A culture shift is underway at Morehouse College.
The 156-year-old men’s college — among the nation’s most-selective historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — was built upon the image of a serious, contemporary Black man fit within a uniquely American mold. But now, students, faculty members, and administrators are reconsidering what it means to be a Morehouse man.
“We don’t want to put masculinity in a box,” said freshman LaQuinton Gaines. “We’re confronting the norms. The Morehouse man in 2023 is gay, straight, nonbinary, and maybe transitioning.”
That view is a notable shift, current students and alumni said. And, it’s an important step in making the campus — which began admitting trans men in 2020 — more accepting.
Now, Morehouse students can participate in the annual Festival of Eccentrics, a Queer-centric dance show hosted by Atlanta’s HBCUs. Speakers that challenge gender norms are becoming more frequent at Morehouse. There’s an LGBTQ+ group on campus. And, last year, the college started a research institute that’s taking an “expansive focus on diverse Black masculinities.”
Johntavis Williams, who graduated in 2017, said it’s important that Morehouse is changing with the times. There have always been queer students on campus — but now they “have more freedom and ability to do and be who they are.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the ballroom scene or subscribe to LGBTQ+ or not, you represent the Morehouse brand which is excellence and greatness,” Williams said. “It’s not about what you look like or subscribe to, it’s about what’s underneath your skin and blood.”
It hasn’t always been this way. In 2002 a Morehouse junior was beaten with a baseball bat by another Morehouse student, in what was seen as an anti-gay attack. Morehouse’s dress code previously banned students from wearing women’s clothing. A student who dropped out of the college as a result of the policy told VIBE magazine at the time, “Morehouse wasn’t ready for me.”
Each year on Founder’s Day, students wear suits on campus. And freshmen must wear white shirts, black slacks, and neck ties during New Student Orientation traditions.
One source of new thinking on campus is the Black Men’s Research Institute, which opened in January 2022. Walter Kimbrough, a former president of Philander Smith College and Dillard University, is its interim executive director.
George M. Johnson — a nonbinary writer and graduate of Virginia Union University and Bowie State University — was the first speaker at the institute this year. Johnson visited in January to discuss their latest book All Boys Aren’t Blue, an exploration of their upbringing as a Black queer man in America.
Kimbrough says the institute will continue hosting events like this. “The idea is, how does Morehouse begin to have broader and deeper conversations about what it means to be a man and what masculinity looks like in 2023?” he said in an interview.
Last month, for example, rapper G Herbo spoke at the institute about the stigmas surrounding therapy and mental health for Black men.
Kimbrough says that if Morehouse wants to transform its identity and become more inclusive, it must give the students resources to explore their sexualities and question who they are as people.
Gaines, the freshman, is an ambassador for the institute. He says its work challenges stagnant gender politics at Morehouse and beyond.
“We come in trying to maneuver in these spaces because these subjects can be controversial, but we need to reach them. We are putting ourselves ahead of the game by stepping outside of traditions. You can’t feel at home if you don’t have structure or don’t feel comfortable,” he said.
And, a recently formed on-campus organization is focused on helping the Morehouse community transform its perceptions of what it means to be a Black man.
Da’Marion Miller is a Morehouse senior and the president of Adodi. Adodi, once known as Safe Space, is the college’s LGBTQ+ organization. It offers safe-sex resources, teaches queer history, and offers a place to “kick back and relax,” Miller said.
“Adodi is the stopping point for a lot of people coming into college looking to get that exposure to the gay community that they might not have elsewhere,” he said.
The group encourages students to reconsider what they think of when they picture the Man of Morehouse.
“Morehouse has the ‘Five Wells’ of being well-dressed, well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, and well-rounded. Oftentimes, that archetype only applies to people who have conservative views on sexuality,” Miller said.
In order to continue leading the standard of excellence in Black men, students said Morehouse’s culture and student body must reflect the diversity of all Black men.
“Morehouse should be the default place. When people want to have conversations, [when] policymakers and journalists want to understand the Black male experience — it seems like they should start here,” Kimbrough said.
This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at atlanta.capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalB_ATL.