Premier Black College Is a Study in Anti-Gay Discrimination
Premier Black College Is a Study in Anti-Gay Discrimination
by Chanel Lee
In retrospect, Gregory Love's only mistake may have been leaving his glasses in his dorm room.
On the morning of November 3, the Morehouse College junior entered the unlit first-floor bathroom of Brazeal Hall to shower before church. Heading for the last stall, he glanced into one occupied by sophomore Aaron Price. Love, who is nearsighted, would later testify that he at first thought Price was his roommate and started to say hello. According to him, the underclassman shouted, "I hate Morehouse and I hate all these ******s!"
Realizing his mistake, Love apologized and took the next stall. Only those two men know exactly what happened next.
According to published reports, Price left and came back minutes later with a 26-inch baseball bat, bashed Love at least seven times on the head, back, and shoulders, and left him on the floor. After searching briefly for pieces of his four chipped teeth, Love somehow made his way to the campus infirmary, in the basement. He would later undergo emergency brain surgery to remove a near fatal blood clot, and he left the hospital with a seven-inch scar along the left side of his head and the likelihood of a lifetime suffering headaches, seizures, and possible memory loss.
Price was arrested the next day, and the Atlanta college expelled him. In June he was sentenced to a pair of 10-year sentences, to be served concurrently, for aggravated assault and battery. Love, who couldn't be reached for comment, has testified that he's straight; the jury found Price not guilty of a hate crime. "I was scared," Price told the court. "I was embarrassed because I was naked and he was looking at me." On July 2, his lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, saying the evidence did not support the verdict.
The incident may have shocked some at the nation's only all-male, predominantly African American college, but it was no surprise to gay students there. For them, taunting and the threat of physical violence are part of everyday life. In the months to come, they would discover that not even such a brutal assault could open the eyes of the vast majority of students, faculty, and administrators.
On April 7, after months of student forums and blue-ribbon panels on the issue, the Morehouse College Task Force on Tolerance and Diversity turned to alumni for guidance, e-mailing graduates a questionnaire titled "Survey of Attitudes and Behaviors Toward Homosexuality." An accompanying letter from President Walter Massey said the college wanted to find ways to "ensure a safe and supportive environment for all students—straight and gay."
The questions themselves—now posted at New York author Keith Boykin's website (keithboykin.com)—suggest otherwise:
"How far should Morehouse go to separate heterosexuals and homosexuals in the residence halls?"
"To what degree do you think homosexuality is immoral?"
"How much does Morehouse's reputation for enrolling homosexual men affect your pride in the College?"
"How much should Morehouse allow students to be open about their homosexuality on campus?"
For a historically black school with a reputation for attracting gay students to raise the specters of segregation and the closet was almost more shocking than the original assault. The questionnaire results were originally expected in June, but college officials wouldn't say when the information will be ready, nor would Massey provide any comment. That's not surprising, considering the uproar the survey has caused.
"It's sad in that they had an opportunity, as an educational institution, to bring about healing," says William Peters, former executive director of the national group Gay Men of African Descent. "To separate [straight and gay students], like a quarantine? It almost smacks of that."
Other HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) have wrestled with the problem of students being attacked or harassed for their sexual orientation—real or imagined—but with very different results.
Following an attack on a gay student by members of the Howard University marching band in September, campus police at the Washington, D.C., school initiated training to help its officers identify possible hate crimes. Two campus cops were appointed to serve as liaisons, and they have been regular visitors to LGBT campus meetings. In April, school administrators named the LGBT organization as student organization of the year.
Morehouse has its own fledgling LGBT group, Safe Space, started last year as a response to the attack; efforts to launch a similar collective several years before met with resistance from college administrators.
Peters says Morehouse needs to recognize that many of its students are in fact gay and do in fact live up to the school's stated objective—to produce strong black men. "I don't think the black community is any more homophobic than another," he says. "I really don't. But it is the last acceptable form of discrimination. You can't go around saying ******, wop, stuff like that, at least not in public. But you can go around calling people ******, and it's accepted."
Sometimes the harassment extends beyond mere words. At Johnson C. Smith University, the African American Alliance for Gay & Lesbian Education (also known as A3) is one of the most active and vocal groups. That did not stop a student from threatening to shoot A3's founder as he walked on the Charlotte, North Carolina, campus with his boyfriend.
Morehouse College, along with neighboring all-female Spelman College, is considered the crème de la crème of HBCUs, counting such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, former surgeon general David Satcher, and former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson among its alumni. Founded in Augusta, Georgia, in 1867 to prepare young men for careers in the ministry and in education, the school prides itself, as the school's online viewbook states, on molding raw talent into the "Morehouse Man," grooming him to "exemplify personal integrity as well as outstanding scholarship . . . to stand as a model of leadership built on personal initiative, ethics, and service."
Its 3,000 students certainly look the part, often dressing for classes in business suits and calling elders "sir" and "ma'am." This is an old-fashioned campus, but students acknowledge they're in a new era. "Times are a lot different now—there are many different ways to be a Morehouse Man," recent graduate Malik Ali says. "The classic conception of the Morehouse Man is of these distinguished men who are the black version of the all-American man—the leaders of the world, the cream of the crop—and I'm not sure how homosexuality fits into that.
"When people look at the all-American man, they don't see a homosexual there," he continues. "When you see an all-American man, you see a family, you see a wife." Then again, he muses, "when you see an all-American man, you don't see a black person there, either."
Morehouse's deeply Southern and fundamentalist tradition could be what keeps it from any meaningful dialogue about homosexuality. Stories of constant persecution of gay students at the hands of their classmates abound. One about a glee club member pulling a gun in response to a perceived come-on has achieved near mythic status. Justin Holland, a gay student, says he sought help from faculty members and was told, "If you don't walk or talk in a certain way, you won't have any problems."
During his freshman year, Holland was sitting in a dorm room with five friends when a group of students burst in, drew crosses on the gay students' foreheads in anointing oil, and began singing hymns and speaking in tongues, praying and begging the Lord to save their souls. Ian Harris, a straight student, says that in speech class his peers with a "gay-sounding" tone of voice are harassed until they drop the course. Harris had a gay roommate and soon became the target of harassment from dormitory staff. The Southern Voice, a gay newspaper in Atlanta, reports that a history professor stood up in the middle of a student forum and said, "I'm disappointed that the morality of homoerotic acts have not been addressed here, because these acts are sinful. . . . Christianity will never condone homosexual acts."
As recently as June 23, in what has been called an "act of resistance," a gay student allegedly being picked on near the cafeteria brandished a toy gun, presumably in hopes his antagonists would think it was real and leave him alone. One was charged with disorderly conduct, as was the student who drew the toy pistol; the latter also faces an additional charge of making terrorist threats.
The atmosphere for gay students has never been friendly. Then-sophomore Mubarak Guy may have said it best when, weeks after the attack on Gregory Love, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "A lot of people believe that [Love] deserved to get beaten up if he was looking in the shower stall. . . . but everyone thinks the bat was a little extreme."
"It was like the biggest joke on campus coming true," says Harris, who was completing his final semester at Morehouse when the beating occurred. "We would always say we'd take a bat to someone's head if somebody did something like that to me, and everybody would laugh. It was obvious that it was being said in jest, but that there was a lot of disdain for gay people in general under the surface." Harris was not at all surprised by Guy's mindset: "People accepted it and didn't say anything about it."
"It's not how I personally feel and it's not how I think everyone feels, but that thinking is kind of pervasive," says Ali. "That element is pretty small, but it's pretty vocal."
"It's unbelievable how bad it is," laments Holland, a rising senior. "I came in with six friends, and all of them have transferred except one." Holland came to Morehouse from Manhattan's Lower East Side with a full scholarship—no small thing at a college where tuition, fees, room, board, and assorted fees run to $22,728—but found himself on the verge of losing it his freshman year. Seeking refuge from harassment by fellow students, he fled to friends' apartments off campus, missing classes for a week or two at a time.
"I just didn't want to be bothered," he says. "We pay too much money to deal with this."
Immediately following the attack on Love, President Massey announced plans to form an advisory task force on tolerance and diversity issues on campus as well as a blue-ribbon panel. The campus held student forums and invited guest speakers for special lectures. The dorms began holding mandatory training sessions dealing with harassment, anger management, diversity, and homophobia.
"I am committed to fostering an environment at Morehouse where no act of violence—regardless of its motivation—is tolerated," Massey said at the time, in a written statement. "The College will devote the high level of resources this issue deserves." The press release added that under Massey, "the College is adhering to its long-standing institutional values, which include civility, community, compassion, and respect for diversity in all its manifestations."
Although Massey's initiatives seemed encouraging, the actions of the administration would prove to be far less so. Before the attack occurred, Morehouse students had been planning their own Forum on Homophobia, organized by the Morehouse student government association and Omega Psi Phi fraternity. But after the attack, when they gathered for the event, they were told by the administration that it had been canceled.
"Students . . . were told they could not host a forum on homophobia," explained Kevin Bynes, a member of ASSEFA (A Safe Space Everywhere for All), a group of local collegians that formed in response to the assault.
Officials said the students would still be allowed to meet, but made clear that any group daring to allow open discussion of the crime would have its charter revoked. When the students insisted on talking about the beating, the Campus Life department revoked the charter of both the student-government association and Omega Psi Phi. Although Massey reinstated them a day later, the message had been sent.
A few months later, in April, the alumni got a message of their own when Massey's task force sent out the list of 22 questions about homosexuality on campus. "How comfortable are you with homosexuals that you know?" the college asked, along with queries like "How much should homosexuals and heterosexuals be treated the same?" and "How much have you experienced negative encounters with people who are homosexual?"
How prejudiced can you be, people wanted to ask the school. "There's an attitude problem at Morehouse," says Boykin, the writer and activist who received the survey from an alumnus and put it online. "I've met dozens upon dozens of black gay men that graduated from Morehouse, and they say there is a denial of homosexuality.
"Morehouse is supposed to be a leader of the black community," he adds. "It doesn't want to be known as a place that educates black gay men."
Historically black colleges and universities have a responsibility to educate all their students, free of harassment, Boykin says, and to set an example for African American society at large. Instead, they're almost following behind. "We need the Morehouses, the Spelmans, the Howards, to lead the black community in the right direction," he says. "We need them to be harbingers of change."
Bynes, of ASSEFA, says an institution like Morehouse should know better. "To call yourself part of the Black Ivy League, to be the top college for black men in the country, and to have such Neanderthal values is laughable," he says.
For these deeply entrenched values to change, many say, the culture at Morehouse would need a seismic shift. "The real change is going to come from the students," Bynes says. "The administration has shown time and time again that they are apathetic to the needs of LGBT students. The change will come when the students organize and hold the school accountable."
Unfortunately, some gay students may no longer have the heart to continue the struggle for acceptance. "I want my degree to say 'Morehouse' on it," says Holland, who hopes to graduate this spring. "I stayed because people are needed to stay and fight the fight, but I don't feel like it's worth my time."
"Something cataclysmic would have had to happen" for Morehouse officials to really address the problem, says Harris.
More cataclysmic than the brutal attack on Love? Harris's answer chills in its succinctness:
"He would have had to die."