“Gender is more than just being a man or a woman. Gender is what you identify as, as a person,” says Damilola Louwole, 21, a senior at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She dresses and identifies as a masculine woman, and says that people don’t understand. The Cambridge, Mass., native also says that at a recent visit to a black church in Maryland, her sexuality was brought up in a negative way.
“I was asked, ‘How you gonna be a Christian and date people who look like you?’” Louwole says, with outrage in her voice. “This was the first time I’ve ever run into anything like that at church. I was like, ‘My faith has nothing to do with my sexuality. No sin is greater than another.’”
But Louwole says that it made her uncomfortable in church, where she had never felt that way before. She hasn’t been back since. Louwole is among many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students at HBCU campuses who are feeling isolated or forced to choose between their sexuality and spirituality. That’s why Many Voices, a black church movement for LGBTQ justice, launched a nationwide video campaign Thursday night at Morgan State. The short film “My God Too: Black LGBTQ Students Speak OUT,” capturing the experiences of nonstraight students on black campuses, was screened at the school and followed by a panel discussion.
“It’s a beautiful presentation in the voices of students themselves, sharing the experience of campus and spiritual life and how those two intersect,” the Rev. Cedric Harmon, executive director of Many Voices, says. The film features interviews with both LGBTQ Morgan State University students and non-LGBTQ students who support them (known as allies). The students discuss the impact of traditional black-church teachings about gender and sexuality on campus, as well as what could happen if the African-American community chose to engage in social-justice awareness involving gender and spirituality. Harmon says that he hopes the video will show a community that is often accused of marginalizing LGBTQ people that these African Americans need a spiritual home, too.
“One of the things that really stuck out from the interviews is that faith is important to these students. They grew up in a spiritual environment,” Harmon says. He notes that students want a place where they don’t have to separate their spiritual selves from their sexual selves. Some black churches have spoken out forcefully against homosexuality and have used the Bible as what Harmon calls a “text of terror.”
Louwole, who appears in the film, says that she wishes more black pastors would try to open their understanding, and a dialogue. As more African Americans express their sexuality, she’s hoping that the black church will really start talking about these issues.
“The African-American tradition is to be really involved in your faith. If you’re taking somebody’s faith away, it’s taking them away from their identity,” Louwole says. “A lot of times when you’re down and out in the African-American community, you look to God. If you go to church and say ‘I’m a female and I would like to date females’ and they turn you away, it could add to you losing your way.”
“These folks feel disconnected. For many, spirituality is at the core of their being,” Harmon explains. “Being separated from the church, and from family and community, is a disorienting experience. … You can’t take faith away from them, even if the church has been taken away from them.”
Anika Simpson, associate professor of philosophy and coordinator of the school’s Women and Gender Studies Program, says that Morgan State is trying to address inequality on its campus for all students and change the antagonistic messages that some LGBTQ students say they get from everyone from their professors to their pastors.
“The dominant narrative is that the church and HBCUs are homophobic and create negative environments. We want to disrupt that narrative,” Simpson says. “If people are only hearing negative comments from pastors, teachers, the administration, faculty and staff, it drowns out the progressive voices that are in existence. We want to shine a light on the fact that not everyone feels this way.”
Simpson says that the actions Morgan State is taking to help include asking students to provide their preferred gender pronoun on the intake form that professors use to get to know their students, and not using heteronormative language in class, such as assuming that a story would be about a woman and her boyfriend. She says that it is similar to how schools ended up with African-American and women’s studies programs.
“The problem is not seeing the students that are sitting in front of you—and that’s also an issue at the policy level,” Simpson says. “People want to see themselves and their stories. … If you are teaching literature, do you mention the sexuality of some of the authors being covered?"
For some students, she adds, it is about feeling safe in their dorms and safe to speak about their sexuality in class without risking some sort of backlash from their peers or faculty members. But for John Benton-Denny, a 26-year-old Morgan State senior from New York City, it is about being able to live his truth, without being subject to bullying and discrimination. He says that’s one of the reasons he is part of the film “My God Too.”
“I feel this film is important not only for the LGBT community but for the black community,” Benton-Denny says. “These narratives need to be heard and understood because the LGBT community is so misunderstood. … If people understood what we went through and the dynamics of our lives, they probably wouldn’t be so quick to judge or resent us.”