By Tayler J. Mathews
Illustration by Jaid Mathews
“We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.” —African American Women In Defense of Ourselves
Two years ago, I filed a federal Title IX complaint against my university. Since then, I have met other students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) who have also experienced sexual harassment and discrimination for nonconformity to gender stereotypes. As it turns out, gender violence and retaliation is common in higher education, and Black campuses are not insulated from this reality.
Students at HBCUs, like students elsewhere, confront gender injustices that particularly affect the lives of women, LGBTQIA+ and gender nonconforming persons, as well persons with disabilities. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act intersects with Title IX—the federal civil rights law concerning gender and education equity. Persons with disabilities encounter violence in general at higher rates, and any person who experiences sexual trauma can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Yet, dimensions of disability, race, gender identity, and sexuality are not usually reflected in the most visible narratives of campus sexual violence.
The mainstream movement against campus sexual violence has yet to shift the dominant frame that places white cisgender heteronormative women at the center. This framing neglects the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are more likely to be assaulted than their heterosexual peers, while transgender students are almost 300 percent more likely to be assaulted than cisgender men.
Black and LGBTQIA+ survivors already encounter numerous barriers reporting this violence, including the well-founded mistrust of police who are agents of the criminal (in)justice system. It is imperative for HBCUs to champion and abide by Title IX policies that provide internal procedures, alternative paths to justice, and remedies that allow students to continue their education. HBCUs, then, must cultivate environments where disclosure is supported and policies are regularly enforced. This requires transgressing the conservatism that facilitates the subordination of particular issues and groups, while uplifting others.
For instance, it is no secret that HBCUs are heteronormative spaces that privilege (cisgender) men. Because Black men constitute a smaller population on some campuses, more concentrated efforts have been initiated to increase their enrollment. While these efforts are necessary, HBCUs must simultaneously work to address gender-based violence.
By primarily centering the plight of Black men, HBCUs support an implicit, though misguided, belief that Black women and LGBTQIA+ students face fewer obstacles arriving to, and experiencing campus life. Consequently, it can be overlooked that some students arrive at college as survivors of childhood sexual abuse and may need services and accommodations that relate to Title II protections. These survivors also face an increased risk of sexual revictimization and intimate partner violence as adults—incidents that may unfortunately occur during their college years.
Further, individual safety is not promised simply because an HBCU has a larger percentage of women students or employees. Even with more women on campus, there is no guarantee that the institution will be gender conscious, less discriminatory, or a safe space for other women and LGBTQIA+ folks. As bell hooks reminds us, “patriarchy has no gender.” It is difficult for many to admit that some women can, and do, support cisheteropatriarchy by expressing and acting on internalized misogynistic, heterosexist, and cissexist beliefs. I know, all too well, that placing too much faith in faculty and administrators simply because they are women can lead to acute disappointment.
The difficulties that survivors encounter are additionally compounded by the notion that gender and sexual violence do not occur on our campuses. Even when this violence is acknowledged, silence is encouraged. Silencing is not only used to protect institutional reputations—it is also deeply rooted within the larger community itself. In a letter to survivors, Black Women’s Blueprint states emphatically that the Black community “refuses to admit that sexual assault is rampant, that it happens to us, in our churches, in our homes and on our [HBCU] campuses.”
The refusal to admit this violence, as explained in Johnnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s book Gender Talk, stems from beliefs that Black folks should avoid “airing ‘dirty racial linen’ in public.” Those who do speak out risk being labeled as “race traitors and Black male bashers.” However, these community codes only increase the burden placed on survivors, especially those who face greater antagonism because of their gender identity and/or sexuality.
In July, the Human Rights Campaign organized the first HBCU summit to address queer and trans inclusion. Regrettably, only 16 schools sent representatives, with only three HBCU presidents participating. With slightly over 100 HBCUs in existence, what does it say when not even a quarter of our schools will show up for LGBTQIA+ students? What does it tell students when matters of gender and sexuality are considered secondary to the priorities of HBCUs? According to one HBCU president, it is challenging to address “bigotry based on sexual orientation” due to “resistance from senior administrators, members of the board and … alumni, who are now parents.”
Perhaps this is why non-discrimination policies and campus practices are often in conflict. Until actions match rhetoric, we must continue to ask questions concerning the implementation of Title IX. For instance, is information about sexual assault inclusive of male survivors? Are dialogues around intimate partner violence inclusive of same gender couples? Do campus dress codes and event attire policies reinforce a fictitious gender binary, thereby inhibiting gender expression?
If there is one thing HBCUs should be doing better than all other educational institutions it should be ensuring that Black students are safe and receive equitable treatment. To dismiss the trauma that is experienced on these campuses only perpetuates the erasure of racialized and hypersexualized bodies, making our institutions complicit in our oppression. We must remember that there are Black students fighting for Black lives on HBCU campuses, too.
But let me be clear, this critique originates from a deep love of HBCUs—and we need our institutions to unapologetically love us back. All of us. However, should they fall short of this call, we must be more willing to hold our beloved institutions accountable. If you are an advocate for HBCUs you must necessarily be an advocate for the movement against campus gender and sexual violence.
Author Bio: Tayler J. Mathews is a PhD student at Clark Atlanta University. Her activism centers women, gender, and sexuality. You can follow Tayler on Twitter, @FeministSnob.
Illustrator Bio: Jaid Mathews is a freelance illustrator, comic artist and writer. You can follow Jaid on Twitter, @jamstoy.