Morgan State student takes a stand for gay rights at historically black university

December 25, 2013

Brian Stewart’s rejection letter from a fraternity at Morgan State University in Baltimore stated that members had reviewed and vetted his application and that, unfortunately, not enough brothers wanted him to join.

He was disappointed, as are many of the thousands of students across the country who rush Greek houses each year and aren’t accepted. But Stewart is convinced that he was rejected by Kappa Alpha Psi because he is gay.

“I was denied unjustly,” said Stewart, 21, a senior business administration major from Annapolis. “I believe that, and I know that to be true.”

Openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long felt excluded from fraternities and sororities. But that’s difficult to prove when a secretive recruitment process is overseen by student leaders who are allowed to pick new members based on personality, likability or pretty much any other characteristic.

Stewart felt he had evidence: a copy of a text-message discussion among a handful of fraternity leaders, talk filled with gay and racial slurs. The self-designated “guardians” clearly did not want Stewart to join, but they agreed to give him “the perception of a ‘fair & equal opportunity,’ ” according to a text transcript.

In late October, Stewart filed a formal complaint with the fraternity and the university. Morgan State officials launched an investigation and, early this month, announced that the Alpha Iota chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi had “violated certain university regulations, procedures and policies.” The chapter was placed on probation until fall 2015, barred from participating in university events or hosting its own.

Kappa Alpha Psi leaders at Morgan State, and at the fraternity’s national headquarters, did not challenge the authenticity of the text-message exchange when it first became public, and they did not return requests for comment on the university’s probation decision.

Although it is unclear exactly what happened with Stewart’s application, the incident exposes a growing tension at many HBCUs between the conservative, religious values at their core and LGBT students who demand fair treatment. That tension comes as many of these schools struggle to attract and graduate enough students and stay financially afloat.

In light of the victories achieved by the movement in recent years, gay rights activists argue that now is the time for HBCUs to embrace and support their LGBT students. Not doing so, they say, could be a strategic mistake.

“There have been black LGBT people as long as there have been black people,” said Samantha Master, a junior public relations major from Capitol Heights, Md., who is actively involved in the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT rights group based in the District. “For a long time, HBCUs have not acknowledged that. . . . HBCUs have to get on board with affirming their LGBT students.”

Of the more than 100 HBCUs across the United States, fewer than a quarter formally recognize LBGT student clubs, according to Campus Pride, a nonprofit group that assesses gay-friendliness. Course listings at many HBCUs are devoid of LGBT-related classes, according to researchers, and students who face discrimination often don’t feel comfortable reporting it.

There has been progress: Morehouse College in Atlanta offered an LGBT culture and politics class this year. Researchers at Spelman College, also in Atlanta, led a study of LGBT issues in black communities. Several schools have established LGBT advisory committees, and a handful have opened support centers for gay students.

Morgan State — founded as a Bible college in 1867 but now a public university — has been, in some ways, ahead of other HBCUs on the issue. Morgan has had a student support group called Rainbow Soul for more than 12 years. In 2011, faculty members began to host academic symposiums to discuss issues of race, gender and sexual identity. This year, Morgan State’s president, David J. Wilson, formed an LGBT advisory committee to suggest improvements.

“There are the underpinnings of progress,” said Claudia Leight, who is the Rainbow Soul adviser and also counsels LGBT students. But she said that Stewart’s “upsetting” and “very disturbing” experience shows that there is much work left to do.

“We’re moving ahead slowly,” Leight said, “and this might be just the jolt we need.”

‘Used to being tough’

Stewart calls himself a former “crack baby,” born in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 1990s and raised in the homes of relatives and strangers in the Annapolis area. Teachers labeled him an “at-risk kid.” Classmates bullied him.

“I grew up, I guess, in harsh times,” Stewart said in a recent interview, wearing a dark suit with an American flag pin on the lapel. “I’m used to being the black sheep. I’m used to being tough.”

In middle school, Stewart was awed by the pastor at his church, his first positive male role model.

“He’ll say to me: ‘You need to graduate. You need to graduate. You need to graduate,’ ” Stewart said. “Then he will ask me, ‘How many men in your family have graduated?’ He knows the answer is none.”

Stewart is now an honors student, and he has represented Morgan State in a commercial and traveled with its president. This past summer, he interned in Michelle Obama’s office. He dreams of living abroad and earning a graduate degree, and he hopes to serve one day as secretary of state. Until this fall, he also dreamed of joining Kappa Alpha Psi.

Stewart’s pastor is a Kappa, and Stewart was drawn to the fraternity’s community service, gentlemanly reputation and professional connections. Plus, he received a scholarship from one of its alumni groups.

The fraternity was formed in 1911 at Indiana University and is one of the “Divine Nine” historically black fraternities and sororities.

The Morgan chapter’s membership includes several student leaders, including a former Mr. Morgan State University, an honor conferred by election each Homecoming.

Masculinity is at the heart of the fraternity’s brotherhood. One of its five objectives is “to promote the spiritual, social, intellectual, and moral welfare of members,” and its hymn begins: “Oh, noble Kappa Alpha Psi, the pride of all our hearts. True manliness, fidelity, thou ever dost impart.”

Making waves on campus

Early in the application process, Stewart said, his friends in the chapter warned that leaders were determined to accept no more gay students. He didn’t believe them and focused on making his application too perfect to reject.

On Oct. 2, fraternity leaders gathered to interview Stewart. They began 34 minutes late, Stewart said, and the interview lasted 10 minutes.

“I could really get the vibe from them that this was just for them to say they did an interview,” Stewart said.

The next day, Stewart received a rejection letter that misspelled his name. Soon after, he received a copy of the text-message discussion. Stewart had hoped to be the gay guy to break the trend. Instead, he felt his suspicions confirmed.

He filed a complaint, calling the members’ actions “hurtful, wrong, illegal and far from the fraternity’s constitutional principles of achievement and leadership.” He met with a lawyer, and a friend contacted the media.

“I spiritually think there’s a purpose in what I’m doing,” Stewart said. “To me, it’s really about raising awareness: This happens, and it’s not okay.”

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October, Stewart skipped his classes to do interview after interview in front of Morgan’s iconic clock tower. At one point, Stewart and a television reporter walked toward a camera as she asked, “At any point, did you think: ‘They might not let me in because of my sexual preference?’ ”

Stewart responded, “I did, I did, but it wasn’t something that I thought could happen to me.”

Some Morgan students shouted out words of encouragement. Others questioned why Stewart was making such a big deal out of his rejection by the fraternity.

“I wouldn’t have let him in Kappa, either,” said Samantha Potts, who graduated from Morgan State in 2005 and is now working on a graduate degree. “I have no respect for that man. He gives a bad face to this campus. . . . There are resources and recourses that he could have used rather than going to the media.”

Taylor Evans, a junior communications major, countered that argument: “The only way to make change is to make noise.”

A group of students in red Kappa sweatshirts gathered at the heart of campus that day, but they declined to comment. Ernest H. Brown, interim executive director of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., said in a statement at the time that members would fully cooperate with the university investigation but that “confidentiality is a guiding principle” of member recruitment. Brown has not responded to requests for comment since.

Stewart said he no longer wants to be a Kappa.

Wilson, the university president, would not answer questions about the incident, but he praised Stewart in a statement.

“His work as an emerging scholar, student ambassador and university advocate has forged an exemplary undergraduate career, the likes of which we hope to see in all of students, regardless of major, ethnicity, sexuality or economic background,” Wilson said.

There are various levels of being “out” at Morgan State, several gay and straight students said. Although they agreed that it’s generally safe to make your sexual identity quietly known, activism is controversial, especially for men.

“It has never felt as safe for men to be out on this campus as women,” said Leight, the counselor. “It’s hard to get men to our events. When you look at the crowd, it’s usually all women.”

Stewart said that he is openly gay but that it is “not a major factor” in his life. Although his family struggled with his sexuality in the past, he said “the love has been there recently.” Stewart, tall and slender with a booming personality, said that his pastor and other mentors didn’t know that he was gay until he filed the complaint.

“I never led with that factor of my life,” he said. “Until now, it has not been a factor that caused me to say, ‘This is a hindrance?’ This is not a hindrance. This is part of who I am.”

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Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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