For his new book “Black and Queer on Campus,” American studies professor Michael Jeffries interviewed 65 Black LGBTQ college students across the U.S. – 40 from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and 25 from predominantly white schools.
The Conversation asked Jeffries to discuss what he learned about how queer Black students view LGBTQ student organizations, their general experiences on college campuses and their opinions about current events.
What specific challenges do Black LGBTQ students face on college campuses?
The Black LGBTQ students I interviewed understood that college is an opportunity to explore their identity. But many still struggled to move past the bigotry and difficult experiences they had growing up as young queer people.
Deron, a senior at a historically Black university who grew up in the suburbs of a large Southern city, explained, “When I was a teenager, [my mother] kind of kept me sheltered from the gay community. So it kind of made me develop a negative mindset toward the LGBT lifestyle. I mean, as far as participating in the community, she just shunned me away from it for a long time, and I had really negative thoughts about it up until this semester.”
Other major challenges were tied to the broader political environment. Students believed racist, homophobic and transphobic sentiments were being expressed with increased frequency, which made them angry, disappointed and fearful about the future of the United States. Several interviewees talked about the rising threat of white supremacy and the feeling that white supremacists on and around their campuses were emboldened during the Trump era.
Cat, a 19-year-old student at a large, predominantly white school, lamented that “seeing someone get up on a podium and spew hate and misinformation on a regular basis … and just the people making our decisions right now, it’s like, how did y’all get there? It’s like, you know how they got there, but then you’re losing faith in humanity by acknowledging that.”
Finally, students told me they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in either Black student organizations – which seemed to have little regard for queer Black folks – or LGTBQ spaces and student organizations, which were primarily white.
Candace, who attends a large, prestigious public university, told me that one of the problems that Black LGBTQ students face in white LGBTQ spaces is tokenism. She felt that queer Black folk are “there for the entertainment of white queers, and to be able to feel like they’re woke, or like they’re part of this group that really accepts people.” Albert, who also attends a large public university, described a serious blind spot within the primarily white LGBTQ organization on his campus, and the exclusion he experienced there.
“They would talk about like … dating in the gay community, or something like that. And I’m just like, they don’t really date Black people, so there’s that.”
How do they overcome those challenges?
One of the most common and powerful ways that students said they overcome these challenges is by building community with one another.
“I know in meeting each other, [my queer friend and I] were both kind of like, ‘Wow, another one!’ And we’re always like, so excited,” said Parker, one of the few trans students I spoke with. “It’s like whenever Black queer people get around each other, I feel like we get strong in our personalities. … I know that there’s support around me. And it’s like these networks keep growing and growing.”
Abraham, a leader of the queer Black student organization at his historically Black university, explained the importance of his group as a collective that cultivated a sense of connection and safety.
“We started hanging out to where we spent all our time together,” he said. “Our organization became like a family. If we felt like someone in this family was being attacked by someone on this campus, we jumped in and said, ‘Yo, that’s not going to happen on our watch.’”
Abraham did not tell me that he or anyone he knows in the Black queer community had been physically attacked by people on campus. But he did say there were times he and his friends felt unsafe, in part because the campus was open enough that visitors could enter and exit freely.
What stereotypes and threats to safety do Black queer students face today?
Some students felt that common stereotypes about gay people still exert a powerful hold on the way queer folk are treated within Black communities.
Patricia, who attends a historically Black university, told me about her experience growing up in a small, predominantly Black town in the South.
“If you had ‘sugar in your tank,’ like they say, you got beat,” she said. “They’re in a generation in the ‘80s too where the AIDS epidemic broke out, and they also have that mentality like, ‘Oh, if you’re gay, you’re going to have AIDS, or you’re going to get diseases.’”
Several students at predominantly white institutions told me they felt stereotyped and ignored. There was a sense that they were not taken seriously as students or did not deserve their positions at the college.
Ian, a student at a large public university in the Midwest, told me, “I think it’s only me and this other boy that is Black on my floor. Every time I walk down the hallway, or every time I just do regular things that they do, I get stares. … Like I was saying my name, what I’m majoring in and all, like everybody else was doing, but everyone was staring at me like I lost my mind. So that makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Are students optimistic about the future?
Though there were students who see progress with respect to LGBTQ issues, very few offered optimistic views of the future for Black people in America, including queer Black people. Some were extremely discouraged about the future, and they believe the U.S. is becoming a more hostile place for people like them.
Still, several students pointed to changes in American politics and culture, like the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and the increasing visibility of LGBTQ celebrities, that give them hope. As Ava, a junior at a private historically Black college, told me, “I don’t think that anything is indicative of the future. That’s why it’s the future – because it’s only made of possibility.”
Michael P. Jeffries does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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