Spelman College today announced a matching gift of up to $2 million from billionaire philanthropist Jon Stryker to create a chair in queer studies, the first position of its kind at a historically black college or university (HBCU). The chair will be named after the black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde.
Stryker is the founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, which supports LGBTQ rights and the protection of the great apes. His estimated $3.9 billion fortune stems from Stryker Corp., the medical equipment firm his grandfather founded in 1941. He says he donated, in part, because the advancement of LGBTQ rights depends on education.
“The more that people understand queer history and LGBTQ issues, the more likely they are to accept and support the LGBTQ community,” Stryker told Forbes in an email. “By empowering and educating the next generation, we can help make a future where LGBTQ people have full and equal protections under the law.”
The chair will teach classes in queer studies—allowing students at the all-female Atlanta college to concentrate in the subject as part of its comparative women’s studies major—and direct community-wide conversations and advocacy around queer issues. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, says Spelman would be the only HBCU in the country with a queer studies program.
Guy-Sheftall says a host of factors has stymied efforts to introduce queer studies programs to HBCUs in the past, including religious affiliations, a dearth of faculty with expertise and occasional alumni resistance. She says she faced similar challenges when she worked to establish the women’s studies major at Spelman in the 1980s.
“There was some angst about how serious or rigorous or faddish it was, or was it going to disappear?” she recalls. “There was a lot of anxiety—what can students do with women’s studies and queer studies? They do the same thing [as they can] with a history, English or philosophy major.”
The position will build on other initiatives at Spelman related to gender and sexuality. In September 2018, the college received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish an Institute for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. And in 2017, Spelman announced it would admit female-identifying students regardless of their gender assignment at birth and would allow a student who transitions to a man while at Spelman to complete their studies. Those moves have placed Spelman among a growing number of women’s colleges redefining their admissions policies to include transgender students. Guy-Sheftall says this environment, in addition to student activism and conversations with the larger community, prompted the Women’s Research and Resource Center to seek funding for a queer studies faculty position.
“We were getting more students who were already out and queer, and even parents of those students asking the question, ‘Is this a place where my daughter or son can thrive?’” Guy-Sheftall says. “Parents, the general political climate and activism among queer students on our campus pushed colleges and universities to respond to students who were willing to be out.”
Guy-Sheftall says the connection between Spelman, Audre Lorde and Stryker’s Arcus Foundation is a natural one. The poet donated her personal papers and articles to the college in her will, and the foundation provided a grant to make the papers publicly accessible in 2009. Lorde’s relationship with Spelman dates back to her friendship with the college’s first black female president, Johnnetta Cole. Lorde’s son Jonathan Rollins says his mother would have been “over the moon” about the chaired position at Spelman named in her honor.
“It’s very significant because Audre discussed her identity as a black lesbian feminist warrior poet—and no element of that was any more or less important than any other element of it,” he says.
Queer studies is a relatively new discipline but has come a long way since Yale University rejected playwright Larry Kramer’s offer to donate millions to endow a professorship in gay studies in 1997. There are more than two dozen higher education institutions that offer at least classes related to LGBT issues, according the College Equality Index.
As a matching gift, Stryker’s $2 million is contingent on Spelman’s fundraising efforts. Guy-Sheftall says it will take about two years to raise the sum, meaning the chair can hopefully be hired by 2022.
Stryker says he intentionally chose to structure the grant on a matching basis. “I firmly believe that there should be a community aspect to giving like this,” he told Forbes. “By making this gift a matching donation, it ensures that the Spelman College community and network of alumnae and donors have a stake and ownership in the Queer Studies chair.”
Stryker’s sister, Ronda—who sits on Spelman’s board of trustees—made the largest gift by a living donor in the college’s history when she and her husband gave $30 million to build Spelman’s Center for Innovation & the Arts in 2018.