people experiencing inclusion should decide: is it good or bad?

April 23, 2019

There’s a specific expertise that is borne from experience. No amount of research can replace the knowingness of experience. The statistics, the data — these can give you an expert secondhand look into someone else’s experience, potentially assist you in feeling closer or even better informed about a subject. But these can never touch being there, or compete with knowing how something makes you feel.

I never went to an HBCU. I grew up in Atlanta, so the culture of  the HBCU — Clark Atlanta, Spelman, Morehouse — was always threaded into my life. But I never experienced a historically Black college as a student, so I can’t speak towards specificity like staff, daily interactions, and money. However, once the news about Morehouse permitting trans men to enroll, my curiosity outpaced my expertise.

The choice seemed strange because of what I always felt about Morehouse by observing it from the outside: this is a place that will not prioritize queer and trans lives in real time unless pushed, or unless an that individual accomplishes something befitting the Black exceptional narrative that’s always been the Morehouse backbone. Or my imagining of it. Even as someone experiencing Morehouse from the periphery, it made logical sense that the institution would create such an amendment in this current cultural moment.

Historically, institutional and political shifts move slower than people or cultures, which are always changing. Establishment change is slow. The electoral process and government systems can’t change their minds as quickly as individuals because they’re built as slow reactions to the shifts in the world, not as mechanisms that actually shift the world in real time. In most liberal, cultural discourse, it is a well-known public faux pas to outwardly express homophobia and transphobia in visceral ways. Because of the discourse around gender and trans identity, institutions that look to reflect contemporary (and sometimes even futurist) values, will create environments and policies that match the cultural status quo without the meat of change to ensure safety for trans men.

It is sad to reckon with, but often the shifts we see in institutions have to do more with the need to not be seen as obsolete, which is understandable, but not at the expense of a more thorough transformation process.

This too, is where the expertise of experience should be employed. It brings me pause that someone like myself, who only knows HBCUs from the periphery, should be able to declare if something is good, safe, or productive. The same should go for the cis interaction with taking surveys about this new inclusion of trans folks., and if it expands their safety — not limits it.

In the wake of the tragic suicides of Black LGBTQIA+ members, institutions must do more than simply include identity experiences into their infrastructures, they must refer to the experiences of people living them, as much as possible. We can’t continue to include and congratulate ourselves without doing the rigorous work of maintaining an environment where the person experiencing the inclusion decides if they are included, not the ones aiming to maintain relevant in a constantly changing cultural conversation. Simply, trans men at Morehouse should decide the quality of the experience, not just the people witnessing it from the outside who find delight in the idea of being perceived as good.