Justin Calhoun chose Howard University in part to escape the homophobia he grew up with in the Mississippi Delta. However, he continues to face oppression for being gay at the D.C. HBCU (historically black colleges and universities); now, it’s just on a micro rather than macro scale.
When Calhoun was deciding which college to attend, he knew he wanted to go somewhere where his peers “affirmed and understood” him and his gay identity. He thought Howard would offer a “safer, more progressive” environment than Morehouse (an all-male HBCU in Atlanta) or a state school in Mississippi.
The junior, political science major is all too familiar with homophobia thanks to growing up in Ruleville (a small town in northern Mississippi with about 3,000 residents) with parents who are still struggling to accept his gay identity.
“I’ve come to my mom three times, and there will be a fourth time,” Calhoun says. “Each time, my mom has basically lied to herself and been really in denial about it. … After I come out, she always says, ‘I can’t wait till you get a wife and kids.’”
Although Calhoun has known since second grade that he is gay, he didn’t start coming out to his friends till sixth grade, and even then, he intentionally didn’t come out to his parents because he knew they wouldn’t be accepting.
However, one of Calhoun’s teachers approached his parents independently without his knowledge.
“When my parents found out, we had a long talk, and I eventually admitted I was gay,” Calhoun says. “My parents immediately started crying; my dad walked out of the room and said, ‘That’s some bullshit.’ … Several days after that, there were some prayer sessions, prayer warriors, people coming in the house to pray and lift the corners of the house from the evil spirit that was me.”
Beyond social stigma and rejection, Calhoun was also concerned about his physical safety because of recent events near his hometown in Clarksdale, Miss., where Marco McMillian, an openly gay candidate running for mayor, was found murdered at age 34. Although there remains no evidence proving the murderer was motivated by McMillian’s sexual orientation, the event still shook up the LGBT community, making many queer Mississippians like Calhoun frightened and uneasy.
“My dad said, ‘Is this what you want to happen to you? Because that’s basically what you’re asking to happen; you’re gonna die if you keep acting gay.’ So he told me to go to school and tell all my friends I was straight ‘or else,’” Calhoun says. “I never really questioned the ‘or else,’ but I was very aware of what that could possibly mean in terms of physical violence.”
Now at Howard, Calhoun is far from closeted.
“I’m very loud about being gay at Howard and actually most places I go, except my parents’ home. I just don’t like being quiet about it.”
He joined CASCADE (Coalition of Activist Students Celebrating the Acceptance of Diversity and Equality), the campus’ LGBT group, which Calhoun describes as “the hub for all queer activism on campus,” at the end of his freshman year and became the president last semester as a sophomore.
The group currently has 16 advocacy interests for next school year, such as the creation of an LGBT resource center, which would institutionalize queer spaces and Black Gayze, a magazine which will champion and explore the lives of queer students at Howard. CASCADE has also placed trans and gender-non-conforming folks at the forefront of their advocacy with its gender-neutral bathroom initiative.
Currently, only one building on Howard’s campus has gender-neutral restrooms, Frederick Douglas Memorial Hall. However, the hall is currently under renovation until 2020, meaning the campus functionally has no gender-neutral restrooms anywhere on campus. CASCADE hopes to designate at least two such restrooms in all student buildings (dormitories, cafeterias, academic spaces, etc.) by December and at least two in all administrative buildings by April 2019.
Calhoun says Trump has in some ways benefitted queer activism at Howard since his election two years ago.
“I think Trump has been a benefit in that people are realizing how emboldened people feel now and they’re starting to hear their views and people want to make sure they’re not on that side of history, so people have been trying to be politically correct,” Calhoun says.
Yet Calhoun says there remains a lot of passive partnership on campus.
“There’s no resistance (to our agenda). I think the only resistance is silence,” Calhoun says. “A lot of people like to partner with LGBTQ organizations on campus … (but) being intentional with these (queer) groups means talking to them year round and caring. It means funding them. It means partnering with them on long-lasting partnerships. It means coming to their meetings. It means showing the initiative that you care outside of a one-time event that maybe attracts 10-20 people.”
Calhoun says this lack of “initiative” and “intentionality” contributes to micro-aggressions he and other queer students continue to experience. However, he also says these micro-aggressions are partially due to the black community’s historic relationship with the church.
“Howard is supposed to be this safe space where black students can come and explore their identities safely in this microcosm of black creativity and exploration,” Calhoun says. “And that’s cute for one type of student, mainly cis hetero students. But for queer students, that’s not at all the reality … (partially) because of black people’s relationship with the church and (how) the church has had a long history of saying that queerness is wrong. Because of Howard’s history with all of that, the campus has a lot of micro-aggressive oppression.”
One day, Calhoun hopes to start his own nonprofit catered to black, queer people in the South, filling a void he himself experienced growing up. Until then, he hopes to see Howard continue advancing queer rights and voices on campus.
“I would like to see more queer voices and yes I would like to see them represented, but mostly I would like them to be visible … (for example) in classrooms where I see a black, queer teacher talking about their black, queer experience just as they would their black experience now,” Calhoun says. “I just want it (queerness) to be integrated into (the community’s) everyday thoughts and actions, so that students know and feel radical acceptance.”