Friday, September 12, 2008

HBCUs and CDC Data about New HIV Infections: Head in Sand

I’ve blogged here a number of times about how my work in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has increased my concern for LGBT African-American youth who are too infrequently offered positive role models as they deal with questions of sexual orientation (see, e.g.,,,

I’ve written about how my attempt to create a safe dialogic space within the HBCUs at which I worked for open, respectful, honest discussion of questions of sexual orientation not only met a stone wall, but how I was punished for calling for such a discussion. I’ve noted the historic tendency of HBCUs (almost all of which are church-affiliated) to sweep discussions of sexual orientation under the rug, to pretend that gay administrators, gay faculty, gay staff, and gay students simply don’t exist (on this, see “Gay and Black: They Don’t Mix at Too Many Historically Black Universities,”

Given my history at HBCUs and my concern that all young people who are coming to terms with their adult identities have a safe, nurturing environment with positive role models in which to deal with this life passage, I’m disturbed—no, I’m downright disgusted—to read the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) figures on HIV infection in the U.S. (see, These figures show that gay and bisexual black men 13 to 29 years old now have the highest rate of new infection in the nation. They also show that among women, black women have the highest infection rates.

I say these figures are disgusting because of the (non)response of most HBCUs and the churches that sponsor HBCUs to these data. The new figures show that the group contracting HIV is precisely the demographic age group served by HBCUs. Who have known there is a problem. And who have stood by and done nothing, thus contributing to the problem.

It’s time for HBCUs and their sponsoring churches to get their heads out of the sand.

When young men and young women are being infected by HIV because no one will talk about it—or about sexual orientation—and no one will admit that some people are gay, and that some gay men disguise their orientation in environments that will not allow them to be public and sleep with both men and women, infecting unsuspecting women, it’s time to get serious.

If church-sponsored HBCUs are about what they claim to be about—opening doors to a bright future for all students—they are failing lamentably in their mission to educate all students, and to help a segment of their population, when they choose to duck and dodge questions of sexual orientation, and to bash gay administrators, faculty, and staff who ask for the right to live openly and with respect as gay persons.

HBCUs that behave this way are denying gay students positive role models. They are failing to prepare students for life in a real world in which coming to terms with sexuality, period, is part and parcel of growing up. They are contributing to a culture of silence whose ultimate outcome may be death for some young people. They are facilitating ignorance and prejudice.

And they are doing so in the name of a God who does not, I propose, stand on the side of such ignorance and prejudice. Or on the side of death.

If I had the magical ability to speak to all HBCU presidents at once about this issue, I think I’d ask them to consider very carefully how they would behave, if they knew it was their own son or daughter they were exposing to misery, illness, and possible death by contributing to this culture of shameful silence and gay-bashing.

When we frame moral questions as questions that are about people we know and love and want to cherish, they have a wholly different complexion, don’t they?