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The college workload is hard enough, but some students take on additional responsibilities in an effort to better their community. One of those over-achievers is Darius Thomas, a junior at Howard University who, for the past three years, has organized an annual event at his school called Birthday Suit, in which attendees discuss age-old stigmas while promoting a strong sense of self-identity.
"The purpose of this production is to symbolize or to show the way people are born," Thomas says. "Part one was on natural hair, part two was on light skin and dark skin and part three is on homosexuality and the topic is Were You Born Like That?"
Birthday Suit Part III is being held next Thursday, Feb. 7. Unlike the first two installments of the production, which discussed various stereotypes while celebrating the way people are born, this Birthday Suit event takes a slightly different tack.
Thomas says this year's topic delves a little bit deeper. "In the past with light-skin dark-skin and natural hair it was more so like, it is what it is, I'm natural, you know take it or leave it. Or it is what it is, I can't change the complexion of my skin."
But this year, panelists and attendees will discuss the cause of homosexuality, in addition to the spectrum of gender and sexual identity. In order to gage where students stand, Thomas is currently circulating a survey around campus in preparation for the event. A couple of the questions on the survey include "What is your gender?" and "Do you think Howard University is homophobic?"
Students are also asked to provide their opinions on gay marriage legislation, the overturn of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in schools. Thomas plans to present the data at Birthday Suit.
"I think overall at Howard, people don't think that some people were born the way that they are," Thomas said. "It's a very touchy subject, and this year I have to be very cautious of the way that I produce this production to the Howard University community."
Thomas is making sure to cover all his bases. The event's discussion panel will include student leaders, a human sexuality professor, and a pastor. But the program is more than just a roundtable discussion. Every year, Thomas includes fun activities like a fashion show, music, dance performances and a poetry reading.
Last year's event was themed "ALL Shades Are Beautiful," so the models in the fashion show represented a full spectrum of skin tones. The first year, all of the models sported natural hairstyles. It's all about loving the skin you're in, and embracing yourself for who you are.
Theara Coleman is the president of CASCADE, Howard's LGBT student organization. As a panelist in Birthday Suit Part III, she'll be contributing to the discussion about homosexuality, gender expression, and issues facing LGBT students and organizations. She says LGBT groups at other Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) often butt heads with the administration and struggle to gain a foothold.
"Our purpose is first and foremost to have a safe space for LGBT students at Howard," Coleman says. "The climate for a lot of LGBT orgs on HBCU campuses is that they don't tend to last, and they don't have lasting power because they're very short-lived. Like, Howard's LGBT org is the oldest of its kind on an HBCU campus and we're only 12-years-old."
Coleman says Howard is pretty accepting, but LGBT students still face certain issues, such as the lack of an office or designated safe space for CASCADE.
"Black and LGBT students need safe space," Coleman says. "It's kind of hard I guess, sometimes they don't acknowledge that as black students we also have an extra need as LGBT students that we need to actually have a way to congregate and a way to talk about things that might be something that our straight counterparts might not actually experience."
She says that one of those issues is homelessness. A number of her friends came out to their families after arriving at college, which resulted in them being kicked out of their homes. Coleman says these students often have nowhere else to go, which is why having a safe space is so important.
"I had an experience of an RA who would consistently come and harass me and catch me in the elevator and be like, 'are you a gay? Do you want to come to church with me? And then she's just like, you know, that's not your only option," she says.
And therein lies the crux of Birthday Suit Part III's question: were you born like that?
"They just see it as a lifestyle choice, and it kind of goes against the black church, and the black church is all up in through every part of the black community," Coleman says. "We can't escape it."
But as the nature versus nurture debate rages on, some argue that the development of sexual identity is more complicated than we think. Carolyn Byerly, a professor of communication and mass media studies at Howard, says one of the ways that we learn about sexuality in our society is through the media.
"There are people who argue that we are born one way or the other, and they seem to conjure up scientific studies that show this," Byerly says, "and then there are others who go for the perspective that our sexual identity is a socially constructed thing, which means that we're conditioned through our experiences and values and teachings."
Byerly says that she thinks both of those answers are too narrow, and that sexual identity is more of an evolution. She says it's important for campuses to have events like Birthday Suit, where people with different identities and backgrounds can come together to converse and learn from one another.
Coleman says she's excited for Birthday Suit Part III, and although she expects the majority of the audience will be straight students, she also believes they will come with open minds and a voracious appetite for knowledge.
"I love the fact that Howard is a school of teachers and preachers," Coleman says, and added that these types of programs provide students with information that they can take out into the world and share with their families. "It works from the bottom up for us because we're trying to change an older generation's mindset."
Thomas says he believes one day, homosexuality won't be such a controversial issue, but in the meantime, having events like Birthday Suit can help to open people's minds.
"You know, some people just don't know, and to be able to acknowledge people and educate others I think is a great thing," he says.
Coleman says she has high hopes for the event, which she believes will give much-needed visibility to CASCADE. "I really appreciate the fact that Darius has engrained our organization and not just me as a panelist, like our whole organization, into the process so that we get a chance to be seen and be visible by the student body, and we have a chance to have our name on something that is as big as Birthday Suit," she says.
Thomas says he doesn't know what next year's topic will be, but Birthday Suit's fourth year will not be its last. After he graduates next year, he hopes to take the program on the road and extend it to other college campuses, and even to high school communities.
The event takes place in the Blackburn Center ballroom at Howard University,Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.
[Music: Birthday Suit: "Let Go" by Frou Frou from Garden State]
Photos: Birthday Suit