiences.
HRC has inspired me to live in my truth. It is more than possible to be Black, queer and successful, despite society’s outlook on my community. At HRC, I have witnessed other successful adults who are actively doing the work I aspire to do. It makes my dreams feel tangible and in reach. I become more passionate about the work I do as I learn more about how HRC connects with my goals. In my lifetime, I have been in radically biased spaces that have belittled me. After working with HRC, these spaces can no longer keep me down.
One challenge that has been at the forefront of my college experience is lack of education. Students do not have the resources to learn more about themselves, the LGBTQ+ community, and gender/sexuality holistically. Without the proper resources to educate others, queer students become further alienated on campus. It is disheartening to be alienated inside of an institution that is supposedly devoted to educating you. I have personally experienced alienation on campus due to my queer identity. I would like to prevent this from happening to other students as much as I can.
I think another challenge that Black LGBTQ+ students face is a lack of support from the university. This is a direct result of the stigma on HBCU campuses. Students can continue advocating for themselves. However, if there is no support from other communities, it becomes significantly more challenging. Stigma must be addressed on campus to eliminate some of the challenges that Black LGBTQ+ students face.
Sexual health for queer students is rarely discussed. When it is, it typically pertains exclusively to HIV with stigmatized messages. Queer students should be acknowledged by the university to help destigmatize LGBTQ+ experiences, yet my campus has failed to recognize things such as Pride Month and LGBTQ+ History Month. I believe this provides insight to the level of tolerance my HBCU and many others have for their queer students. This is why I am demanding change on my campus.
This year, I have taken the initiative to develop an LGBTQ+ organization on campus to begin change. This will also require the support of student and faculty allies as well. Students with multiple marginalizations face multiple aspects of discrimination, bias, and stigma. These students deserve universal support from my university at all times.
The first place I felt accepted and loved for my identity was in a queer space. In fact, it was an event designed to support the endeavors of Black LGBTQ+ youth in my community. It exposed me to how the LGBTQ+ community at large is about love. Since this experience, I have been inspired to develop my own community center for Black queer youth. It will be a safe space to facilitate growth and support people who have had similar experiences as me while growing up. I want other individuals to have a space where they feel connected and important. As such, I would like to find ways to provide financial stability, housing, social support, and making sure the needs of Black queer people are met.
During my time at HRC, I have met folks who are devoted to these sorts of endeavors. Those experiences have confirmed for me that the work I am doing matters. Also, HRC has exposed me to pioneers in community organizing and LGBTQ+ leadership. It has helped me visualize exactly what I want to do in the future.
HRC Foundation’s HBCU program has shown me how instrumental young people are to making change. I wanted to participate in this program because HRC has contributed to the success of other HBCU LGBTQ+ changemakers all over. I also foresee myself making a difference in other communities that I’m a part of, such as my community in Louisville, Kentucky. While my hometown is somewhat more accepting of me, I will still use the knowledge I’ve learned from HRC to implement community and legislative change back home.
Navigating Howard life and culture as a queer student in a new city was extremely overwhelming. Through the adversity I faced my first year, I felt my voice become silenced, my concerns become ignored, and myself become invisible. Yet, through this adversity I gained a deep desire to advocate for each and every student, which is why fostering LGBTQ+ inclusivity is extremely important to me. I was a student who felt unheard and unseen, and I have fought to ensure that no queer bison, the official mascot of Howard University, feels like that again.
As the president of CASCADE– the oldest and largest LGBTQ+ organization on the campus of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU)—I have been committted to providing comfort, compassion, strength and safety to gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming, and ally siblings to celebrate their identities. I firmly believe that we should all feel like Howard is a place for every single one of us.
Unfortunately, throughout my collegiate career, I have personally faced a multitude of challenges and I have seen many other LGBTQ+ students struggle similarly. A few major challenges are a lack of accessibility and inclusivity.
In recent years, there has been a lack of accessibility for students to access gender-neutral restrooms and gender inclusive housing so that they feel safe and comfortable in their dorms and around campus. We have been working with the Office of Residence Life and other administrators to ensure that students are able to access and be placed in housing where they will feel safe, respected, and comfortable. Additionally, we have been striving to make Howard a more welcoming and inclusive environment through hosting large scale programming events. This past October we hosted the first ever Pride Fest at any HBCU. Alongside the Howard University Student Association, Pride Fest increased awareness of and visibility of LGBTQ+ students.
Although these are a few steps in the right direction, there is so much more work to be done. I envision that change can continue to occur with the help of different student organizations, external organizations, and university leadership. I believe we should all be working together to ensure that Howard is a safe and inclusive environment for every single student, especially for those who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized communities.
Since becoming president of CASCADE, one of my major goals has been to connect with different HBCU LGBTQ+ leaders to discuss how as an entire HBCU community we can work together to foster inclusivity at HBCUs across the country. HRC Foundation’s HBCU program will introduce me to those different leaders and allow me to learn from them.
HRC Foundation’s HBCU program has helped me and will continue to help me feel empowered as an LGBTQ+ rights advocate, empowered and unwavering in my own identity, and supported.