Warren Radebe was 24 when he first began coming out to his friends. In his native Johannesburg, South Africa, Radebe invited one of his best friends from primary school, along with his friend’s girlfriend, to meet someone special. He introduced his friend to his boyfriend. His friend said he’d suspected it for a long time.
The story sounds common to American ears, but it is complicated by a nation whose culture and history is drastically different. For Radebe, coming out meant bucking traditions generations in the making — long predating his own birth.
“For me, it was comfortable to speak to my generation before I would even speak to my aunties and my grandfather,” explains Radebe, now 29, sitting in the comfort of the Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) student union lounge.
In South Africa, Radebe says two systems — a western, democratized government and a more long-lasting traditional African culture — combine in unique ways to make his experience and the social lives of LGBT people there far different than the more accepting environment he’s found in the U.S.
His grandfather is a medical doctor — an educated man. “But, I know he is traditional,” says Radebe.
“That for him is quite strange,” he says. “He watches TV and it would be quite bizarre for him, but he knows it exists.”
In South Africa, Radebe says, “liberal” and “conservative” can take on two very different meanings than those used in the U.S.
“Some people are very liberal within the traditions and very conservative in the traditions,” he explains. “The liberal ones, they can at least talk about it, but still deny, and then there are those who cannot even talk about it and they still deny it.”
In Charlotte, Radebe has found a different world. One which accepts him as he is, despite lingering stigma and challenges. Here, working on campus as an LGBT student organizer and with Campus Pride, a Charlotte-based non-profit working with LGBT college students, Radebe has grown in his understanding of LGBT issues and his drive to create change.
“The Warren I left in South Africa is the Warren I don’t like,” he says. “My friends will tell you, I was so struggling with social life. I didn’t think about relationships. I didn’t think about sex. I was hiding.”
making the grade
Radebe has been in Charlotte for three years. He’s now a junior studying political science. And, he’s making waves of progress working with SAFE (Sexuality Advocacy for Equality) Pride, JCSU’s LGBT and ally student group. He says he feels empowered and inspired — motivated to help his campus grow in safety for LGBT students.
An LGBT student group has existed on JCSU’s campus for years, but Radebe says the program has suffered from a lack of organization and support. Assistance from groups like Campus Pride and more motivated students and faculty have begun to change that. Last year, the campus hosted their first ever training for faculty, organizing toward the creation of a safe zone and ally program. Stickers now appear in the campus health clinic, library, administration building and counseling center.
Radebe and other students also held outreach events. Last year, they signed up more than 200 student allies — all efforts to build continuity for LGBT student support.
But, Radebe’s experiences at JCSU have certainly been unique. He’s careful to point out the differences in organizing on historically black college and university (HBCU) campuses like his. Like his youth in South Africa, tradition and stigma can still rule the day. At the outreach event last year, straight ally student athletes were cautious with their support.
“They came to the table and some of them were scared,” he says. “I said, ‘Take the form. Nobody is looking at you. Just go right over there and fill out the form.’ They wanted to be supportive, but they were still scared to stand next to the [rainbow] flag, because when you stand next to the flag, then you are gay.”
Luckily, Radebe says the culture is slowly, but surely, beginning to change.
“I think things are getting better,” he says, pointing to continued support from faculty and staff, including SAFE Pride advisors from the multicultural and counseling center departments. Radebe hopes to begin educational and inclusion outreach to the athletics department. Similar trainings are already scheduled for the campus’ leadership and career summit. And, this October, SAFE Pride will hold the first JCSU Pride event.
SAFE Pride’s membership is growing, too. Three years ago, the group’s most active members were female students. Now, Radebe says, more young gay men are becoming active.
But, Radebe knows his campus still has a long way to go.
“We’re still struggling to unite and understand ourselves,” he says. “We haven’t found the highest level of activism.”
Yet, things are getting better. Last year’s safe zone faculty training “made a big impact,” he says, and he’s grateful for support from groups like Campus Pride, as well as the Human Rights Campaign, which hosted a summit of HBCU LGBT student leaders Radebe attended last year.
Radebe says he’s excited for the future, knowing the campus will continue to increase in LGBT support systems and more inclusive campus climates for LGBT students.
Across town, LGBT colleges students experience a drastically different culture and climate. At the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC), students have a bevy of resources at their disposal. It’s a common disparity seen between HBCUs and predominately white institutions.
At UNCC, a first-year program for incoming LGBT students is already in place. A safe zone program has been in place for years. The school even has a dedicated staff person to oversee LGBT-related student activities.
Joshua Burford is that staffer. He’s assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at the campus Multicultural Resource Center. For many students, Burford says, coming to UNCC is the first time they’ve ever been able to freely be out and interact with a community of people just like them.
“They can use their own identification words in public with no pushback,” he says. “They can use their actual names and pronouns.”
He adds, with a laugh, “Sometimes that can be a little too free.”
The campus first-year program, QY1, is designed to help incoming LGBT students find the right balance. The first semester is spent showing them how to find community. The program introduces them to different school and community groups and offers opportunity for involvement. The second semester is spent immersing students into their studies, exposing them to professional organizations and finding internships.
“I think we do a good job making sure students are looked at as a full person — from their identity to their professional life to the community,” Burford says.
Despite the resources, students can still face challenges.
Matthew Amabile is president of UNCC’s Spectrum, the campus LGBT student organization. He came out at the beginning of his freshman year. While he experienced no challenges and had a supportive family, he knows other students who come to Spectrum for support.
“People get scared of coming out, because our school is seen as a little bit more conservative,” he says.
But, services and support systems exist to help just about anyone. “I think it’s a amazing,” he says. “It’s actually a lot more than people think it is. If anything we can take steps to make it more noticeable.”
Though policies and student experiences at UNCC and JCSU may differ, the passion Amabile and Radebe have are equally matched.
Amabile wants more centralized resources and safe space on UNCC’s campus.
“Something we can do and something I’m fighting to do is potentially have an LGBT center on campus, because we don’t have one yet,” Amabile says. “I would like to have something specifically for us, because we are a large community.”
Radebe wants to continue his outreach — specifically organizing efforts to target incoming freshmen who need support. And, as the school continues to improve, he wants JCSU campus leaders to participate in the Campus Pride LGBT-friendly Campus Climate Index, an in-depth ranking of a school’s LGBT-inclusion policies and practices. And, with a vision pointed toward even greater inclusion, Radebe wants at least one gender-neutral restroom on campus.
“This campus has now been declared a safe zone for LGBTQ students. We are protected,” says Radebe, quickly adding, “But it’s just a starting phase.” : :