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Spelman's LGBT Forum Earning National Kudos

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By Adrienne Leon, Special to the NNPA from The Atlanta Voice –

ATLANTA – Spelman College is receiving national media attention for hosting an unprecedented summit on lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender issues at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The Chronicle of Higher Education, National Public Radio, BET, and Color Lines News for Action are among the media outlets that wrote about the significance of the conference in dealing with gay and lesbian issues on Black college campuses.

Many observers, HBCU alumni, and fellow students commended Spelman administration as well as young panelists for leading the charge.

"Spelman College is leading HBCUs in opening up conversations about the needs and concerns of LGBT students," according to a column published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"These types of conversations need to take place on HBCU campuses throughout the nation," it continued. "For too long, gay and lesbian issues have been ignored at HBCUs, leaving behind a significant percentage of African-American students who are looking for support as they pursue their educations and develop their personal identities."

Dr. Beverly Guy-Shefthall, who helped spearhead the inaugural event, said she was "pleased and a little pleasantly surprised by the national coverage." She said the forum is just one of many initiatives she hopes to see in 2011.

Students and faculty from nine colleges, including Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina Central, and Southern universities, met in late April for the historic event titled "Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity and Progressive Change at HBCUs."

Besides raising awareness of alternative lifestyles topics – often considered taboo in Black communities – participants also offered suggestions on how to make Black campuses more inclusive to LGBT students.

JeShawna Wholley, former president of Afrekete, Spelman's LGBT/Queer advocacy group, called the forum "brave but necessary." "It's our privilege and right to be out," she said. She and fellow panelists shared their vision for broad-scale transformation in 10 years at Black institutions concerning diversity and homophobia that exists on campus.

Howard alumna Victoria Kirby recommended more discussions on gender and sexuality across the board in curriculum.

Spelman alumna Moya Bailey identified a need for LGBT resource centers at every HBCU. She added that at least one staff member sensitive to the issue should be consulted when policies are made.

Guy-Shefthall said many Black colleges have been slow to launch LGBT initiatives because of their historic religious affiliations. She said the Spelman forum was held at an urgent time, however, referencing national reports of gay and lesbian students committing suicide out of fear of discrimination or ostracism.

Last September, a gay Rutgers student jumped to his death after discovering his sexual encounter had been exposed online.

The LGBT "intolerance" issue was raised at Morehouse College in 2009, meanwhile, when a newly implemented dress code prohibited students at the all-male school from wearing pumps, dresses and other attire associated with women's clothing.

The situation prompted some Morehouse students – including activists from the sister college, Spelman – to better promote a "safe space" through programs and clubs for those who choose alternative lifestyles.

Guy-Shefthall said promoting a safe space for LGBT students was the purpose of the pluralism forum. She said a 300-page packet given to summit attendees – which contains recommendations to promote course offerings, staff training, and campus activities – also will be distributed to all 105 HBCUs.

"We're planning to get a working committee in an effort to continue projects on Black campuses," she added.

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