Gay club rejected again by Va. school

February 2, 2007

Students at Virginia’s Hampton University have been trying to get a gay–straight alliance approved by the administration for four years, but progress has been nonexistent.

Organizers say no matter how many bureaucratic hoops they have jumped through or how many forms they have filled out, they are not any closer in 2007 to winning recognition for the group than they were in 2004.

“This is the second year I have been involved,” said Sia Mensah, a junior majoring in psychology. “In 2004, I heard about another student who was trying to get a GSA started. I took it on because we need it here, and someone needs to fight for fairness on campus. Hampton University is not being fair to all of its students.”

Hampton University is a historically black school located on the Virginia Peninsula. A six-page list of the school’s 195 student organizations shows there are 67 social, 64 academic and 31 service clubs, but not one geared toward gay students. Some of the organizations include chapters of NAACP, Habitat for Humanity, Student Government Association and Student Christian Association, as well as 10 fraternities and sororities.

Competition to get a student organization charter is tough at Hampton, in part because charters are renewed every two years instead of annually like they are at most other colleges and universities. When charters lapse, only a handful of new groups are allowed in. In a Jan. 24 article in the Daily Press, a Newport News, Va., paper, Hampton’s assistant vice president for student affairs, Barbara Inman, said 30 groups applied for charters in 2006 and only four were approved. The proposed GSA group is called SPEAK, short for Students Promoting Equality, Action and Knowledge. It was turned down in 2004, again in 2006 and now has to wait until 2008 to reapply.

Mensah, who’s bisexual, inherited the mantel of GSA crusader during her freshman year from April Maxwell, a lesbian psychology student who began the process to get a charter for the group in 2004. In an interview with the Black College Wire two years ago, Maxwell said she wanted to dispel negative stereotypes and bring straight and gay students together.

“When I was a freshman I felt so alone,” Maxwell said. “It’s so hard to find people to talk to because nobody comes out.”

Patra Johnson, interim director of student activities, told the Blade the university is not deliberately withholding a charter from SPEAK.

“We are not discriminating against them or treating them any differently from any other club,” she said. “We are following the regulations of the school.”

Brandon Braud is the senior organizer for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities program, diversity and special projects for Human Rights Campaign. He said there are 104 historically black colleges and universities nationwide, with 80 percent of them located in the Southeast. In the past five years of the program’s existence, he has seen 15 gay-straight groups form on historically black university and college campuses, mostly in southern states. The HRC program has helped establish 14 of the groups, some of which are not officially sanctioned by their administrations. SPEAK has been involved with HRC’s program for two years.

“The issue with Hampton is indicative of a lot of universities we have been dealing with,” Braud said. “It is a very conservative environment, with religious overtones.”

Braud said his program had success partnering with HRC’s Religion and Faith program last semester, inviting gay-friendly black ministers and pastors to forums at college campuses.

“We did four last semester and two or three this semester,” he said.

“We are planning to offer it as a staple for our program. To finally have some affirming black ministers and pastors speaking the gospel of inclusion is inciting real dialogue. It’s pressing people to think deeper about their own spiritual beliefs and how to include gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in those beliefs.”

He said it is not unusual for homophobic administrations to send students through an unending maze of forms. If they are lucky enough to get advisers for their clubs, they are denied charters without any reasons given. Participation by faculty is also discouraged.

“I’ve seen it happen before,” he said. “The secret message given to faculty members is do not step up to the plate for this student group, because your job will be in jeopardy. When a teacher stepped up at her black college, her department was downsized within a month and she lost her job.”

Tara Sweeney is senior program officer with Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national public advocacy group for colleges and universities. She said Hampton also gave a student wanting to form an Amnesty International group the runaround until she quit trying. The school also cracked down on anti-Bush protesters distributing literature on campus, she said. Sweeney said the fact the school is allowing a handful of new organizations to meet and turning most away constitutes viewpoint discrimination.

“Hampton has few policies available for people to see,” Sweeney said. “But one of their policies includes a nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual preference. There is no other organization on campus that caters to gay students. If they don’t want to encourage an environment of openness for different sexual orientations, why not be upfront? If they make a promise, they should hold to it and not break it.”

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