Historic Pride Night at Howard University Celebrates Diversity, Inclusion

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By: Rob Knox, MEAC Consultant

Rainbow-colored streamers and decorations greeted visitors as they passed through the Burr Gymnasium lobby, where a sea of informational tables greeted them from various offices on Howard University’s campus.

Smiling students cherished their free black t-shirts that read “Howard Lives With Pride.” Hyped fans waved mini rainbow flags. All this swirl of activity and important awareness occurred on Howard’s Pride Night contest during its basketball doubleheader against South Carolina State on Monday, Jan. 30.

“We pride ourselves on being the first, the leaders, the pioneers of tomorrow and that’s how I led this to become such a great, great experience for our students,” Jose Cadiz, Director, Intercultural Affairs and LGBTQ+ Resource Center at Howard University, said. “We walk through the yard and see so many different shades of color, ethnicities and a wide range of sexual orientations, especially in our LGBTQ+ community. If you asked me last year when I got to Howard if this was in the cards within the next year, it wasn’t.”

MEAC Commissioner Sonja Stills made sure her calendar was free so she could see the vision of the conference’s “We Are MEAC” initiative become a reality. “We Are MEAC” celebrates community, heritage and identities through diversity and inclusion, encompassing heritage and awareness months year-round.

“This is what we wanted to happen when we developed the ‘We Are MEAC’ campaign umbrella of diversity that covers all the diverse student-athletes we have in our conference,” Stills said. “To have Howard host a Pride game is tremendous. I wanted to drop everything I was doing tonight so that I could be here at this game.”

It was a memorable evening, highlighted by a pair of basketball victories for the Howard men’s and women’s basketball programs and a rousing halftime ceremony that celebrated the LGBTQ+ community.

Once the court cleared from that recognition, the Howard student body exploded in excitement during an electric performance from cast members of the popular HBO Max show Legendary: House of Balenciaga that featured ridiculous athleticism in the form of dancing, jumping, flipping and splitting.

One of the key performers was Cha Cha Balenciaga, a popular entertainer, coach, dancer and model.

“I actually watch Cha Cha on TV, so the fact we got to see him perform in-person was a surprise and it made my night for sure,” the MEAC’s leading women’s scorer, Destiny Howell, said. “We definitely got a picture with him. Overall, tonight was big and important for us as a school. Howard was the perfect place to host a Pride night. It was a great night.”

The entire evening was an empowering experience for everybody who attended. It celebrated the transformative power that inclusive visibility has on a community. During the halftime recognition ceremony, a large rainbow flag was displayed and held at center court, a unifying mosaic of intersecting identities fortifying what makes Howard special.

This event was months in the making behind the scenes, as Cadiz and Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director/SWA Chevonne Mansfield collaborated to bring this event to life.

In addition to the Howard athletics department, the offices of Human Rights Campaign HBCU Programs, Us Helping Us, The Health Center and IVPP assisted in making the night a success and one to remember.

“Howard University Athletics is committed to inclusivity and is proud to support the LGBTQ+ community,” Mansfield said. “Many of our student-athletes are active in their support of local LGBTQ+ organizations and we were proud to host Pride Night against South Carolina State with our campus partners. We will continue to be strong advocates for inclusivity and the LGBTQ+ community.”

Cadiz participated in a panel discussion last year during Pride Month with the MEAC, and following that, he knew what needed to be done. Cadiz and Mansfield got together and despite some early obstacles, they persevered to find a mutual date for everybody.

“This is large full-circle moment for me,” Cadiz said. “When I got here, there was a sense that there was not a place for our students who identify in many different ways, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. (Howard President) Dr. Wayne Frederick has continued to make sure he supports our LGBTQ+ students on campus and cultivating a sense of belonging.

“This is everything. We’ve seen the smiles on students’ faces, the reaction on social media and, quite frankly, the alumni that have supported and reached out to us as well. We want to make the spaces more inclusive and diverse. We want to make sure our LGBTQ+ students in these spaces are continuing to find their identities. You can have multiple identities. You can be queer and still like basketball. You can be transgender and still attend a basketball game and cheer for your fellow peers.”

For Howard, this was one night in its larger mission to create an inclusive campus. Last semester, Howard had a student-run, student-led Pridefest and for the first time, there was a university-wide raising of the pride flag on campus.

The best part is, the flag is continuing to fly.

“A night like this shows how far we are going and moving in the right direction when it comes to diversity,” Stills said. “When we look at our student-athletes, we want to be able to recognize who they are: authentically them and that it’s okay to be comfortable in your own skin. Having this opportunity to showcase this is very important. We need to be able to recognize all aspects of our student-athletes.”

Source: Howard University Athletics/Derek W. Bryant

Image: Christopher Campbell