NCCU sophomore Deatrin Sutton said he now has a place to hang out, to chill with other students on campus.
But more than that, he has a haven of acceptance, where he can talk with other students, faculty and staff who can relate. Sutton came out in high school on Twitter. He’s the NCCU president of COLORS, the student organization focused on Creating Open Lives for Real Success. And his boyfriend’s vice president.
When N.C. Central opened the doors to its new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally Center at the end of the spring semester, Sutton had a place in the Alfonso Elder Student Union that’s his.
“I’m just really excited about using the center and it’s going to be pretty busy now,” Sutton said. “I have a lot of stuff I want to do.”
It is the first LGBTA center for a historically black college or university in North Carolina, and only the second in the country for an HBCU. Bowie State University in Maryland is the first, having set up their center in 2012, said Jen Jones, director of communications for Equality NC.
“What is clear is that other institutions of higher learning all across North Carolina, from Asheville to Wilmington, Cullowhee to Greenville, are following NCCU’s lead by actively working to create more inclusive environments for LGBT students on campus,” Jones said in an email.
That includes new clubs, programming and protections that will create a more diverse and inclusive environment on campus, she added.
Equality NC also has had NCCU student ambassadors help with equality initiatives, such as leading anti-Amendment One efforts on campus. Amendment One legally recognizes marriage as being only between a man and a woman.
And with the Defense of Marriage Act being invalidated by the Supreme Court this summer, Jones said North Carolina college campuses will continue to serve as hotbeds of support for LGBT equality, with 8 out of 10 college-aged North Carolinians supporting marriage equality.
The national Campus Pride organization keeps an index that scores colleges on eight LGBT friendly factors. Jess McDonald, Campus Pride’s former communications manager, said right now only five out of 346 colleges on the index are HBCUs.
“On most campuses, still, the culture isn’t ideal so it’s not just HBCUs,” McDonald said. “We have seen some improvement.”
Campus Pride is holding an annual summer leadership camp and adviser academy at Vanderbilt University this coming week, and 7 students and advisers from HBCU campuses are attending out of about 95 total people. North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh are the two HBCUs representing North Carolina.
The organization hopes to get a HBCU network up and running and also is working with the National Black Justice Coalition to fight for LGBT rights.
“My hope is that even changes on two or three campuses will have a domino effect across the country,” McDonald said.
Tia Marie Doxey, NCCU’s director of student life assessment, is in charge of running the LGBTA center. She said people have walked in wanting to volunteer, the LGBT Center of Raleigh has offered resources, and they’ve already outgrown the space in less than three months.
The idea for the space was introduced in 2010 by the Empowerment Committee, comprised of faculty, staff and students in the Department of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.
Clayton Barrier, a NCCU alumnus and co-adviser of COLORS, said the campus attitude toward LGBT rights has been like a rollercoaster over time, but he said it’s now at a high point. He was a NCCU freshman in 1998.
“I’ve seen it at a low point, and I’ve seen it where I’m able to see young ladies holding hands,” Barrier said. “…Over the last 20 years, it’s become more a part of American society. It’s not something that people fear. It’s not something that is in the underground.”
He said COLORS started as five students meeting in a dorm room.
“We were in the closet. Yes, you met, yes, you did your work, but around campus you weren’t putting up thousands of fliers,” Barrier said.
Nowadays at NCCU, a solid group of about 15 students attends every meeting and event. He said over the past seven years, he has witnessed phenomenal growth of inclusiveness on campus.
There are now four NCCU organizations that work with the LGBT community: COLORS, Polychromes for LGBT faculty and staff, DOMS, and OutLAW for LGBT faculty, staff and students within the School of Law. Each organization also welcomes allies to join.
Barrier said LGBT acceptance on HBCU campuses may be slower due in part to churches being a major part of the African American community, and some of those churches may not believe in LGBT rights, Barrier said.
Athletic programs for college-aged students also may have tougher don’t ask, don’t tell attitudes, he added.
The center’s main goal is education. Doxey said she started Safe Zone training at NCCU, where she’s taught faculty and staff about gender identity and expression. More than 179 people have gone through the training and are now certified allies.
She said she hopes the center will be a place for the Durham community as well as the people of NCCU to walk in and ask questions.
“There’s less fear, and you begin to broaden your interactions, your friendships with people,” she said.
Students are coming out earlier, as early as junior high. To Jason Cottrell, NCCU’s associate director of new student services, the LGBT Homecoming queens and kings of today was a foreign concept to him when he was graduating from high school in 1997.
“It’s about really finding out who you are,” Cottrell said. “It’s a journey that doesn’t end when you say the words. I try not to say that I’m a gay man. There’s so much more to me.”
He’s had his own ups and downs while living “out,” for example, when he was assaulted as an undergraduate and called a f***** for being gay.
“There are environments where you can be yourself and there are other environments where you learn to not say anything,” he said.
He said the LGBTA Center is also about creating a safe environment for students. On HBCU campuses, Cottrell said, there is a history of being more conservative and religious.
“You can’t change the history of an HBCU,” he said. “And so it’s about utilizing that history to talk about current-day issues.
“There’s a lot of campuses across the country that don’t have LGBT centers that are predominantly white. For an HBCU to do that, they’re really breaking down some of the barriers about what it means to be a person who identifies in a minority community.”
The center is holding Welcome Wednesdays over the summer, where students of all backgrounds meet in the student union to play games and eat pizza. The LGBTA Center will also hold an ice cream social during NCCU’s Week of Welcome.
Latoya Jenkins, president of DOMS, or Dominant, Overly Motivated Studs, also holds events that bring students together. About 30 students attend study sessions in the Shepard Library hosted by DOMS. Her organization is about inclusiveness and teaching other students what they’re about.
“We are dominant females,” Jenkins said. “We don’t try to be males, we don’t try to act like a male. We are just dominant females who are just very comfortable with the way that we dress.”
She came out in ninth grade and was afraid at first if people would accept her. But she said she knows that educating students and creating change on campus means inviting everyone, and that it’s not just a “gay thing or a lesbian thing.”
“They’re making a change,” Jenkins said about NCCU opening up the new center. “They’re making a stand for everybody to be more knowledgeable of the LGBT community.”
And Doxey, who oversees the center, said she has already had students visit who are excited for the start of fall semester. She said a male student dropped by and began to cry, saying that this was one of the first times he’s ever felt included.
“That, for any other reason,” she said, “that’s why these doors are open.”