Making a Change on Campus: Q&A with HBCU Student Zion Gates Norris

by Guest Contributors

The last four years inspired a whole new generation of people to get involved like never before and take up the issues impacting their daily lives. This is especially true for college students, who used their time on campus and in the virtual classroom to be a voice for change and advocate for more inclusive, supportive school environments. President Biden has committed to strengthening our education system, from rolling back Trump’s discriminatory anti-trans policies to providing campuses with the resources they need to thrive. Leslie Hall (he/him), Director of HRC’s HBCU Program, talked with Zion Gates Norris (he/him), a graduating senior at Florida Memorial University, about his experience being Black and LGBTQ at an HBCU during the Trump administration and what he hopes to see for the future of campuses across the country.

Leslie: What were the last four years like for you as a Black and LGBTQ young person, and what does it feel like now that we have a pro-equality administration in the White House?

Zion: The last four years have felt like a rollercoaster. I never knew when the administration would attack my rights — whether it was my identity as a Black man, as LGBTQ, as a student — any of the many identities I carry. It was even more difficult witnessing all of the attacks against my transgender siblings, who under Trump faced constant attempts to discriminate against them through policies and actions.

The current administration has definitely restored my sense of hope. It’s incredible to see not only President Biden and Vice President Harris fighting for us, but so many people at every level of government. People like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Congressman Mondaire Jones, one of the first openly LGBTQ Black members of Congress, really inspire me and send a message that we can achieve so much progress in the years ahead.

Leslie: What do you hope President Biden and Vice President Harris achieve, specifically on LGBTQ issues?

Zion: I really hope they continue to roll back a lot of the anti-LGBTQ policies introduced under the Trump administration. Throughout his presidency, Trump leveraged so many attacks against us, from imposing a ban on trans people serving in the military to arguing against non-discrimination protections in the Supreme Court. President Biden has already started to undo those policies, but it’ll take some time to get back to where we were before.

Also, I’m excited for us to finally pass the Equality Act. So many states lack comprehensive protections for LGBTQ people, and this legislation would make sure that in all areas of life — housing, education, workplace, health care — we have equal and fair access to services. It’s great to see the Equality Act pass the House already, so now it’s up to the Senate to get the job done and make this the law of the land.

Leslie: Tell us about your experience as an openly LGBTQ student on your campus.

Zion: My experience has been fairly unique. I’ve been able to ascend to high positions in my school’s Student Government Association, all while being an openly, proud gay Black man. It’s been great talking with students and hearing their own experiences, learning how my own role on campus has encouraged them to continue advocating on behalf of LGBTQ students. Not everyone has that ability to be authentically themselves, whether it’s due to societal pressures or even the threat of violence, but I hope that will change for students in the future.

Leslie: Why is it important for LGBTQ students to have on-campus support and resources from their colleges and universities?

Zion: On-campus support for LGBTQ students is crucial, especially since many may not be provided the same resources at home. A college campus is oftentimes a second chance at building the community you have always wanted and connecting to the resources you need to reach your full potential.

Leslie: What ways have you gotten involved on your campus and specifically with LGBTQ issues?

Zion: I’ve really tried to change my campus by always pushing the envelope and encouraging people to get more involved. During my freshman year, I joined our Student Government Association and became a voice for the LGBTQ community across campus. Since then I’ve continued to address the issues students face, building trust with my classmates and once again giving them the motivation to get involved as well.

Leslie: What message would you want to share with someone who identifies as LGBTQ and is considering going to/attending an HBCU?

Zion: I would tell LGBTQ students wanting to attend an HBCU to continue being your authentic self, no matter what. It may be a journey you have to navigate through at times, but living openly and proud of your identity is so incredible. Plus, by doing that, you’re giving others the courage to do the same in their own lives.