To Be Black And Beautiful And Queer at an HBCU... And After Graduation

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Ryan Jamaal Swain (right) speaks during a Q&A moderated by Human Rights Campaign HBCU program coordinator Rishard Butts during the 13th annual HBCU Leadership Summit: Leading in Truth, which was held in Atlanta from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12, 2018.
Photo: Bryan Sona

“Nobody will love you the way an HBCU will love you,” my grandmother insisted as I was drowning in college applications during my senior year at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

Before that, I had only been thinking of applying to conservatories—acting programs deemed the best by reviewers and the like. To quell my grandmother’s lectures about the importance of HBCUs, I researched them, with a determination to pick the best one.

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I found Howard University. That decision changed my life forever.

I visited the famed HBCU, based in Washington, D.C., and instantly felt at home. I experienced a spiritual vibration in Lulu Vere Childers Hall, the building where professors helped sharpen the skills of sisters and actresses Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen; the dynamic singing duo Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack; author Toni Morrison; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman; and just about every important black disruptor.

After choosing to attend an HBCU, all other schools receded in importance in my pursuit of finding a place where I would grow as a man.

As a black man, I can tell you that the impressionable college years are extraordinarily significant. The experiences you have shape and mold you into the citizen you’ll become. As an HBCU alum, I can tell you that these institutions will play a significant role launching our country’s next generation of black leaders. And I know there are unique challenges that come with being black and beautiful and queer. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy and political lobbying group in the US, understands that reality well and is taking steps to help members of the LGBTQ community at HBCUs better navigate that journey.

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“Courageous actions” is the key theme in the development program they provide to HBCU students and staff. Very soon, that program will be available to alumni in the HRC HBCU P.R.I.D.E Alumni Network. It will be launching this month, February, Black History Month. Through this first-of-its-kind network of LGBTQ HBCU alums, HRC is building a community of advocates committed to advancing LGBTQ equality and making their alma maters more inclusive.

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I was reminded of the importance of such outreach efforts recently as I looked out at the sea of young, black, LGBTQ students surrounding me at HRC’s HBCU Leadership Summit in Atlanta, where I was a keynote speaker. That unique gathering brought together more than 50 students from more than 20 HBCUs for a weekend of leadership development, emphasizing the importance and urgency of leading at the intersections of race, religion, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Seeing those doe-eyed, bushy-tailed students at the summit looking to me for advice reminded me of the essential ingredient needed to take those audacious first steps to truly become the best craftsmen of life: courage.

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Back during my time at Howard University, the pressures and worries of being a first-generation college student majoring in one of the most unreliable majors known to humanity — the arts — could have paralyzed me. But I found myself in ways that I previously hadn’t, from having my first boyfriend and grappling with the harsh duality of being black and queer in America, to the challenges I would face after studying at a university affectionately known as the “Mecca.”

My message to those students was clear: it takes courage to embark on a journey to identify who you are and who you should become. It takes courage to step into your power, to let your authentic self be seen, to demand respect no matter where you are, or when you’re there. It takes courage to listen and be guided by those who have accomplished their dreams. It takes courage to challenge everything you have been taught to redefine yourself in your truth.

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Speaking with students at the leadership summit, I was moved by the personal conversations we had about taking agency over oneself with family, about existing beyond the margins of what society deems fit for us, and knowing what we are, that we are beautiful. Being able to support these young change agents is why I do what I do.

In many ways, HBCUs are the bedrock of Black American culture. They provide a unique place for us to explore what we believe and offer a cultural experience that puts identity front and center. These beloved institutions have stood the test of time. And it is our duty, especially as many are facing financial uncertainty, to ensure that they are there for coming generations who deserve the same opportunity we had — the privilege of attending an HBCU.

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I am thankful I had the opportunity to be inspired by these courageous young LGBTQ advocates, who reminded me that our fight to preserve these schools and advance LGBTQ equality is a fight for them and their future.

It was a privilege and honor to see who will be my fellow craftsmen of life and to know that these strong students and activists will be equipped with the tools they - and we — need to sustain and thrive: hope, love, faith and courage.

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