Diversity and Democracy

Developing an Intersectional Framework for Racially Inclusive LGBTQ Programming

When I began developing inclusive programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) students at the historically black university where I worked at the time, I had two goals: to improve the campus climate for LGBTQ students, and to bring students into allyship. Like many other resource-strapped campus educators, I approached my task by adapting other campuses’ program models and customizing them to our campus culture. This commonly meant taking an intersectional approach in which I infused existing content on sexuality and gender identity with content that accounted for the racial experiences of students of color. I have continued this work in my role leading diversity and equity initiatives for the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) System, where I work with a team of dedicated diversity practitioners to make LGBTQ programs at institutions across the state more inclusive of students of color.

In this article, I explore potential barriers to racial minority students’ participation in LGBTQ programming and share lessons learned while developing inclusive and intersectional frameworks for LGBTQ programming at colleges and universities in Tennessee, including the system’s historically black university. While I focus here on inclusivity for black student populations, I believe that campuses can adapt these lessons to improve participation from other students of color.

Barriers and Avenues to Inclusion

In a higher education climate driven by student success and retention, institutions are attending to students’ cocurricular needs by focusing on students’ sense of belonging or connectedness (Strayhorn 2012, 16–17). In an effort to help subpopulations of students of color who are LGBTQ achieve a sense of belonging while also engaging racial minority students as allies, I have identified several factors that campus educators should consider when attempting to improve the racial inclusivity of their LGBTQ programming.

Racial and socioeconomic divides within the LGBTQ rights movement have manifested in many ways in LGBTQ resources in higher education (Marine and Nicolazzo 2014), and these divides may contribute to the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in LGBTQ programming on some campuses. I have found that student engagement programming developed for predominantly white student populations without intentional efforts to include those with other cultural experiences is not likely to be optimally effective in reaching students of color. At Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), for example, students often come from diverse communities of origin and expect similar diversity in their collegiate experiences (Morris 2014).

A few factors that can have an immediate impact on the engagement of students of color are the imagery, language, and cultural norms reflected in program content. In working with racially diverse student groups in the TBR system, I commonly find that the use of culturally relevant topics and figures from entertainment and social media allow students to better relate to the subject matter. For instance, at an HBCU in our system, students and diversity practitioners organizing events for an inaugural Pride Week created an informational display that they placed in the student center to draw attention to the week’s activities. The provocative display featured famous black individuals, both historical and from contemporary popular culture, who were not well known as identifying as members of the LGBTQ community. Presenting these popular black figures in a new light allowed for fresh dialogue with a previously disengaged student group, and gave some LGBTQ and ally students their first experience of campus-initiated programming designed to reflect their interests.

Integrating Intersecting Identities

Intersectionality—the notion of considering social identities in relation to each other and in the context of the world around them (Abes, Jones, and McEwen 2007)—is a common concept in LGBTQ programming. It is important for practitioners to leverage intersectionality in a substantive way that fully engages students of color. In order to ensure programs that are inclusive, practitioners should avoid overemphasizing the experiences of the majority group and rather focus on integrating the experiences of students of color (Dooley and LePeau n.d.). In my experience, framing LGBTQ program content in relation to issues that are significant to marginalized student groups and being attentive to the influence of students’ cultural norms can improve the racial diversity of participating students.

For example, in developing racially inclusive LGBTQ programs for black students, I take into account students’ deeply rooted cultural norms related to religion and homophobia along with their growing commitment to social justice issues. I find that the students I seek to engage as LGBTQ allies are involved in social justice in robust, meaningful ways. Specifically, following recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, some students have organized and led area Black Lives Matter protests. While factoring in the country’s racial climate and appreciating how these incidents of violence against black people influence students’ perceptions of injustice in society, I am able to draw on the students’ burgeoning passion for social justice when facilitating discussions about the necessity of inclusivity for LGBTQ students of all races in society and on campus.

In working with practitioners to develop racially inclusive LGBTQ programming, I have found that the most difficult lesson learned involves discussions of privilege. When practitioners encourage students to see the oppression of the LGBTQ community but fail to acknowledge students’ experiences as members of other marginalized groups, they risk jeopardizing their ability to engage and support all students. It is particularly important for practitioners who are not members of marginalized groups to remain conscious of their own privileged identities and consider how each of those identities factors into discussion. When setting the tone for discussions of privilege, practitioners who appreciate the dynamic that their own racial privilege and/or sexual privilege add to the discussion are likely to better cultivate conversations with students about the intersectional nature of privilege.

Community Engagement

Practitioners working to offer racially inclusive LGBTQ programs in the TBR system face some common challenges, including lack of funding, understaffing, and the absence of staff who personally identify with specific subpopulations of students of color. To address these challenges, it can be helpful to enter into collaborative relationships with community partners. By leveraging the knowledge and resources of community partners who share an interest in supporting LGBTQ students, practitioners can advance their efforts to be more inclusive of racial minority students. Community partners can fill knowledge gaps and provide support for underresourced campus programs, including by offering services for specific groups.

Area nonprofit organizations have been eager to assist in efforts to work with black student populations in our system. One community group that has significantly assisted our efforts has a program with the designated purpose of engaging the black MSM (men who sleep with men) population. Several institutions in our system were able to collaborate with a seasoned community educator from this nonprofit organization. This educator assisted in developing programs that addressed the unique needs of black males and ultimately engaged and supported these students in a manner that the institutions had been unable to achieve on their own.


With student success hinging on the whole collegiate experience, both in and out of the classroom, culturally effective engagement programs are fundamental to retention and completion. There is a pressing need to provide support and resources for LGBTQ students, including LGBTQ students of color. In serving this diverse population, it is necessary to attend to students’ myriad intersecting social identities. Diversity practitioners should review their practices to ensure that their programs support the whole student, serving students’ numerous social identities in unison.


Abes, Elisa S., Susan R. Jones, and Marylu K. McEwen. 2007. “Reconceptualizing the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity: The Role of Meaning-Making Capacity in the Construction of Multiple Identities.” Journal of College Student Development 48 (1): 1–22.

Dooley, Jon, and Lucy LePeau. N.d. “Striving for an Inclusive and Nurturing Campus: Cultivating the Intersections.” In Intersectionality in Action: A Guide for Faculty and Campus Leaders for Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Institutions, edited by Brooke Barnett and Peter Felten. Stylus Publishing, LLC. Unedited manuscript, available at https://sty.presswarehouse.com/sites/stylus/resrcs/chapters/1620363208_otherchap.pdf.

Marine, Susan, and Z Nicolazzo. 2014. “Names that Matter: Exploring the Tensions of Campus LGBTQ Centers and Trans* Inclusion.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 7 (4): 265–81.

Morris, Catherine. 2014. “Safe Space.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 9, 8–10.

Strayhorn, Terrell L. 2012. College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. New York: Routledge.

Bobbie Porter is diversity and equity initiatives director at the Tennessee Board of Regents.

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