Warren Radebe is a talkative guy. The slim college student with baby locs sprouting from his crown calls out to several people, from the university's president to jocks and artist types, as he crosses Johnson C. Smith University's campus. "I have lots of friends," he says, stating the obvious. But it wasn't always this way.
Radebe moved to Charlotte in 2011 from a traditional South African household in Johannesburg. Most of his family didn't know he was gay. His freshman year, feelings of anger and isolation began to snowball. He finally hit a wall; during a self-described "emotional breakdown," he sought help from the school's counseling services.
Frederick Murphy, director of counseling services and co-advisor for Sexuality Advocacy For Equality (S.A.F.E.) Pride, pushed him to fully embrace himself.
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of stigma still around it, but I've always believed in diversity and inclusion. So in the office I strongly encourage students to develop a sense of who they are," Murphy says.
It was pivotal. Not only did Radebe begin coping better, he took his first step on the road to becoming an advocate for gender equality. Murphy and Dr. Rixon Campbell, co-advisors for S.A.F.E. Pride, encouraged him to join the organization.
"I told Warren, you're too nice," Murphy says. "You can't have one foot in and one foot out, especially when you're advocating these types of issues. Ever since then, he's been gung-ho."
Radebe is now vice president of S.A.F.E. Pride, and one of the key organizers behind JCSU's first-ever LGBTQ Pride Day, set for Nov. 19. The university has held smaller LGBTQ panel discussions in the past, through Campbell's office of Multicultural and International Student Affairs. But Pride Day will be something different, especially for the small, private, historically black university founded on religious principles. JCSU bucks conservative expectations. With an enrollment of just under 1,400 students, more than 200 of them have pledged to be allies — among them, says Radebe, much of the football team.
"Are we late? Yes. Many universities and colleges have done their Prides for decades now," Radebe says. "But is our university ready for this? Yes."
Though this will be JCSU's first full-on Pride celebration, for years the university has sponsored events where faculty and students could talk about and get exposure to LGBTQ issues. The S.A.F.E. Pride organization has sent representatives to conferences and camps. All this, Radebe says, was to prepare in students a mindset for gender advocacy. With Pride Day he hopes to see that worldview evolve into practical advocacy.
"We hope to accomplish several goals on campus, including gender-neutral bathrooms and full non-discrimination policies. Many on-campus organizations already have them, but we hope to see them say, 'What can we do better?' Every student must have the opportunity to experience each program on campus to the fullest," Radebe says.
The school recently took the Campus Pride Index, a survey to assess LGBT-friendly policies, programs and practices. More than 50 schools have taken the survey. JSCU is submitting the results for study in December.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national group advocating for LGBTQ rights, and Promised Land Films backed a $4,000 grant to fund JSCU's Pride Day, which includes a reception, exhibitions, panel discussions and a screening of The New Black. The film examines the roles of race, faith and identity in the lead-up to Maryland's 2013 vote on marriage equality. The moderated discussions will be lyceums, so students who attend will receive class credit. One of the panel members is YouTube artist Bootz Durango, who is scheduled to perform at Pride. The entertainer grew up in Charlotte and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he hosts events, speaks to youth about defying gender stereotypes and recently completed a tongue-in-cheek political campaign.
Participants in the Pride Day program include Time Out Youth, Power House, Bishop Tonyia Rawls of The Freedom Center and Bishop Ra'Shawn Flournoy of Rebirth Church. The Spiritual Life Center, the university's religious center open to all faith walks, will not be officially represented at the Pride — which could be disappointing to students. Representatives of the church say they "will be unavailable due to other commitments on that day."
Noni Lengoati, president of the Spiritual Life Center's student club, counts gender equality among important issues, along with incarcerated youth, homelessness and just "getting to know everyone as a brother or sister." The soft-spoken young woman is a calming match to Radebe, who shares her dorm as the first co-ed roommates on JCSU's campus.
All of this change is making a difference in the lives of not only the gay, but also the straight students, Radebe says.
"We have individuals here, staff and faculty and students, who believe this institution must not have this problem [of homophobia]. But a girl came up to me and said, 'God says your lifestyle is a sin.' I didn't argue. I said, 'I understand where you are coming from, but do not impress your beliefs upon me. You keep your peanut, I'll keep mine and we must agree to disagree.' She took it, and right away her friends tried to correct her. It showed me there is hope."