The Affirming Possibilities of HBCUs: Bowie State Leads the Way

by Chauna Lawson

The early 2000s was an amazing time to be in college, especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) given the milestones that were achieved during this period.

During my undergrad tenure, we elected the first Black President of the United States, invented the Swag Surf, and witnessed the early iterations of the BET College Tour, but those remarkable times were not without their challenges.

Tarana Burke conceptualized the #MeToo movement to raise awareness around sexual assault and abuse—which disproportionately affects Black women—while another movement was beginning to gain traction in the HBCU and Black communities at-large.

As the Black Lives Matter movement began to take form, the foundation for an amplified Black LGBTQ+ movement was being built. Student leaders, faculty, and staff at HBCUs across the country were shaking the table in ways that would bring out the best our institutions have to offer, and it could not have happened during a more critical time in our history.

Bowie State University (BSU) recently celebrated their 2nd Annual Affirmations Ball to highlight the diversity and comradery of Maryland's oldest HBCU.

This event, created by the Office of Multicultural and LGBTQ Affairs, offers students the opportunity to live, or relive, a Prom-like experience that they may not have been able to enjoy during their high school years. This is especially a reality for many LGBTQ students and students who graduated amidst the COVID-19 lockdown.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities are championed as pillars of hope and liberation, particularly in the Black community. HBCUs account for the vast majority of Black Americans with graduate degrees and are attributed with creating and sustaining the Black middle class. These Black institutions have educated some of the most influential icons in Black history and world history.

However, equity and inclusion within the HBCU Community has been a movement of its own. LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff have historically been ostracized, minimized, or erased from larger conversations.
In white spaces, their HBCU experience is often omitted.
In Black spaces, their queer identities are often overlooked.
It is still rare that Black LGBTQ folk have the welcome opportunity to be unapologetically Black and queer simultaneously.
The Affirmations Ball provides an explicit space where this is not only accepted but celebrated.

This is not Bowie State University's first time leading the charge with intentional steps towards inclusion. While Howard University is home to the first LGBTQ Alliance club at any HBCU, Bowie State was the first HBCU to offer a comprehensive Queer Studies course in 2012—designed by Dr. Horacio Sierra. Bowie made history again in 2016 when it became the first HBCU with a dedicated LGBTQ Resource Center, ed by Dr. Keadrick Peters, Director.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation's HBCU Program began as an annual leadership summit, which was conceived after HRC convened a group of LGBTQ+ students at Johnson C. Smith University in 2003 following a string of violent anti-LGBTQ+ incidents across several HBCU campuses. The goal of the meeting was simply to speak directly with students about their experiences being queer students and identify challenges and needs for support."

Leslie Hall, Director of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program

These milestones would not be possible without years of hard work and dedication from HBCU leaders in the LGBTQ community, past and present.

Our very own HBCU Program Director, Dr. Leslie Hall, served as Bowie State's SGA Vice President during the 2010-2011 academic year.

His best friend, Kirk Pressley, served as SGA President for two terms (2009-2011), is a proud member of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Incorporated, and has become a renowned staple in the Ballroom community on-and-off campus. BSU, and the whole of the HBCU Community, owes a great debt to the students who risked their livelihoods to ensure a safe and welcoming campus for all students and staff.

Beyond Bowie's campus, activists such as Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Dr. Steve Mobley, bell hooks, and Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, laid the groundwork for Black Queer Studies in higher education. The brilliance, tenacity and foresight these leaders had from a young age has benefited the HBCU community in ways yet to be fully realized. Nevertheless, the results speak for themselves. There is nothing more sacred than bearing witness to the fruits of your labor and goodwill.

Unfortunately, the fruits of our labor are at-risk, especially in red states. Conservative organizations and elected officials are targeting our institutions and the very fabric of education. Not only have states like Texas and Florida implemented anti-LGBTQ laws, but Black history, Black literature, and Black culture are being whitewashed if not completely erased. The Human Rights Campaign has declared a State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans, and the NAACP issued a travel advisory for the state of Florida.

Every American with any level of good faith should be concerned and act, but what can we do? We can start by supporting politicians and organizations at the national and regional levels that champion Black and LGBTQ+ issues.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation's HBCU Program, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the Marsha P. Johnson Foundation, Native Son, the Bayard-Baldwin Institute, Recognize Our Pride, and SisterSong, Incorporated are just a few organizations that you can engage with to start your advocacy journey.

Podcasts such as "Hold for Maintenance” feature HBCU alumni who provide thoughtful and credible insight to the real-life issues Black people, and many other marginalized groups, face every day.

If you find yourself wanting to get more involved with the movement, but aren't sure where to begin, organizations like HRC can provide you with the tools needed to start. Dedicate some time to learning more about our history and the icons who were not only vital to the architecture of Black culture, but American culture and Popular culture around the world. Ballroom, House Music, and other aspects of the culture are beginning to resurge, but please understand that we stand on the shoulders of Grace Jones, Frankie Knuckles, and other legends who paved the way.

LGBTQ+ leaders really have nothing to prove, but if we did, it’s already been proven many times over.