Last month, Morehouse College, the only all-male HBCU in the country, announced that it will begin admitting transgender men in 2020. It was a historic moment for a school with a troubled history when it comes to queer inclusion.
Atlanta, GA — Morehouse is one of the top-ranking HBCUs, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader Julian Bond and filmmaker Spike Lee among its alumni. A top producer of black men with doctorates in the nation, the school prides itself on shaping its students into scholarly “Morehouse Men,” destined to be leaders.
Morehouse’s new transgender student policy was an initiative of the new president, Dr. David Thomas. Upon starting his term, Thomas moved to clarify the admissions policy. He aimed to reflect changing attitudes on gender norms but made clear that “Morehouse remains a school for men,” according to a statement provided to YR Media by Aileen Dodd, a Morehouse spokesperson.
The new policy states that beginning in the Fall 2020 semester, students “who live and self-identify as men, regardless of the sex assigned to them at birth,” can enroll at the school.
However, the policy is explicit that transgender women are not welcome at the school: “Morehouse will not consider for admission women or those assigned male at birth who identify as women.” Dodd explained that if a current student transitions to a woman while at Morehouse, she would have to submit a written appeal and address why she would like to stay at “a school explicitly designed for men.”
Some LGBTQ rights groups in the Atlanta area praised the change. “This is a great first step for Morehouse that should be celebrated, especially as transgender rights are federally under attack,” said Eric Paulk, a Morehouse alum and the deputy director of Georgia Equality, a civil rights group for LGBTQ Georgians.
Many Morehouse students and alumni also voiced their support for the policy, applauding the school’s effort to update its admissions process to reflect changing social norms. To them, the policy represents a first step towards building a more inclusive campus.
Institutions like Morehouse are often fighting to exist and lack necessary resources to modernize. Expanding its admissions policy to include trans men required a lot of work on the back end and a commitment to much more work in the future.— Donovan X. Ramsey (@donovanxramsey) April 14, 2019
I agree with the college’s final decision. @Morehouse is a #HistoricallyBlackCollege for men. Through kind of a “textual“ analysis of what the founders may have meant, we divine that they wanted to create a school to cultivate and reflect on the Black male experience.— A. Prince Albert III (@aprincealbert3) April 13, 2019
But for many queer students on campus, Morehouse’s announcement didn’t go far enough. Shortly after the news broke, student activists took to Twitter. They used the hashtags #MorehouseCannotEraseMe and #WhatAboutThem to draw attention to the policy’s shortcomings for transgender women and non-binary people. “When I heard, I was super excited,” said queer Morehouse sophomore and activist Daniel Galberth. “But when I sat down to read the policy, it really hit me that what Morehouse said is, ‘We’re gonna accept transgender men, but kick out anyone who doesn’t identify as a man.’”
What about the gender-nonconforming students who are already on campus? “As far as what the policy means for me, I was grandfathered in. I’ll be able to graduate because I was enrolled before the policy was implemented,” said Tatiana S. Rafael, a transgender woman in her third year at Morehouse. “My understanding based on a conversation I had with the president of Morehouse is that I’m the first fully-transitioned woman in the school’s history.”
Rafael said she was approached by the president for a private meeting to be informed of the policy before it was announced, so that the policy would not come as a surprise. However, she is unhappy that she was not asked for input.
Rafael said she feels less safe now that this policy has been announced. “Like this policy will embolden people to be discriminatory,” she said. “So I do worry for my safety every day.”
She’s not the only student to feel this way. Nigel Jacobs is a nonbinary junior at Morehouse who sometimes presents as femme, and when they do, they are met with stares from other students. Jacobs worries that the new policy “will discourage future students from presenting how they want” and could be used “to threaten their enrollment at the school.”
(Tatiana S. Rafael, a transgender student at Morehouse.)
When YR Media asked Dodd what she would say to current LGBTQ students who feel unwelcome at the school, she wrote in an email: “We assure them that they are welcome to pursue their academic goals at Morehouse and invite them to join us in the efforts to assess campus needs to create diversity and inclusion programs, trainings, and facilities that will support the new policy.”
The current debate regarding Morehouse’s transgender student policy comes as the latest development in the school’s troubled history with LGBTQ issues. Most infamously, in 2002, Morehouse student Gregory Love was beaten by a classmate with a baseball bat in the shower at the school. The attacker believed Love was making a pass at him. As a result of the attack, Love suffered from a skull fracture and brain damage. The perpetrator was convicted of aggravated assault and battery.
In a subsequent lawsuit, Love accused the school of fostering a climate that promotes homophobia. His suit claimed that “Morehouse had failed to address the harassment of students believed to be homosexual; had fostered an atmosphere of hatred and violence toward such students.”
Morehouse has made attempts to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. In 2002, the school launched its first gay-straight alliance group, SafeSpace. Eight years later, Morehouse held its first Pride Week celebration. In 2013, the first LGBT course was offered at the school, teaching the impact of black LGBT figures on culture and politics.
Despite the milestones, many of the queer students I spoke with felt unwelcome at Morehouse. “The school doesn’t know how to include or accommodate anyone who is not a cisgender heterosexual male,” Rafael said. “If you don’t fall in that category, the school doesn’t do a good job of including you.”