Black college faces its own bias
Michael Brewer, a senior at Morehouse College, was strolling purposefully around this storied campus on a hot spring day, his heavy frame dripping sweat, his hands clutching a small stack of fliers.
“No more hate,” the fliers read, in a stylish typeface. “No more discrimination. No more.”
“What’s up, brother?” Brewer said in a lilting, cheerful voice as he approached a fellow student in a dark business suit. “Take one of these, if you will.”
The young man gave the flier a glance. It was promoting what was perhaps the most ambitious week of gay rights events in the history of Morehouse, the only historically black all-male school in America.
“What the hell is this?” he said under his breath. He laughed and threw it in the trash.
But Brewer had already moved, unfazed, into the lobby of Wheeler Hall, where he was taping up posters. The events had been his idea, and he knew they wouldn’t go over well with everyone.
“Morehouse is like this enclave where Stonewall never happened,” Brewer said, referring to the 1969 New York protest that galvanized the gay rights movement. “It just doesn’t exist in this realm of reality.”
Brewer, 22, didn’t come to Morehouse with the intent of changing it. But he found that he had no choice. He had arrived here from Oklahoma City pretty comfortable with himself: outspoken, proudly smart and, at 5 foot 9 and 300 pounds, hard to miss.
Early on, he decided he wouldn’t water down his gay identity.
And that, historically, has been a problematic strategy at Morehouse. The 141-year-old college has played a key role in defining black manhood in America. But with a past steeped in religion, tradition and machismo, it has struggled to determine how homosexuality fits within that definition.
The private school was founded shortly after the Civil War with the help of Baptists sympathetic to the plight of illiterate freedmen. Over the years, it became famous for turning out the vaunted “Morehouse man” -- a paragon of virtue and strength in a society that once institutionalized the destruction of the black nuclear family.
Traditionally, its students have been expected to follow a well-worn path: They were to choose ambitious wives, preferably from Spelman College next door, a historically black school for women. They were to become captains of industry, leaders of men, saviors of a race.
But now, more than ever, students like Brewer are forcing the school to confront a vexing question: Can the Morehouse man be gay?
On a Thursday in late April, Brewer set up a folding table full of sign-up sheets in the Yard, the paved central square in the heart of Morehouse’s compact, red-brick campus.
Down the street, the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel -- named for the school’s most famous graduate -- was disgorging scores of students in suits who had been at a ceremony for top-performing seniors.
It was the kind of scene that has made generations of visiting black parents swoon with pride and possibility: a campus full of young, clean-cut black men, armed with book bags, talking about job prospects and big ideas.
Brewer was selling the idea of a day of silence for the victims of homophobia and asking his fellow students to sign up. He was wearing a T-shirt in the school’s maroon and white colors. “Look, I’m sorry you’re not a Morehouse man,” it read. “I’m sorry you will never be a Morehouse man.”
“Come on, Anderson brothers,” he yelled to a couple of guys. “You’re suited and booted. Look at you -- you’re role models. Come sign up!”
After four years on the 3,000-student campus, Brewer seemed to know everyone who passed by -- the straight allies and the straights with hang-ups, the openly gay upperclassmen and the men on the down low, that is, straight to the world but open to gay affairs.
A trim ROTC member in a khaki uniform walked briskly by. “Renaldo, I’m looking for you to sign up, bruh!”
Some kept walking, but others stopped to catch up with their old friend.
One young man Brewer cajoled into signing worried that it would be hard to maintain silence for an entire day.
“That’s OK,” Brewer said, in self-deprecating mode now, giving his hands an exaggerated effeminate flourish. “You can just talk with your hands.”
In Oklahoma City, Brewer attended an arts-intensive magnet high school, where his best friends were white girls and being gay wasn’t that big of a deal. His senior year, a recruiter persuaded him to apply to Morehouse.
Despite its mystique -- as the school that had produced King, filmmaker Spike Lee and NAACP leader Julian Bond -- Brewer hadn’t given Morehouse much thought. But the college offered him a full scholarship, and he grew intrigued by the idea of joining a brotherhood.
“I thought it was time that I started to kind of commune with my kinfolk, with guys who look like me,” he said. “And the very second I saw Morehouse and stepped on campus, it was this sense of belonging. . . . I felt that I was home.”
It was also difficult to ignore the fact that he had stepped into a place that had not come to terms with the presence of gay men on campus. There were the casually cruel statements from some of the straight guys and the tortuous code of silence from the guys on the down low. There were ministers-in-training who tried to convert Brewer’s gay friends with prayer. There were gay seniors who advised him to tone it down.
Brewer soon realized that the campus was in a profound state of soul-searching and flux on the issue of homosexuality. For decades, he learned, Morehouse had lived with a schizophrenic reputation. The school, unfairly or not, was known for harboring a large number of gay men. “Morehouse takes your money and makes you funny,” an old saying went.
Yet throughout the 1990s the Princeton Review regularly listed Morehouse among its top 20 homophobic campuses, based on student surveys. Aaron Parker, a veteran Morehouse religion professor, thinks some of that had to do with straight students being sensitive to the slights about Morehouse being a “gay” school.
But the issue may have been exacerbated by the school’s special mission. “Black colleges functioned for years and years to discredit the claims that black people were somehow inferior,” said Horace Griffin, a Morehouse graduate and theology professor who has written about gay history.
Back when homosexuality was considered a perversion, he said, black colleges strove to deny that it was present on their campuses.
For generations, the unspoken rule for gay Morehouse men was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In some cases, defiance of that rule meant trouble. University of Texas professor Jafari Sinclaire Allen was a gay student at Morehouse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Socially ostracized after coming out -- and later forming a gay student group that eventually dissolved -- he recalled fleeing the campus one evening after a forum on homophobia turned ugly. He and his friends feared he might be beaten. Allen didn’t return to campus for 17 years.
An uglier incident occurred in 2002, two years before Brewer arrived. A sophomore named Aaron Price beat a student with a baseball bat because he thought the man was making a sexual advance.
Price was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Administrators fretted over the bad publicity, and influential alumni weighed in on the best course of action for the school. Kevin Rome, the vice president of student services, joined the staff three years ago and heard some alumni suggest screening out gay applicants.
Instead, the school held diversity seminars -- an odd concept, perhaps, at a school that has only a few students who aren’t black. But some faculty and staff members said the efforts encouraged students to take a more civil tone when discussing gay rights.
Meanwhile, another dynamic was also altering the climate: Students of Brewer’s generation were showing up at Morehouse more comfortable with being openly gay. Parker, the religion professor, has been discussing gay rights issues in his classes for years, but it was only four years ago, he said, that a student spoke up and identified himself as gay. Now, he said, it is a regular occurrence.
The result has been a small groundswell of activity. After the beating, gay students formed a support group, Safe Space, which Brewer joined. The president of Brewer’s freshman class, Jameel Smith, caused a stir when he came out soon after his election. Last year, students at Spelman produced a documentary that took a frank look at the gay and lesbian experiences on the two campuses. And a Morehouse political science major recently chose to do his senior thesis on “queer studies” -- hardly a radical move at most campuses but a bit of a shock at Morehouse.
“The other professors in the department about had a stroke,” assistant professor Sharon Vaughan said. “Some of them are older. A lot of this is generational.”
Isaiah Wilson, 21, a gay senior, said that someone slipped a death threat under his door during his freshman year. But he believes the school has benefited because he and others refused to conceal their sexual orientation.
“You’re going to have the idea of the Morehouse man evolve over the years,” he said.
Brewer agrees. He thinks he opened the mind of his freshman roommate, who came from a conservative, churchgoing family. An aspiring organizer, Brewer earned a reputation as a star in the political science department and found that straight guys who once shunned him began turning to him for homework help.
“They see I’ve got the game sewed up,” he said. “The tide is definitely changing.”
But it has only changed so much. Brewer will graduate at the end of the summer with a few regrets. Twice he tried to join a fraternity; twice he was rejected.
Each time, he said, the explanation came “through the grapevine: ‘Oh, man, you had it except. . . .’ ”
He worries about the health of the college’s fledgling gay rights movement. The Safe Space group this year only had about five active members. Brewer decided that the week of gay rights events would be his legacy to the school he loves. The centerpiece was a panel discussion on homophobia, with Brewer as moderator.
The debate was brief, earnest and freewheeling, similar to conversations other campuses have been hosting for years. Here, the topic felt fresh, and a little raw.
A student named Mahdi Massey, from Queens, N.Y., said he was raised among West Indian people who thought homosexuality violated “the natural order of things.”
Vinson Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member in a purple robe, noted prohibitions on homosexuality in the Koran and Bible. “I don’t have a problem with you as a person,” he said to Brewer, “but with your choice.”
Junior Devrin Lindsay worried that overly effeminate men were harmful to Morehouse’s image in the same way men dressed in thug-wear were harmful.
What would parents think when they brought their sons to see Morehouse, he asked. Wouldn’t it harm the school if they saw a Morehouse man who “swishes down the campus like he’s on a runway?”
When the room cleared, Brewer was asked what he thought about Lindsay’s argument. He dismissed it with a cheerful barnyard obscenity -- and with the confidence Morehouse prides itself on instilling in a man.