The deaths of Shannon Washington and Robert Champion have given new voice to the Florida A&M lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“A climate of hostility has grown unchecked for too long,” said FAMU student Ciara Taylor, who lobbied at the Feb. 9 Board of Trustees meeting to add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the university’s policies.
“The tragic and senseless death of Robert Champion has resurfaced longstanding concerns about the safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on FAMU’s campus.”
Champion, a drum major for the Marching ‘100,’ died following a Nov. 19 hazing incident after the Florida Classic.
Comments emerged that Champion’s death could have been linked to his sexuality.
In September, Washington, a shooting guard for the FAMU Lady Rattlers basketball team, was allegedly stabbed and killed by her lover, Starquineshia Palmer, during an argument.
Washington’s death spurred a domestic violence discussion hosted by FAMU Pride Student Union and co-founder of Inclusive Task Force Yolanda Fairell.
Nadine Smith, the director of Equality Florida, said that LGBT students don’t feel safe or fully included at FAMU.
“There is an overwhelming sense of benign neglect from most, support from a precious few and pockets of open hostility remain,” Smith said.
That kind of environment prompted Jubilee Jackson to start the FAMU PSU in 2009. LGBT students needed a place to meet and talk with others who understood their problems, he said.
“I would see gays doing things like we were gathered around trees and gathered in the corner or sitting around tables talking about things that were bothering us,” said Jackson, a senior physical education student from Ft. Lauderdale.
“These things should have always been addressed by the university.”
Jackson said he once tried out for, and was rejected by Mahogany Dance Theatre, Essence Dance Theatre and FAMU Strikers. Jackson feels that his sexuality hindered him from dancing because he “wasn’t really trying to hide it.”
He has also felt the sting of rejection in class. He recalls a teacher who told students that things are wrong when “we don’t have men trying to be real men anymore. We have men trying to be with other men.”
In response to the growing activism of the LGBT community, in early December, the Student Government Association began working to include LGBT protection under the university’s non-discrimination policy.
“If there is one at FSU, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be one at FAMU,” said Fairell.
At the Jan. 31 safety forum, the Sunshine Manor announced the beginnings of FAMU ALLIES, designed to educate students about the LGBT community while addressing issues of homophobia in the black community and at HBCUs.
People will be trained in how to handle LGBT issues and how to communicate them to students, said Yolanda Bogan of Sunshine Manor.
The group’s inception is being postponed until Bogan speaks with faculty and staff in the different departments.
“I want to make sure that there is sufficient knowledge and awareness before we start,” said Bogan.
Last Thursday, supporters gathered to celebrate the passage of the LGBT referendum by the student body last week and to demonstrate their desire to see the policy approved by the BOT.
“Florida A&M University values inclusion and respects diversity. The students approving this referendum is a step in the right direction,” said FAMU spokesperson Sharon Saunders.
Some students offered support to those rallying near the eternal flame. Others stood at a distance, staring and taking pictures on their cell phones, quickly turning and walking away, shaking their heads and whispering when approached.
Crystal Guest, the vice president of FAMU PSU, feels a lack of support from university officials and thinks students are afraid to associate themselves with her organization.
“We have not felt the most positive vibes when it comes to our events,” said Guest, a senior social work student from Washington, D.C. Guest said they have repeatedly been prevented from hosting PRIDE days on The Set.
LGBT students want to feel comfortable in their surroundings, she said.
“We want to go to class and feel safe. We want to know that we are protected,” Guest added.
Activists urge the university to begin a dialogue with its LGBT community about these issues to normalize them.
Smith said the university is failing to meet the most basic standard of campus life: creating a safe environment for all students to learn.
Lindsay Fields, co-treasurer for FAMU Pride Student Union and a second-year chemistry/pre-med student from Jacksonville, said members just want to feel safe.
“If you don’t feel safe then that’s what you have to stand for. Other than that, fight like hell for what you believe in ‘cause that’s what I’m here to do,” Fields said.