The Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) Board of Trustees has voted to include sexual orientation among the protected groups of individuals in university policies.
The unanimous vote took place March 20. WSSU became one of the last institutions in the University of North Carolina (UNC) system to pass such a measure.
Designating sexual orientation as a protected class allows members of the LGBT community to be free from discrimination based on their sexuality.
“It was a matter of dignity and respect,” said Board Chair Nigel Alston. “Everyone deserves that, and to a degree, that’s what the action of approving the policy did.”
It is an important step in the university’s history, says WSSU’s Equal Employment Opportunity Officer Edward Hanes Jr.
“This was a very good thing for the university,” stated Hanes, who has been working to make sexual orientation a protected class since he came to WSSU in 2005. “The stance taken by the chancellor and the Board of Trustees that an individual’s sexual orientation…is not relevant to educational and employment decisions is very consistent with the University’s endowing tenants of adequation and receptiveness.”
Adopting policies that guard against discrimination based on sexual orientation has become something of a recent trend at historically black institutions in the UNC system in recent years, Hanes reported.
“When we first started looking at this three years ago, none of the HBCUs (in North Carolina) had adopted this policy,” he related. “However, as I was looking at HBCUs across this country, I saw this was an opportunity for Winston-Salem State to lead.”
Although Hanes said that some LGBT students and staff members have told him of instances of harassment and discrimination on campus, he received no formal opposition when he asked that the provision be considered by the Board. He credits Chancellor Donald Reaves with helping to make the process smooth.
“Oftentimes, the attitude of leadership sets the course (for an organization),” he noted. “Reaves was very open to the conversation when we had it.”
Hanes says sexual orientation is not currently recognized as a protected class by the state or federal governments, so the policy carries little weight outside the confines of the university, but he is hopeful the vote will help to make LGBT students and faculty feel more accepted and appreciated on campus.
“It’s powerful in the sense that people know the university is serious about protecting their rights,” he commented. “We’re not going to move away from our founding tenants — we’re going to be fair and accepting… We’re not going to stand for our workers and our students being discriminated against.”
Senior Brandon Hughes says he appreciated the gesture. Hughes, a business administration major, serves as president of the Gay/Straight Student Alliance, which was formed on campus late last year.
“We’re very excited about having the resolution passed; it’s a big step for Winston-Salem State,” declared the Charlotte native. “I hope that it will galvanize (the LGBT community) more and help them realize that you have a right to be who you are and there are consequences for someone who discriminates against you on campus…you don’t have to sit silent.”
Hughes says he is glad to attend a school that is willing to take a stand on the issue.
“It really has restored my faith in how things are done here,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a Ram.”
— This article was originally published on March 26 by The Winston-Salem Chronicle. It is reprinted with permission.