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Black college faces its own bias

The 'Morehouse man' is a paragon of virtue and strength, a leader destined for great things. But can he also be gay?

May 22, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Michael Brewer, a senior at Morehouse College, was strolling purposefully around this storied campus on a hot spring day, his heavy frame dripping sweat, his hands clutching a small stack of fliers.

"No more hate," the fliers read, in a stylish typeface. "No more discrimination. No more."

"What's up, brother?" Brewer said in a lilting, cheerful voice as he approached a fellow student in a dark business suit. "Take one of these, if you will."

The young man gave the flier a glance. It was promoting what was perhaps the most ambitious week of gay rights events in the history of Morehouse, the only historically black all-male school in America.

"What the hell is this?" he said under his breath. He laughed and threw it in the trash.

But Brewer had already moved, unfazed, into the lobby of Wheeler Hall, where he was taping up posters. The events had been his idea, and he knew they wouldn't go over well with everyone.

"Morehouse is like this enclave where Stonewall never happened," Brewer said, referring to the 1969 New York protest that galvanized the gay rights movement. "It just doesn't exist in this realm of reality."

Brewer, 22, didn't come to Morehouse with the intent of changing it. But he found that he had no choice. He had arrived here from Oklahoma City pretty comfortable with himself: outspoken, proudly smart and, at 5 foot 9 and 300 pounds, hard to miss.

Early on, he decided he wouldn't water down his gay identity.

And that, historically, has been a problematic strategy at Morehouse. The 141-year-old college has played a key role in defining black manhood in America. But with a past steeped in religion, tradition and machismo, it has struggled to determine how homosexuality fits within that definition.

The private school was founded shortly after the Civil War with the help of Baptists sympathetic to the plight of illiterate freedmen. Over the years, it became famous for turning out the vaunted "Morehouse man" -- a paragon of virtue and strength in a society that once institutionalized the destruction of the black nuclear family.

Traditionally, its students have been expected to follow a well-worn path: They were to choose ambitious wives, preferably from Spelman College next door, a historically black school for women. They were to become captains of industry, leaders of men, saviors of a race.

But now, more than ever, students like Brewer are forcing the school to confront a vexing question: Can the Morehouse man be gay?

On a Thursday in late April, Brewer set up a folding table full of sign-up sheets in the Yard, the paved central square in the heart of Morehouse's compact, red-brick campus.

Down the street, the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel -- named for the school's most famous graduate -- was disgorging scores of students in suits who had been at a ceremony for top-performing seniors.

It was the kind of scene that has made generations of visiting black parents swoon with pride and possibility: a campus full of young, clean-cut black men, armed with book bags, talking about job prospects and big ideas.

Brewer was selling the idea of a day of silence for the victims of homophobia and asking his fellow students to sign up. He was wearing a T-shirt in the school's maroon and white colors. "Look, I'm sorry you're not a Morehouse man," it read. "I'm sorry you will never be a Morehouse man."

"Come on, Anderson brothers," he yelled to a couple of guys. "You're suited and booted. Look at you -- you're role models. Come sign up!"

After four years on the 3,000-student campus, Brewer seemed to know everyone who passed by -- the straight allies and the straights with hang-ups, the openly gay upperclassmen and the men on the down low, that is, straight to the world but open to gay affairs.

A trim ROTC member in a khaki uniform walked briskly by. "Renaldo, I'm looking for you to sign up, bruh!"

Some kept walking, but others stopped to catch up with their old friend.

One young man Brewer cajoled into signing worried that it would be hard to maintain silence for an entire day.

"That's OK," Brewer said, in self-deprecating mode now, giving his hands an exaggerated effeminate flourish. "You can just talk with your hands."

In Oklahoma City, Brewer attended an arts-intensive magnet high school, where his best friends were white girls and being gay wasn't that big of a deal. His senior year, a recruiter persuaded him to apply to Morehouse.

Despite its mystique -- as the school that had produced King, filmmaker Spike Lee and NAACP leader Julian Bond -- Brewer hadn't given Morehouse much thought. But the college offered him a full scholarship, and he grew intrigued by the idea of joining a brotherhood.

"I thought it was time that I started to kind of commune with my kinfolk, with guys who look like me," he said. "And the very second I saw Morehouse and stepped on campus, it was this sense of belonging. . . . I felt that I was home."

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