This Historically Black College Just Made a Big Move for LGBT Students

July 21st 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

A historically black women's college is making a big move for LGBT students.

With money donated by an alumna, Spelman college created a scholarship program for LGBT students named after Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a historic black surgeon and civil rights activist.


"The College is grateful for this generous gift from the Levi Watkins Jr./Beverly Guy-Sheftall Charitable Trust," Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said. "As an institution that upholds a supportive student experience, this gift will present new opportunities for critical conversation on race and sexuality with distinguished scholars and thought leaders, and provide a platform to recognize campus LGBTQ advocates and their scholarly achievements."

The late Watkins was the cousin of Spelman College alumna and professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D, who was the founding director of the Women's Research and Resource Center. The Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program will give out two renewable $25,000 scholarships to self-identified LGBT sophomores every year.

The two scholarship winners will be tasked with raising awareness about LGBT activists and scholars, particularly ones affiliated with historically black colleges or universities. The accompanying lecture series will bring organizers, activists, and scholars to campus.

LGBT students face unique obstacles.

Getting to college in the first place can be difficult for LGBT students. According to a December 2016 Human Rights Watch report, eight states restrict teachers and staff from discussing LGBT issues in school, and many others fail to implement practices that would validate LGBT students. As a result, "LGBT students nationwide continue to face bullying, exclusion, and discrimination in school, putting them at physical and psychological risk and limiting their education."

“Too many US schools are hostile environments for LGBT kids, and not only because they can’t use the appropriate bathrooms or locker room,” Ryan Thoreson, a fellow in the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch said in a press release in December of 2016. “In every state we visited, we heard stories of students who were insulted, cyber-bullied or attacked, and teachers who allowed discrimination and harassment because they see it as normal behavior.”

According to Higher Education Today, a blog by the American Council on Education, students report that colleges provide a better campus climate for LGBT students, but that progress is not consistent.

They list the following key recommendations for colleges to support their LGBT students:

  • College should be an opportunity for LGBT students to explore their "sexuality and gender in privacy and safety" and learn about LGBT history.
  • Colleges should make policies that protect LGBT students that go beyond state and national protections, which are sometimes non-existent.
  • Colleges should keep consistent and comprehensive statistics on LGBT students.

The challenges facing black LGBT women are even greater.


Spelman's scholarship addresses a population that faces workplace discrimination in multiple ways. Research shows that LGBT people, minorities, and women are paid less than straight white men. Black and Latina women make average hourly earnings of $12 and $13 respectively while white women make $17, according to 2015 the Pew Research Center data. White men make $21 an hour.

A 2015 analysis by the Williams Institute, a think tank dedicated to research on sexual orientation at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that LGBT people are more likely to be poor than heterosexual people with the same characteristics. The institute researchers wrote that eliminating the gender and racial wage gaps would also help eliminate the wage gap for sexual orientation, too.

"Taken as a whole, these findings show that gender, racial and ethnic inequality in wages is an important reason that some groups have higher-than-average poverty rates," the researchers wrote. "Our final section shows that reducing wage gaps by equalizing the financial rewards for important characteristics like education and experience for individuals in disadvantaged groups would significantly reduce poverty and could completely eliminate the gaps between same-sex couples and different-sex couples."

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