I remember when my friend began to shift in her seat during our weekly video call as the end of my story crept closer. Filled with endorphins and excitement from last week’s events, I was stripped of my usual abilities to read her thoughts and hesitations. We were just girls talking about dating in college—what was so wrong with that? Girls talked about love and boys all the time, right? But we weren’t just talking about boys and love. We were talking about girls loving boys and girls loving girls. As I finished my story, I automatically asked, “What about you?” Complete silence radiated through my phone as my mind began to connect the dots. How could I be so ignorant? Of course she doesn’t have stories to tell me—she’s at Howard University, a historically black university.
As I sat in my dorm room at Columbia, a predominantly white institution, I realized my identity as a queer woman is more readily accepted here because of a difference in cultural and environmental standards. At HBCUs, the rejection of homosexuality is a reflection of many black communities’ own beliefs. I knew at that moment that my exploration of my identities would be drastically different from that of my friend since I could walk through my journey of being queer more easily and openly at Columbia. However, I knew that my friend would have a different experience exploring her race at Howard, creating two different worlds in which we explored our shared identities. PWIs often make it easier to reaffirm queerness over blackness, while at HBCUs the opposite ensues. Although this is a general trend I have observed while talking to my friend, there are still exceptions at both universities. But the exception is not the norm, and both types of institutions are still struggling with reaffirming blackness and queerness in conjunction.
In the black community, queerness is often viewed as a white phenomenon, writes Emily Lenning, a professor at the HBCU Fayetteville State University. So perhaps it was not surprising to see so many openly queer people at Columbia when I first stepped onto campus. Back home, if you were queer, it wasn’t known, and it definitely was not talked about. In my first few months attending Columbia, I was made aware of the many resources for the LGBTQ community. I am allowed to keep my queerness in the conversation here. In fact, Columbia dedicated all of October to acknowledging queerness during Queer Awareness Month. At Howard, my friend was not openly directed to resources that would help her explore her sexuality. According to Lenning, only 21 out of 101 HBCUs have queer student organizations and only three have formal administrative offices for these students. This lack of visibility and deep cultural homophobia can often make exploring one’s sexuality at an HBCU difficult.
In exploring our sexualities, my friend and I both have had to confront many mental obstacles. Growing up in traditionally Caribbean households, we were indoctrinated with information about the sin of homosexuality and how to repress any types of feelings related to it. Queer folk at many HBCUs continue to endure this same repression internally and externally.
I have been fortunate enough to know that I do not have to suppress my identity because there are so many people around me who are unapologetically themselves in their queerness.
I know that Columbia is there to support us.
However, there have been times attending a PWI when this same level of institutional support did not seem to apply to my blackness. Recent racially charged incidents toward black students and the subsequent lack of administrative action caused me to question my black identity and its worth on this campus. My friend, on the other hand, is able to be unapologetically black at Howard because her blackness is constantly affirmed by her peers and the administration.
It is time for all institutions to be intentional and move away from antiquated mindsets—to begin to carve out spaces for underrepresented members of their communities. There is still a long way to go in making every intersectional voice heard, especially when the intersectional issues are being addressed solely through a white or black lens. My experience in growing into my identities, whether they be racial or sexual, shouldn’t have to be drastically different from my friend’s experience solely because of the institution I attend. We should both be able to live our lives as unapologetically black as she is able to at Howard and as unapologetically queer as I am at Columbia.
Progress is being made to increase inclusion on all campuses. There is an HBCU leadership summit held annually to discuss ways to make HBCU campuses more inclusive. PWIs like Columbia are also creating events tailored to people of color to help them feel comfortable in their transition to college and to let students know they have a community to support them.
These institutions have the power to create environments in which their students can be their best and most true selves. College is meant for growth and exploration.
Educational institutions must make self-exploration safe, accepted, and encouraged. It is crucial for each of us to be able to be ourselves and shape the world to reflect the rich diversity of who we are and what we can be. Without support, our true colors can never fully show, whether they be black or rainbow.
The author is a Caribbean-American freshman in Columbia College who identifies as bisexual and intends on spending a semester junior year at Howard University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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