When George Johnson was growing up in Plainfield, New Jersey, his parents knew early on that he was not heterosexual.
“But [they] allowed me the space to flourish and learn that for myself,” he tells NewsOne in an interview. “The one thing I learned from this is that we must let children grow into who they are, but when we see the signs we must find people to help with guidance and navigation.”
Unfortunately, not all Black LGBTQIA children do not have parents as supportive as Johnson’s According to national statistics, Black queer, gender nonconforming, and trans* youth face disproportionate rates of suicide, depression, lack of education and economic security, and are victim to sexualized forms of racial brutality from home to street. They also face victimization every place in between including Black religious institutions and the school, which education scholar Michael Dumas has termed sites of Black suffering.
As such, the compounding and unrelenting effects of poverty and anti-blackness often force Black LGBTQIA students out of the American educational system into a spiral of homelessness and despair. Those queer and trans students who make it to college are fortunate if they have the support of family or cultural institutions to ensure their success, and abilities to remain matriculated.
However, some Black queer students who attend HBCUs are often unable to graduate because of financial difficulty coupled with homophobia from school administrators, professors and peers. But thankfully, in January 2015, two queer Black men, Guy Anthony and Johnson, founded “Black, Gifted, and Whole,” a nonprofit organization committed to the empowerment of young, queer Black men through scholarship and mentoring.
“I wish that I had a mentor that was like me, so that I didn’t have to struggle through that journey alone,” says Johnson. Similarly Anthony tells NewsOne, “The reason we started BGW was to celebrate Black Gay and Queer men by affirming their whole selves. Not often do we see ourselves as whole people in media, in relationships, at work, or in family life. Black, Gifted & Whole is the organization I wish was around when I was learning how to love myself as a young man.”
Johnson, an alumnus of two HBCUs—Virginia Union University for undergrad and Bowie State University for graduate school—says Black, Gifted, and Whole intervenes in a national political climate fraught with bias. President Donald Trump’s administration has made significant cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education, including a four billion dollar proposed cut to the Pell Grant program.
“As someone who went to two HBCUs, I fully understand the struggle of living in your identity while also having to provide for yourself financially,” says Johnson. “BGW will help close that gap where federal funding has ended by providing funding for these young men to help offset the cost of tuition, books, and food.”
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) remain centers of culture, social movements, and politics in the lives of many Black communities. Founded by formerly enslaved Black people and White elites following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, these schools—which more-often-than-not were envisioned as seminaries and trade schools for African-American men and women, who were not allowed to enroll at White colleges and universities—remain places of identity formation and professionalization for Black youth.
However, like many other Black cultural institutions, such as the Black church, HBCUs have traditionally been depicted as “behind the mainstream” with regards to gender and sexuality, even as predominately White institutions also struggle with the exclusion of queer and trans students and antiquated sexual assault prevention policies. Nonetheless, many black queer, gender nonconforming and trans students note varying degrees of heterosexism, queer antagonism, transphobia, and gender policing on their respective campuses.
Black queer students, however, have long contested these dynamics through political organizing, says Kenneth Maurice Pass, an alumnus of Morehouse who was a part of the all men’s college’s Safe Space.
“While there is still more work to do across all college campuses,” Pass tells NewsOne, “Black, Gifted, and Whole has created a financial and mentorship opportunity for more black gay men to be involved in this rich history and to enable them to imagine black gay and queer futures for HBCUs.”
Echoing much of Pass’ sentiments, Black gay performance studies scholar and Northwestern University professor E. Patrick Johnson observes in his oral history, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (2011), “Sometimes [black gay men] are incorporated into the fabric of student life at an HBCU, and sometimes they are cordoned off into their own discrete and discreet organizations.”
Jeremy O’Brien, an alumnus of Tougaloo College and a schoolteacher and Black gay playwright based in Houston, Texas, tells NewsOne, “At Tougaloo College, I was very fortunate to encounter a lot of spaces where queerness – healthy and empowering ideas about queerness – was at the center of the conversation.”
In contrast, Verdell Wright, who is currently a Ph.D. student at Howard University says, “I was well prepared to be an academic for my doctoral program. I wasn’t prepared to be an out gay man, though. No one called me names or anything like that, but you can tell when professors and your colleagues don’t want to invest the same level in your interests as they do the others. Particularly at an HBCU, the race unity can sometimes obscure that many administrators and students harbor some harmful views around gender and sexuality. There’s definitely a need for LGBTQ mentors and allies in HBCUs. I’m a graduate student and I sure could’ve used one.”
Black, Gifted, and Whole is a response to similar narratives, albeit distinct from Wright’s, and centers the livelihoods and whole humanity of Black queer men with regards to education, sexual health, identity, and mental wellness. In many regards, such an initiative, when coupled with HBCU LGBTQIA inclusion efforts, betters the life and sustainability of Black intellectual communities, especially as alternative facts are readily set in opposition to Black histories.
The Rev. Shawn Torres, an alumnus of Benedict College and a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, tells NewsOne that he donates to Black, Gifted, and Whole because “being able to have obtained such a scholarship would have shifted things for me.” These efforts, he continues, “Lets people know that they are supported financially but also that they are affirmed in their queerness, which is both holy and sacred.”
In the era of Moonlight (2016), and nearly twenty years after the passing of Black gay writer and activist Joseph Beam, who declared that “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the 1980s,” Black, Gifted, and Whole embodies the ethos of Black queer maroonage and self-sufficiency. It is a testament to the resilience of Black queer people, many of whom have always been central to Black liberation movements, who make ways out of no-ways and create pathways for children to live sustainable futures with both imagination and communal support.
Click here to learn more about Black, Gift and Whole, or to make a donation.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Departments of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He also currently serves as an inaugural cohort fellow of the Just Beginnings Collaborative (2016-2018), where his project, Children of Combahee works to eradicate child sexual abuse in Black churches. Follow him @_BrothaG.
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