If HBCUs Are Truly Safe Spaces, Then Why Don't We Have an Openly Gay President?

For the first eighteen years of my life, I felt “embarrassed” and excluded until I revealed my deepest secret. I vividly recall what happened immediately after sharing the earth-shattering secret; I had trouble reading. First, my world did not end nor was I made to feel insufficient. I’d learned my challenge was not all that uncommon, and most important identifying my diagnosis of Dyslexia was liberating and empowering. How did I arrive at this place of liberation? I had a sponsor who poured into me while assuring me acceptance should not only be my expectation but my right. I flourished. 

Those who have been around me know my belief in the power of authenticity. If folks are given permission to be authentic, their best work is likely to follow.

My sincere desire is to understand and support the challenges of my teammates and our students, who like me, feel excluded or alone for being “different” (in any way). In fully considering this personal goal, I’ve begun to think about ways that I should act beyond mere words to help others avoid exclusion in any respect. 

HBCUs are unlike any other college or university on this planet in that their strength is distilling social and cultural confidence and academic excellence from communities historically marginalized and underserved in both respects. But what would happen if HBCUs and their constituents began to extend our cultural infrastructure to build up people beyond those who are Christian, politically liberal, and most of all, heterosexual?

What have HBCUs lost over the years by holding tightly to these norms, even in the face of natural social progress? What perils do our institutions now face because of the disparities in perspectives on LGBTQIA+ safety and inclusion at HBCUs? How many students, scholars, and administrators are leaving the sector because of these issues? How many avoid the sector outright for the same reasons? 

Most of our boards and presidents know intimately the outcomes created by talent gaps and know that the pathway to increased enrollment, stronger fundraising, higher-quality training, and better leadership only grows if we are able to increase our talent pool. Talent acquisition in all areas of the HBCU requires resources and good culture, and for too many people who want to commit to this space, their desire and opportunities are being diminished by our own damaging brand of discrimination; a scourge that only amplifies the resource challenges faced by all of our campuses.

We may say publicly that inclusion is the norm at HBCUs, but is it? Do we encourage and embolden openly self-identifying queer persons to apply for roles at the highest level of leadership, even the presidency/chancellorship at HBCUs? Which of our HBCU governing boards could we say with certainty would be the first to appoint an openly, self-identifying gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer administrator as president or chancellor? Could this create safety for those who are most challenged in our spaces, or at least be a positive first step in the process? 

Over the course of my career at several institutions, I have lost some good administrators because we failed to provide a safe place. Put more directly, HBCU communities stalled in their efforts to thrive because talented leaders were stifled in having the freedom to exist in full authenticity. They could not flourish in administrative performance because they were persecuted in their own personal lives on our campuses.

Rev. Dr. Dominique A. Robinson and Dr. Rae Lundy provide first-rate guidance, spiritual, emotional support, and leadership on our campus at Wiley College. As the inaugural Dean of Chapel and Associate Vice President for Student Health, Wellness and Counseling respectively, they are responsible for the college’s spiritual and mental well-being.

They have done a great job in helping me to delineate the actions of an advocate, supporter, ally or champion of the LGBTQIA+ community. Like all other institutions (admitted or not) we have students and teammates who are out and some who are not comfortable and probably a few who feel it’s no one’s business; all are right and welcomed here at Wiley. 

They have been instrumental in stretching my awareness. With guidance, I have expanded my lexicon, which helps with sensitive conversations. (I’m still learning not quite there yet). They have taught me that simply standing before our campus and exclaiming Wiley’s tolerance, desire for pure inclusiveness, and my love and support of all regardless of how they identify still falls short to make this a reality. 

Absent of action, those words are simply rhetoric. So at Wiley College, we are taking our campus through compassion training, and earnestly trying to create a climate where those who identify LGBTQIA+ truly feel comfortable because of our actions and not just the words of tolerance and inclusion from those of us who do not identify as LGBTQIA+.

I’ve often wondered why as a straight, Black, man raised in Duval County, Florida my portion of Grace was seemingly more than that of my childhood and teenage friends. We broke the same laws and experienced the same trials.  Yet, I defied predictions of the cruel odds we faced together, while they have had much more difficult roads to hoe- persistent weight of oppression, an unforgiving judicial system and all the ills of inner-city poverty.

For years the persistent “Why me and not them?” inquiry, both to myself and God, plagued me. Recently, I have been moved to seek clarity and understanding of this relentless question. I took the first of many steps and enrolled at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University to pursue a Masters in Theology where I sincerely hope the studies, pedagogy, and inquiry with biblical scholars will aid my understanding of God's grace. 

To balance the theology quest, practically, I have committed to a more focused approach in studying his word, reinforcing my intimacy with him, and to model Christ-like behavior. To say the least, my first semester stretched me in several ways; some foreseeable, some not so. An intro to the Bible, synchronous and asynchronous class meetings, position papers and interacting with folks looking for personal enrichment like me, I totally saw coming. 

I did not anticipate grappling with the idea of Jesus as a disabled person or understanding the Bible through the lens of disability. Nor did I expect to wrestle with the notion that the Book of Paul was written with a political slant, or was it?

This period of expansion challenged me spiritually. First, growth wreaked havoc with my praise and worship. My favorite song “Grace” by Tasha Cobbs was supplanted by Donald Lawrence’s “Deliver Me,” featuring Le’Andria Johnson, leaving me a new song to play like fifty times a day, annoying everyone. 

Second and more seriously, I thought about the administrators, staff, and faculty who openly (and others not so openly) identify as LGBTQIA+. My view of Cultural Humility, the notion that justice should reflect God’s encompassing love for all, was a major growth area. This cemented my belief that we all are created by God and in his image, as such, I vehemently oppose those who seek to dehumanize or exclude others solely based on who they are.

As I continue this path to understanding what grace is and how it works, I will be prepared for unconditional and uncomfortable growth in my spiritual walk, and I encourage folk not to seek his face unless you are prepared to respond to his directive.

It is a change for which I think the HBCU community is not only ready, but in desperate need of embracing for our very survival. 

Dr. Herman J. Felton Jr. is the president of Wiley College. 

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