Morehouse College in Atlanta has been noted as the bastion of black male leadership since its inception in 1867. Embodying W.E.B. Dubois’s theory of “The Talented Tenth,” that stated “exceptional black men” would be the ones to lead the race, Morehouse College has produced unquestionably a pantheon of noted black men.
However, nowhere in its development of strong black men were gay and bisexual men included in its elite brotherhood. And now, more than a century later, gay and bisexual Morehouse men are still struggling to be accepted.
Michael Brewer, a senior at Morehouse is trying to help the college foster a more welcoming environment, but much of his efforts on campus fall on deaf ears.
But LGBTQ activists are listening and so too is The Los Angeles Times, which recently profiled Brewer and the campus climate in its recent article, “Morehouse College faces its own bias — against gays.”
With more students of Brewer’s generation arriving on campus openly gay and bisexual, Morehouse’s administration continues to lack the cultural competence and sensitivity to address the issue, fostering students to think there is only one way to be a Morehouse man.
For example, Devrin Lindsay, a junior, told The Los Angeles Times that an effeminate man who “swishes down the campus like he’s on a runway” damages Morehouse’s image for parents with students looking to attend the college.
But it is Morehouse’s highly publicized 2002 gay-bashing incident that has damaged its image, and has seemingly taught the administration very little.
On Nov. 4, 2002, a Morehouse College student sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price, not surprisingly the son of a ultra-conservative minister. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat for allegedly looking at him in the shower.
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the victim, whose name was not disclosed to protect his privacy, did not have his glasses on and allegedly peered at Price through the shower curtain of his stall to see if Price was his roommate.
But many on Morehouse’s campus felt then and do now that peering in a student’s shower is an act that not only transgressed Price’s privacy as a man, but also warranted some form of brute retaliation as an indication of his manhood.
“A lot of people believe that he deserved to get beaten up if he was looking in the shower stall. Students are very wary of any action that could be misconstrued as a gay overture,” sophomore Mubarak Guy, Price’s friend, told The Journal-Constitution at the time.
During the arguments for and against convicting Price of the state’s first hate crime, Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Holly Hughes asked the jury to remember the words Price allegedly uttered “when he beat his victim with a baseball bat: ‘Faggot, you’re gay, gay … I hate these Morehouse faggots.’”
Morehouse is lauded as the jewel of black academia, founded two years after the end of the Civil War by William Jefferson White in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. Morehouse’s most famous alumnus is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who graduated in 1948 before going on to lead the national movement for racial equality and justice.
But King had his own problems with gay men.
Sadly, Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was chief organizer and strategist for the 1963 March on Washington that further catapulted Martin Luther King onto the world stage, was not the beneficiary of King’s dream.
In a spring 1987 interview with Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin stated that he pushed King to speak up on his behalf, but King did not.
In “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” gay historian and academic John D’Emilo writes, “Rustin offered to resign in the hope that he would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay. Basically, King said, ‘I can’t take on two queers at one time.’”
Price was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He expressed no emotion as the guilty verdict was read.
Although then-Morehouse College President Walter Massey acknowledged that “homophobia is not a new topic at Morehouse” during a campus-wide address on the beating, little has changed.
After the incident, gay students formed a support group, Safe Space, which Brewer belongs to. But the group this year only had about five active members.
In the 1980s and 1990s it was more dangerous to be openly gay and bisexual on Morehouse’s campus than it was on the streets in black neighborhoods. And throughout the 1990s Morehouse was listed on the Princeton Review’s top 20 homophobic campuses.
But homophobic incidents at Morehouse speak to a larger issue plaguing men of African descent in this country — acknowledging their sexuality.
Many African-American men on the “down low” (DL) say there are two salient features that contribute to their subculture: white gay culture and the Black Church.
DL men deliberately segregate themselves from both black and white gay cultures as an alternative black masculinity that only wants to have sex and socialize with other black men. But class is a factor here, too. While many gay African-American men have the economic mobility to reside outside of the black community and are likely to intermingle with the dominant gay culture, most DL men don’t.
With homophobia running as rampant in historically black colleges and universities as it is in black churches, there are no safe places to openly engage the subject of black sexuality.
With sexuality being both socially constructed and performative, black male sexuality due to racist stereotypes becomes a caricature of itself that is heavily imprinted in society. Black gay sexuality within African-American culture is perceived to further threaten not only black male heterosexuality, but also the ontology of blackness itself.
As the nation’s largest liberal arts college for men, Morehouse continues to confer degrees on more men of African descent than any institution of higher education in this country.
However, if Morehouse is to continue to be the jewel of black academia nurturing the talents and gifts of its exceptional black men, then it must ask itself to what degree does its tradition hinder its goal?