To be Young, Gifted and Gay at a Black College

News & Notes' ongoing "Sex and Sexuality" series looks at what life is like for black gays and lesbians at historically black colleges and universities. Talking about their experiences are senior JaNiece Ford, a founding member of Florida A&M's gay and lesbian group Operating in Unity and Truth; Ronnell Perry, a senior at Dillard University in New Orleans; and Tim Daniels, a former HBCU student and head of the gay and lesbian advocacy group Standing In Truth.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Our Sex and Sexuality series continues today with another hot topic: life on historically black campuses.

Later in the show, we're going to talk to Kevin Cox. He is straight, a single guy attending an all-male HBCU - Dr. King's alma mater, Morehouse in Atlanta.

But first, we've got to look at gay life at historically black colleges and universities. So, many black gays and lesbians choose HBCUs for the same reason that lots of straight black students do: for a sense of security and racial belonging that they don't always get on other campuses. But once they enroll, many gay students say they can still find themselves alienated because of their sexuality.

Recently, black gays and lesbians have been organizing at their HBCUs to help give their communities a supportive voice on campus. JaNiece Ford is going to be a senior this fall at FAMU, Florida A&M University. She's a founding member of her campus' gay and lesbian group, Operating in Unity and Truth, or OUT. Ronnell Perry will be a senior at Dillard University in New Orleans. He's a member of the gay and lesbian group One People. Next year, Ronnell will also be president of Dillard's entire student body. And Tim Daniels heads the gay and lesbian advocacy group Standing-N-Truth. Tim attended Jackson State University in the mid-'80s. We've had him on before. Welcome to you all.

Mr. RONNELL PERRY (Student, Dillard University): Hello.

Ms. JANIECE FORD (Founding Member, Operating in Unity and Truth, Florida A&M University): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So I'm really excited to talk about this. JaNiece and Ronnell, let me start with you. Why did you each choose to go to an HBCU? JaNiece?

Ms. FORD: I think, for me, it was not only a choice of the scholarship. I picked the money. But it was a great opportunity for me to connect with people who I already feel comfortable with. I went to a predominantly black high school, so this was not a difficult transition. I was already moving 14 hours from home so why should I move away from the comfort of being people who are just like me. So I think it was a comfort thing, and it was also going where the money was, definitely.

CHIDEYA: Ronnell?

Mr. PERRY: Actually, the same thing for myself. Initially, when I was at high school, I went to a primarily white high school and I didn't really want to go to an HBCU. But in my senior year I went to Dillard and I was just amazed and I fell in love with it. So I decided I want to go to an HBCU, and I'm definitely happy with that choice.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you just briefly before we move on. Were you each out before you came to college, or did you come out as a process of growing in college?

Ms. FORD: I was out when I went to college. And during my high school years I actually came out to my family as well as my friends. So, going to college I was already out of the closet and ready to explore a new part of my life.

CHIDEYA: Ronnell?

Mr. PERRY: I was not actually out to my family. I just came out to my parents probably last year and the beginning of this year right now. When I went to college, it was, kind of like I don't know if I want to come out now or do I want to see what college is about. So it's kind of like I got to form a new identity from when I was in high school. So I came out and it was a good choice. I definitely was not prepared for everything, you know. It's just a new experience.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by not prepared for everything?

Mr. PERRY: I just didn't know what would happen, how people would see me. And it's kind of like an experiment thing. You just let a few people know or you don't really say anything and people just guess. And that's a part of the coming out thing. But then, really, putting myself on the map as a student organization leader, you know, sometimes that comes up and I have to just claim it and say, yes, I'm gay.

CHIDEYA: And you will be the boss on campus next year, president of the entire student body. That is - congratulations, first of all.

Mr. PERRY: Thank you very much. I'm excited about it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let me turn to you, Tim. Thanks for coming back on the show. We had you on earlier in the series. And what do you think about the fact that someone like Ronnell can be head of the entire student body as an out, young, black man, you know? And is that something that would happen during your era?

Mr. TIM DANIELS (President, Standing-N-Truth; Former HBCU Student): I would say no, it definitely wouldn't have happened in my era. And I think that it is absolutely courageous. It seems like the younger folks right now are a lot more bolder than actually we were when we were in school, especially going to a black university. Of course you knew who was gay on campus and it was whispered, you know, in the background, but nobody ever said, you know, this is who I am. Nobody ever stood in their truth. So I applaud them. I applaud them.

CHIDEYA: And I…

Ms. FORD: Thanks, Tim.

CHIDEYA: I did not go and, yes, absolutely take your praise, I did not go to an HBCU and I was part of the - I'll just be real here - I was part of one of those situations where there were basically twice as many black women on campus as black men. And that's something that's very familiar for a lot of people, you know, who are dating and who are on majority white campuses. The issues may not be quite the same for people who are gay and lesbian, but do you think that there is something that is at least where you feel like you have a chance to date someone who is not only just your race, but who may have other similarities with you. Did that figure into how you think about things, JaNiece?

Ms. FORD: Dating someone who is like me, you're saying does that figure in?

CHIDEYA: Well, when you go to an HBCU, I'm assuming that there are other women, in your case…

Ms. FORD: Right.

CHIDEYA: …who would come from, you know, similar backgrounds about issues like social justice, opinions about how you socialize, all the things that make up the groundwork for dating before…

Ms. FORD: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: …you go into a relationship. I mean, do you feel like there are a lot of - is there a pool of people who you can date? That's what I'm trying to say in my own weird way.

Ms. FORD: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. There's plenty of people. I think that it's just like any other situation, you have to find who works for you. And there's not going to be 10,000 people that work for you. There may only be one or two, but I think that's anywhere you go (unintelligible) any type of social situation. Whether you're at school, at work, anywhere you are, there's not going to be, you know, 30 people that fits your ideal person or 30 people who you click with or 30 people who are the type of person that you want to deal with. You have to find that one or those two that are kind of in your realm or in your area or in your thought process. And I think that's with anything. So definitely yes.

When I went to school initially, no, I didn't see everybody. I'm like, wow, look at all these people. But as you start to get into social networks and as you start to network with other people and talk to people around you, you start to see, hey, there are some people who are like me, who think like me - gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, whatever they were. And once I started to find those people, yes, I found that there were a lot of people that were out there for me personally, yes.

CHIDEYA: Ronnell, what about the dating pool at Dillard for someone like you?

Mr. PERRY: I don't really feel that there's a big dating pool. There's definitely a big associate pool that I can pull from as far as friends who are gay. But a lot of the people who on my campus, they identify with gay but they are not open. And then, of course, there are the people who might be gay but they're definitely not open at all to any aspect. So I don't really feel that there are too many people who would be as open as I am, like I've - both in the past few years I brought a male escort to the coronation of the Ms. Dillard University. So if I was dating someone, I would expect him to be as open as I am. And I really don't think that there's too many people who have that drive and that - I don't know - I guess the courage to just put it on the map and show people that it's normal, you know.

Ms. FORD: I think sometimes it's different with males and females also. Females tend to be a little more out, especially on our campus, than males. So that can also be a factor that plays in.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I just want to introduce all of you guys again. In case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya. We're continuing our Sex and Sexuality series with a look at historically black colleges and universities. This is the first part of a couple of different segments. And we are talking with folks about the gay and lesbian experience at HBCUs. We're talking with JaNiece Ford, soon to be a senior at Florida A&M University. Ronnell Perry, senior at Dillard University in New Orleans, member of the gay and lesbian group One People. And Tim Daniels. Standing-N-Truth is his organization. He attended Jackson State University in the mid-'80s.

I want to continue with you, Ronnell, and then bring you in, Tim. One thing that I have noticed that we talked about earlier in the series is how people use language, like MSM, men having sex with men or men who - anyway, it's an alternate word for being gay or having gay sexual behavior that does not use gay, which some people don't like. What it sounds like you're saying to me Ronnell in a way - and please correct me if I'm wrong - is that there are some people who may consider themselves MSM but who would not consider themselves gay. Is that at all accurate?

Mr. PERRY: Possibly, but I don't even know if those people are even thinking about those terms. They're just thinking about how other people accept them if they knew that they even had an attraction to another male. As far as personally, I don't really get off into the term thing. I just kind of go with the flow. If someone used MSM, I go with that. If they used same-gender-loving, I'll go with that. If they use gay, I'll go with that. But one thing is I don't like when other homosexuals call each other fag or any other derogatory terms in that sense. But I identify with all of it. I mean, it's very arbitrary to me.

CHIDEYA: Tim, is there anything to - and I'm speaking on one hand about language, but on the other hand about behavior. I have a friend who's a gay black man who says that it's really behavior that dictates what your sexuality is, not identity. Other people might disagree. But what he says is if you're having sex with men, you are gay or bisexual and that's it. But there are a lot of people who might disagree with that. How did that play out during your time in school? And what's your opinion now as a man who continues to work in the community of gays and lesbians and HIV and AIDS awareness?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, I think that they were not monolithic. And there's so many shades of who we are as a gay, especially African-American men. There are men who will not identify whatsoever with MSM or any term whatsoever, but they still have sex with men. And some of them are married, as we know. So the terms really don't really mean anything but - no one wants to be labeled gay, especially if you are a black male who's gay, especially if you are a black male who is very masculine and gay, because this whole image thing also is really, really messed up.

But when I was going to school - actually, there were a group of us, all of us who were gay, we just happened to find each other like magnets. There were some that were really more flamboyant than others. And then when we go out on campus when we actually saw each other, the real flamboyant ones, we were, you know, they really didn't care about anybody knowing who they were. We would just say, hey, what's up? How are you doing? We'd acknowledge them on campus. But when we got behind closed doors, we clowned and we act - we just let it all hang out, basically. We were free as a bird.

CHIDEYA: Let me just jump in here for a second. It sounds like what you're saying is there's a term - code shifting and shifting - is that you shifted your behavior. You felt, as many African-Americans do in other contexts, you had to act one way in public and you could act another way in private.

Mr. DANIELS: Exactly. And that happens all the time. And I think one, for me, I feel that one thing that I really love about myself as a black, gay man is that I'm really consistent with who I am when I shift in between, like, subcultures. When I'm with my heterosexual friends, I'm the same. When I'm with my gay friends, I'm the same. When I move throughout the community, I'm actually the same. And I was like, wow, I don't really realize how important that is because I'm still making a statement about who I am.

CHIDEYA: JaNiece, let me go back to you. You said something that I didn't completely follow up on, which was that it's easier or more prevalent for women to be out on campus than men. Take me inside that a little bit.

Ms. FORD: Absolutely. On our campus when we started our group, we had to go out and basically search out 30 people to charter our group on campus. And I will absolutely tell you I went to clubs, I went on campus and stood in front of the library, anything I could do to find these 30 people who were willing to put to their name on this charter, and we ended up with about 28 females and two males.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Ms. FORD: The fact that they didn't want to put their name to it. It was okay to come to meetings and it's okay to club and it was okay if it - everything that happened in the dark and everything that happen at night or things that happen - we could talk on campus as long as no one else knew. But if their name was just on this charter, if their name was just on this piece of paper along with their student ID number, it just attached them to the word gay and it attached them to homosexuality. It attached them to LGBT, and they wanted no parts of it.

And from what I've been able to gather from the males that I know - and anyone please correct me if I'm wrong - is that it's difficult because in the African-American community, males are taught to be strong and the heads of households and they have this place society. And if you attach gay to that, it somehow takes away some part of masculinity from it. And it puts this type of stigma around you, just this one word.

And with females, it's not that same type of stigma attached. We're just taught to, you know, be part of a family, not necessarily lead that family. So with females they were a lot more open, a lot more excited about the group, while the males just didn't want any parts of it in writing. They didn't mind coming to the meetings or coming to the parties that we had or coming to any of the functions that we had, but they didn't want anyone to be able to attach them to the group in writing or attach them to the group by word of mouth at all.

CHIDEYA: Ronnell, does this sounds like it would happen on your campus as well?

Mr. PERRY: It does sound like it would happen. And I definitely understand what you're saying that people don't want to be attached to the word gay. And I find that even the people who you would suppose are out, they seem like they lack the energy and the tenacity to come out to a lot of the events. I don't know what…

Ms. FORD: Absolutely.

Mr. PERRY: …that's about either. It's just kind of curious to me.

CHIDEYA: Let me - before we go - and Tim, I especially want you to jump in on this, but I want to start out with Ronnell. JaNiece mentioned what happens in the dark. And I have to bring up HIV/AIDS and safety, sexual safety. Ronnell, from what you know, you know, either in discussions or whatever, are people being safe when they have sex?

Mr. PERRY: People are being safe sometimes. I mean, there's a few people who get pregnant during the school year. I know there are some people with STDs during the school year. So it's not necessarily them not having the knowledge of what's going on, it's just them not practicing it. And I think that there needs to be a bigger discussion spanning all sexualities and all sexual preferences about, you know, being safe, because it's known but it's not really practiced. And there needs to be some kind of way we can bridge the gap between the knowledge and the practicing of that knowledge.

CHIDEYA: Tim, do you work at all with college students and/or HBCU students in particular?

Mr. DANIELS: Yes. Definitely college students. And we actually, you know, go out to speak to college students and telling my own story, being HIV-positive. And it was right after I left Jackson State is when I found out that I was HIV-positive. So it is - I think that for black men - a lot of black men aren't empowered to really be who they are, and they are not supported to really be who they are, especially as black, gay men.

We're not supported by the community and so then, of course, we're going to try to hide everything we do, because we don't want people to know that we're gay and that we're actually, you know, have the capacity to love another man in a different way. So we're going to do unsafe things, especially for - if we look at the numbers of HIV and we look at where they are in the South, where some of- the black colleges are, then you'll know that folks are having unprotected sex a lot.

CHIDEYA: JaNiece…

Mr. DANIELS: You'll be shocked.

CHIDEYA: …very briefly - we're just about out of time. Issues are different for women having sex with women, but are people trying to be in good health?

Ms. FORD: They're not trying to be safe. I'll be completely honest. They are safe about who they are having sex with, but not when they're having sex with that person. And I think that's something we really need to talk about. Dental dams, anything that you need to use to be safe, definitely use it. Gay, straight, whatever your sexual preference is. I know we're not being safe as lesbians, definitely not, because people think that lesbians can't contract STDs. We can get HIV. And I want to be one to say that you can and it does happen.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Ms. FORD: But definitely we need to be safe.

CHIDEYA: We have to let you go. JaNiece, Ronnell and Tim, thank you so much.

Mr. PERRY: Thank you.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you, Farai.

Ms. FORD: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: JaNiece Ford is going to be a senior at Florida A&M University. She's with Operating in Unity and Truth, or OUT. Ronnell Perry, senior at Dillard University and member of the gay and lesbian group One People, and president of Dillard student body. And Tim Daniels, head of the gay and lesbian advocacy group Standing-N-Truth.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES: A little straight talk from the all-male campus of Morehouse in Atlanta, and our staff song of pick of the week.

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