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LGBT student leaders enjoy signing moment with president

by Keith Barber

LGBT student leaders enjoy signing moment with president

MichaelEvans (left), a junior at Winston-Salem State, serves on the executiveboard of the school’s Gay-Straight Student Alliance. Chevara Orrinserves as the group’s co-advisor. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Michael Evans said he will never for get the moment that he stood before Barack Obama, and shook the president’s hand.

Evans, a junior psychology major at Winston-Salem State University, attended the recent White House event where President Obama signed an executive order authorizing federal funding of nearly $100 million for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, in the 2011 Congressional budget and $850 million over the next 10 years.

Evans joined HBCU presidents from across the country, key civil rights leaders and two other HBCU student representatives at the signing event. Evans and Bennett College senior Lauren Waters represented the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender, or LGBT, population of the nation’s 105 HBCUs.

“It was truly amazing to see such an extraordinary man recognize the LGBT community in front of America,” Evans said of Obama. “It was so symbolic for me that he acknowledged that we exist and that we represent the future of this great country.”

Evans hopes the increased federal funding filters down to gay and lesbian advocacy student groups like Winston-Salem State’s Gay-Straight Student Alliance. Up to this point, the group has relied heavily on private donations and community partnerships to fund the group’s initiatives. Evans is a board member of the group, which was formed 18 months ago.

“It will mean a great deal to us because we’ll pretty much be free to do more of the programming that needs to be introduced to our HBCU campuses to improve the identity and visibility of our LGBT community,” Evans said.

Evans said up to this point, the group has relied heavily on private donations and community partnerships to fund the group’s initiatives.

Chevara Orrin, director of conferences and institutes at Winston-Salem State, is one of the co-advisors of the Gay-Straight Student Alliance. Orrin said many people questioned the feasibility of the organization when it first started, but attitudes towards gay and lesbian students are gradually beginning to change on campus.

“In the black community, there’s so much homophobia and there’s so little discussion about the challenges and the discrimination that the LGBT community faces particularly in the black community, and it’s particularly difficult on HBCU campuses,” Orrin said.

The Gay-Straight Student Alliance has collaborated with other advocacy and human rights organizations to organize panel discussions and events over the past year and a half to raise awareness of the need for change.

Still, gay and lesbian students continue to face discrimination at Winston-Salem State, Evans said.

“There have been subtle changes,” he said.

“There’s been a small shift in the atmosphere of the campus. It’s more accepted now that we exist. They recognize us but then again, we do have the harsh side of it where we’re called derogatory names.”

Evans recounted stories of openly gay students allegedly being given lower grades than straight students due to their sexual orientation. She has also heard complaints from gay and lesbian students complaining about professors who told them they could be “cured” through psychotherapy or religion, Evans said. Then, there is harassment from classmates.

Evans told the story of an openly gay student who had his dorm room broken into and had several items stolen. The student reported the word “fag” had been written on his dorm room wall.

Evans serves on the alliance’s executive board and served as a panelist at the 2009 Equality North Carolina Conference in Greensboro. That is where he caught the eye of Brian Bond, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Bond contacted Orrin two weeks ago for a recommendation of a student who would represent Winston-Salem State at the presidential signing event. Orrin immediately responded by nominating Evans. Bond agreed with Orrin’s assessment.

“We traditionally highlight exceptional individuals during such events,” Bond said. “Michael’s work at such a young age made him an excellent choice to participate in this particular event.”

Orrin said she’s heard nothing but positives from the White House since Evans’ visit.

“He was such an incredible representative of not just the LGBT community but of an HBCU student,” Orrin said.

Groups like the Gay-Straight Student Alliance represent a positive step forward, but much work remains to be done, Evans said.

“A lot of students feel unwelcome or they have created their own personal safety net, but whenever hey walk to class, they have to leave behind a part of themselves,” Evans said.

It is absolutely critical for Winston-Salem State and other HBCU campuses to foster an environment of acceptance for its gay and lesbian population for the institutions to achieve their stated missions, Orrin said.

“The climate is changing and the LGBT students are becoming more empowered,” Orrin said. “If they feel they can bring 100 percent of themselves to our campus and be who they are, and feel safe to be who they are, they can then give 100 percent of themselves as students to their educational pursuits.”

Last week, Acceptance without Exceptions, an NC A&T University advocacy group invited Evans to rally with them to help formulate a non-discrimination policy at A&T like the one adopted at Winston-Salem State.

Orrin said the issue transcends the sexual orientation of a group of students on HBCU campuses.

“It’s a matter of human rights and social justice, period, and my personal belief that people should be allowed to be who they are, that they should be able to thrive in safe environments,” she said.

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Michael Evans (center background), a junior psychology major at Winston-Salem State, looks on as President Obama signs an executive order for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Feb. 26. (courtesy photo)

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