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Wake up! Listen to black student protesters

Recent events at Mizzou recall a life-changing 1992 episode at Penn State



black student, gay news, Washington Blade

University of Missouri (Photo by AdamProcter; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The issue of race relations on college campuses reemerged last week following highly publicized incidents at Yale and the University of Missouri that triggered protests at schools across the country. Much of the reaction and commentary included patronizing remarks that minimized and trivialized the plight of African-American and other minority students navigating life on majority-white campuses.

At Missouri, students protested a string of racist incidents that were largely ignored by administrators, leading to the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. They stepped down only after the football team threatened a boycott, jeopardizing lucrative sports revenue for the school. The athletes’ brave act of defiance should be a template for students elsewhere looking for creative and effective ways to fight back against apathetic administrators.

Meanwhile, at Yale, a black undergraduate student claimed that she was barred from a fraternity’s “white girls only” party. Sigma Alpha Epsilon denied the report. In another incident, a faculty member was accused of racial insensitivity after defending students’ right to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes. The seemingly isolated incidents at Yale and Mizzou have proven anything but, with solidarity protests being staged across the country.

Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump predictably sided with the status quo. “I think the two people that resigned are weak, ineffective people,” he told Fox News. Ben Carson assailed the “politically correct police” for the resignations.

Numerous publications and commentators have weighed in, belittling the students and ignoring the larger issues. This isn’t about Halloween costumes or the coddling of spoiled elites who miss their helicopter parents. It’s about the disparate treatment of minority students everywhere who face real obstacles to obtaining their education and degrees that are mostly unknown to their white counterparts.

The recent incidents call to mind my own eye-opening experience with race issues as a student at Penn State University in 1992, where I served as editorial page editor for the Daily Collegian student newspaper.

Back then, Penn State saw protests led by black students decrying low minority enrollment and inadequate efforts by the university to retain minority students. There were sit-ins and street demonstrations. One of my regular columnists, a black student, penned a column titled, “African Americans should not trust devilish white people.” It contained some harsh language and warnings to fellow black students to bear arms to defend themselves. “White people are irredeemable racists, who have never loved or cared about black people,” he wrote.

The column wasn’t the most profound or original take on race, but it certainly reflected the genuine fear and isolation that many black students felt on campus. One black friend told me that when traveling to campus from home, he gassed up his car in New York City and didn’t stop again until he pulled into his dorm four and a half hours later, ever fearful of having to make an unexpected stop in rural Pennsylvania along the way to State College.

The university was overwhelmingly white, with just 3.1 percent black enrollment. Many students were from small towns with zero black population. I had a roommate who had never met a black person before arriving on campus. When he saw a photo of me with my black prom date from high school, he said, “You took a black girl to prom?! What did your parents say?”

Such was the atmosphere for minority students. And so when I edited the column, I knew it would get a lot of attention on campus but I was young and naïve and had no idea the maelstrom that it would trigger. On the day it was published, I received an early morning phone call at my apartment from the newspaper office. “Kevin, you need to get down here. There are protesters picketing the office.”

When I arrived, there were two white students pacing in front of my office carrying signs bearing crosshairs that read, “White Man, Shoot Here.” It was startling but hardly a mass protest. I dismissed it as minor and went about my day. Later, I got a call from an Associated Press reporter in Harrisburg who’d heard about the protest. I explained that it was a brief demonstration by just two people. He wrote a story that moved across the AP state wire that night while I was still in the office. Our news editor flagged it for me. It read that our offices were besieged by a “wave of protests” following publication of the column. I was disappointed by the irresponsible sensationalism of the AP writer but it was only the state wire. Not a huge deal. Later that night, the story moved across the national AP wire and appeared in every major newspaper in the country the next morning. All hell broke loose.

The office phones rang incessantly. Penn State administrators denounced us in the media as a “hate publication.” Student organizations yanked their advertising. Oprah, Donahue, Sally Jesse and Geraldo called seeking interviews with the author and me. The story was covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and every media critic and major news outlet. Death threats began arriving to our offices. The author’s life was threatened in a flier distributed across campus with a rifle’s crosshairs superimposed across his photo. I received a death threat at my apartment from the Ku Klux Klan, which operated in a nearby town. The police visited my office offering protection. Alumni canceled donations to the university and administrators searched for ways to retaliate against the newspaper, which is an independent corporation unaffiliated with Penn State. Professors denounced our actions openly in classes. Collegian staffers were harassed on the streets.

Despite all the fear mongering in the media about us instigating a “race war at Penn State,” the only violence we saw came in the form of death threats against newspaper staff. It’s surreal to turn on the radio or TV and hear your name being trashed by commentators. I was labeled a “drug addict,” “racist,” “crazy” and worse. I lost a job offer because of the uproar.

All this because I’d defended a black staff member who’d written a column from a place of fear and isolation. Yes, he wrote some inflammatory things. But on a college campus, students deserve a wide berth when exploring complicated and emotional issues for the first time on their own. As former Yale University President Benno Schmidt once said, “A university ought to be the last place where people are inhibited by fear of punishment from expressing ignorance or even hate, so long as others are left free to answer.”

It was a life-changing experience and I wish every practicing journalist could walk for a day in the shoes of someone being castigated by the national media. It taught me the importance of fairness. Words matter and they can hurt when applied recklessly.

Fast-forward nearly a quarter century, and to my dismay students are still grappling with the same issues of racism and low minority enrollment and retention. Indeed, the list of grievances from University of Missouri students is strikingly similar to a list compiled by students in the 1960s. As the Huffington Post reported last week, “The 1969 list expressed concern about the ‘nonchalant attitude on the part of the university,’ saying it made it ‘a haven for comprehensive institutionalized racist and political repression.’ Those feelings were echoed by many protesters this week.”

Instead of dismissing these students’ concerns, we should listen and help. The condescending response from Trump, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and others ignores the genuine fears of students who face threats of violence and racist epithets — one of which was scrawled in human excrement at Missouri.

Often it’s the covert manifestations of racism that sting most, like the indifferent response of administrators and media critics. Or the persistent problems with retaining minority students and faculty at major universities that are instead focused on building multi-billion dollar endowments while neglecting needs of current students.

There are no easy solutions to these entrenched problems, but we’ve seen the result of propagating the status quo, from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. At the very least, we can listen to these students respectfully and engage with them. Football players don’t boycott games and students don’t initiate hunger strikes for kicks or attention. The problems are real. As Spike Lee implored us in his 1988 film “School Daze,” “Wake up!”


Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected].



Reclaiming the word ‘ally’

Let’s not toss out the word; let’s focus on doing allyship right



(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The word “ally” has started to rub some folks the wrong way. It’s my understanding that some of the reasons why ally has gotten a nasty reputation are that self-professed “allies” either don’t do enough (i.e. they put an “I’m an ally pin” on their backpack and that’s all they do) or they use their power and privilege to speak over the community members they’re supposed to be supporting.

Mia McKenzie, author of “Black Girl Dangerous,” writes: “I will no longer use the term ‘ally’ to describe anyone. Instead, I’ll use the phrase ‘currently operating in solidarity with.’ Or something. I mean, yeah, it’s clunky as hell. But it gets at something that the label of ‘ally’ just doesn’t.” It’s true; “currently operating in solidarity with” is clunky as hell, but you may have noticed that other words have started to pop up to replace ally or to indicate people who offer higher levels of commitment and better-informed actions than the average “ally.” A few examples are accomplice, advocate, and co-conspirator.

I’m absolutely fascinated by this development. I’ve read many articles and blogs about these different terms, trying to understand what they all mean and how they should be applied, and I keep coming back to the same thought: None of these new words would be needed if allyship were being done well. “Ally” is becoming a word with negative implications because allyship is being done poorly by so many. We don’t need any more terms to describe allies or differentiate levels of action and commitment. We need to put our energy into allying better. So, if you consider yourself an ally to the LGBTQ communities, here are some tips to follow that will ensure that your ally efforts are spot on.

• When you’re in LGBTQ spaces, meetings, and events, listen and learn. If you got involved in social justice work to support marginalized communities in creating the change they see as necessary, then you need to let the people in those communities lead the way in deciding what that change should look like.

• Be mindful of the fact that you’re part of the movement, not part of the community. Assume the “A” in “LGBTQIA” stands for asexual, not ally.

• Respect LGBTQ-only spaces. If you aren’t sure if allies are welcome, call and ask.

• When out on your own, do some of the heavy lifting. For example, reach out to the leaders in your school district to advocate for a single graduation gown color, rather than different colors for boys and girls.

• When you mess up (i.e. accidentally say something offensive) thank the person who brings your error to your attention and make an appropriate apology, without making excuses for your behavior or getting defensive. Few people enjoy telling others that they messed up. If someone is letting you know that you made an error, it probably means that they value your relationship, have faith that you’re interested in learning, and believe that you’re capable of listening and changing your behavior. Accept this intervention for the compliment that it is and thank the person for committing to an action that’s no fun for anyone. Then let them know you intend to do better.

• Learn as you go. Try not to get bogged down or discouraged by how much you don’t know. Look up new words, learn about new concepts, and investigate new trends as they arise.

• One final pointer is to realize that there are no hard and fast guidelines for when an ally should step in with action and when they shouldn’t. Allyship is a bit of a balancing act. Whether or not you take action as an ally should depend on the situation and the people involved.

Most folks agree that we should help carry the dirty dishes to the kitchen after dinner. Most folks also agree that we shouldn’t scrub our host’s toilet, even if it’s a mess. But loading our host’s dishwasher is kind of a gray area. Our decision is likely to depend on how well we know the host and social cues we’re picking up from the environment.

The same is true with allyship. Some actions are clearly good choices, for example, suggesting that your doctor’s office update their forms when you see the limited “M” or “F” choices. Some actions are clearly bad choices, for example, speaking over the community members you’re trying to support. And then there are gray areas.

An example of a gray area of allyship is when someone uses the wrong gendered term for (i.e. misgenders) one of your coworkers in a work meeting. In a situation like this, you’ll need to make a judgment call about whether to step in or not depending on several factors. You’ll need to consider factors like how well you know the coworker who was misgendered, whether you think the person will appreciate the support or be made uncomfortable by having attention drawn to the mistake, and how past efforts to support this coworker have been received. You’ll also need to think about who else is at the table during the meeting. Is it all folks that everyone knows and trusts or are there new people at the table? If the latter, safety and confidentiality may be at risk if you speak up.

Whether you choose to say something or not, a great ally action when you encounter a gray area is to check in later, privately, with the person who was affected. You can say something like, “I wasn’t sure how to respond when you were misgendered in the meeting today. If that happens again, how can I best support you?” Communication is key. The next time this situation occurs with this coworker, you’ll know exactly how to respond. If you chose not to say anything in the meeting, you may also want to ask if there’s a role you can play in speaking with the person who messed up. That way you can be proactive in preventing the mistake from occurring again.

In her essay “Fluid and Imperfect Ally Positioning: Some Gifts of Queer Theory,” Vikki Reynolds writes, “I am always becoming an ally. I am continually being woken up to my locations of privilege.” Thinking of the word ally as a verb, rather than who we are, helps us remember that being an ally is about action. It’s not a static identity that we wear on a badge: “Tada! I made it! Pop the Champagne! I’m an ally!” Becoming an ally is a never-ending process.

Let’s not toss out the word ally and replace it with other words that may or may not improve people’s understanding of effective allyship. Let’s simply focus on doing allyship right.

Jeannie Gainsburg is an award-winning educational trainer and consultant in the field of LGBTQ inclusion and effective allyship. Formerly the Education Director at the Out Alliance of Rochester, N.Y., she is the founder of Savvy Ally Action and author of the book, ‘The Savvy Ally: A Guide for Becoming a Skilled LGBTQ+ Advocate.’ 

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Veterans with substance use disorders need our help

Many return home to face a new battle with addiction, trauma



(Photo by SCPhotog/Bigstock)

On Memorial Day, millions of American families honored the memory of the men and women who lost their lives fighting in one of the nation’s wars. It can be challenging for families who have recently lost a loved one.

We must also never forget the countless veterans who made it home but are now fighting a new battle with substance use or mental health disorders. Unfortunately, suicidal ideation is all too common and fueled by drug addiction.

It can be a particularly challenging problem for U.S. military self-identified as LGBTQ. A health survey released by the RAND Corporation found 6.1% of people in the U.S. military identified as LGBTQ. Suicide risk within this community varies considerably depending on the intersection between sexual identity and other aspects of identity.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 3.9 million veterans nationally have a substance use disorder or mental illness. Unfortunately, substance use disorder significantly increases suicidality among veterans ages 18 and older.

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are common among veterans ages 18 to 49.

“Early intervention is critical, and it saves lives. Yet, it is also important for families to know where to look and how to find help when needed,” said Michael Leach of

Numerous causative factors lead to substance use among veterans. For instance, many veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life. They may experience financial hardships, difficulty finding employment, or accessing benefits.

Many other veterans battle mental and emotional health problems. This can often be compounded with physical injury or chronic pain leading to pain medication use. Untreated trauma, for example, leads to drug and alcohol use to cope with unwanted feelings.

Outside of the usual resources provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA facility locator, other options may include:

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides specific resources for LGBTQ veterans;
Helpful hotlines include the Veteran Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, option 1 and the Lifeline for Vets, 1-888-777-4443;

SAMHSA has a treatment facility locator where veterans can find specific treatment options.

Families also play a vital role in supporting a loved one struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. It’s OK to express concern about their substance use. Speak to them openly and honestly about it and help them find treatment. Be patient and show compassion for what they are experiencing. Remember, substance use disorders are treatable.

When families and communities come together, amazing things happen. Veterans with substance use disorders need our help; it’s never too late to offer a helping hand.

Veronica Raussin is a Community Outreach Coordinator for, passionate about spreading awareness of the risks and dangers of alcohol and drug use.

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Non-alignment or hypocrisy: South Africa’s non-alignment costing Africa’s human rights discourse

Country must take stronger stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law



LGBTQ and intersex activists protest in front of the Ugandan Embassy in D.C. on April 25, 2023. South Africa must take a stronger stance against the Anti-Homosexuality Act that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

In the past several months, South Africa’s foreign policy has been in the spotlight for essential and existential reasons that significantly impact geopolitics and the continent’s stability. 

The foreign policy for South Africa discussion document by the Department of International Relations highlights the “advancement of human rights and the promotion of democracy” as the pillars on which South Africa’s foreign policy rests. This document emphasizes the role that South Africa is expected to play in the “promotion of human rights and democracy.”

Minister Pandor echoed this document in her 2022 end-of-year remarks

“We will continue with our unwavering position to advocate for a balanced Sustainable Development Program within the human rights framework as underlined in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (VDPA). In this regard, South Africa will be one of the chief proponents of a balanced agenda of the HRC, which reflects, among others, the primacy of achieving the realization of the right to development as well as moral human rights issues such as the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment.” 

South Africa has long been known for its commitment to human rights and its leadership in the fight against apartheid. However, its foreign policy continues to be viewed as ambiguous and nonresponsive to developments in African affecting the growth of the continent.

In 2021, President Ramaphosa — as chair of the SADC Organ Troika — committed to a national political dialogue in Eswatini to resolve the political killings in that country. However, the South African government has never followed up or called on the Eswatini government to adhere to its commitment, even as renowned human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was mercilessly assassinated in January 2023. At the very least, this has not been seen publicly, which would be comforting to those political activists and citizens constantly living in fear in Eswatini. 

On May 29, the president of Uganda enacted the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act. The new law is a throwback to colonization, where religious fanatism was the basis for the persecution and killing of many Africans. While Africa seems to take the posture of “fighting against imperialism,” it is saddening that this law is the brainchild of American zealots funding hate across Africa, whether it is in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi or Namibia. These zealots, the Fellowship Foundation and many others, are well coordinated in their attacks on the judiciary and the African human rights framework, backed by the 75-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

In an era where Africa is seen to be taking a stance against imperialism, I shudder to contemplate that hate may be the only imperialist agenda Africa is not actively standing up against. We know the history of petty offences like homelessness and loitering, sedition laws, and anti-LGBTI laws. These are remnants of colonization to keep Africa inferior and the colonial masters superior. Today, the hate continues through repressive and backwards sentiment being paraded as religious values. Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law criminalizes what it calls “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty. It would be hard to imagine what “aggravated homosexuality” even means. 

This is another opportunity where South Africa’s posture and foreign policy must be spotlighted. With the growing conversation about the ICC arrest warrant of President Putin, South Africa has reiterated its foreign policy as non-alignment and non-interference. 

However, when the question of human rights and democracy is at play, all must take a stand. This law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and the international community for violating the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals and hindering the fight against HIV. It further impedes what Minister Pandor called the “balanced agenda of the HRC,” which speaks to sustainable development within the human rights framework. 

It should be worrying if South Africa continues to maintain a policy of non-alignment and non-interference in the face of the new law in Uganda. While this policy may have its merits, it raises questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights and its role as a leader in Africa. A foreign policy that neglects the promotion of human rights and democratic principles is hypocritical. On the one hand, South Africa is seen as a leader in promoting LGBTIQ+ rights and has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world regarding protecting the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals. However, on the other hand, it has failed to take a strong stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, which is a clear violation of human rights.

By maintaining this policy, South Africa is essentially condoning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law and undermining the fight for human rights in Africa. This is particularly concerning given South Africa’s leadership role in the African Union and its commitment to promoting human rights and democracy.

South Africa’s foreign policy regarding Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law raises questions about its commitment to non-alignment and human rights in Africa. While non-interference may have its merits, it should not come at the expense of human rights and the fight for equality and justice. 

South Africa must take a stronger stance against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law and work towards promoting human rights and democracy in Africa.

Melusi Simelane is the Southern Africa Litigation Center’s Civic Rights Program Manager.

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