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Queer Black Presence, Prosperity and Performance: Alumni Relations Hosts Panel Discussion on the State of Queer Life at Howard as Musical "Sonnets & Soul" Premieres

After discussing the presence of queer students at Howard in a five-member panel, Broadway alum and panelist Michael Elroy, premiered his theater production, a queer coming-of-age tale

McElroy, Jamil Fletcher, Khalid Y. Long and Steve Mobley

Michael Elroy knows a thing or two about being excluded for being gay. “Depending on the generation, there’s so much shame around our community,” McElroy said. “We’ve done such incredible things but at the same time, we’ve replicated and behaviors that were done to us. How do we stop that?” 

McElroy, who created and directed Sonnets & Soul, asks these very questions in his production. An original musical, it was showcased as part of a alumni reception and panel discussion, entitled “Howard University and a Queer Black Presence” on February 22, 2024. 

“To have the first fully realized production here at Howard University, at an HBCU, means everything and it feels like everything has been leading us to this place,” McElroy said.  


Seer, portrayed by Kenneth Carter, (left) ponders while Kendrick Jackson, the narrator of the musical (left) oversees his younger self in Michael McElroy's and Sean Howlett's “Sonnets & Soul” (Credit: Dr. Benita Gladney)


The story is a coming-of-age tale for a young boy named Seer. Finding the courage to stand in his queerness is the heartbeat of the story. The narrator oversees younger versions of himself as he meets the challenges of authenticity amid family legacy. Kenneth Carter portrays Seer as a child while Kendrick Jackson is the narrator and overseer. The play is set in the ‘Black queer mind space. The mind of the narrator.’ 

The story, influenced by McElroy’s life, time hops from different eras of self-discovery; the play begins in 1978 then moves to 1982, then 1986, three eras of the main character’s life that serve as a crossroads to accepting his full independent, queer identity through community, family, and school.   

The film has emulations of the universal queer Black experience, as the main character explains how many Black queer people “split themselves” to be accepted by traditional Black spaces. One example is the character’s relationship with church explored through the score such as ‘God’s Favor' and the chastising Seer's parents give him for wearing a fringe 70s vest during a talent show as they worry what the community will think. 

The original score infuses musical theater with genres such as jazz, gospel and R&B. ‘Fair’ is a song of reclamation during the ’70s. Black monikers are depicted throughout the film; Black Americans reconnected with their Blackness beyond Eurocentric beauty features and standards. Front page covers of Ebony, Essence, and JET Magazine are used as stage art. 

“The Sonnets & Soul” cast perform the number “Fair.” (Seer), actress Atara F. Romero-Wilson (Juliette), Ethan Hart (Romero) and crew members. (Source: Benita Gladney)

Queerness, Community, Accountability  

McElroy explained Sonnets & Soul’s inception, which dates back from studying Shakespearian love poems and not seeing the representation and building out a sense of self-advocacy. 

“It became this celebration, an interrogation of the Black community of love and music, but it also became about what happens when you don’t fit into that community in that space that supposed to be our safety, our comfort, our everything but I don’t fit there and don’t see myself there,” McElroy explained. 

Along with McElroy, Jamil Fletcher (B.S. ’87), A.J. King, Steve Mobley, Ph.D. (B.A. ’05) and Nicole Austin-Hillary (J.D. ’00) represented diverse sectors of legal, higher education, and the arts sphere, the conversation included inclusive points of view from “an interdisciplinary and intergenerational perspective,” said Khalid Y. Long, Ph.D., the associate professor of theater arts and coordinator of the foundations area in the College of Fine Arts. 

Before the show, panelists shared their moments of queer life at Howard before queer inclusion was a priority.  

“I was staying in Drew Hall, and there was this major scene one evening when a group of guys who were pretty effeminate, were going out to a club, I was on the fifth floor and not out at the time, but when they were coming out to the courtyard, other residents were throwing bottles at them from all floors for a good 20, 30 minutes,” said Fletcher, founder and publisher of the queer, Black SWERV Magazine. 

“There was no discussion of that later, no investigation, it was as if it just didn’t happen, and that was in ‘82...I’m really proud of how far Howard has come.” 

If we don’t have these open conversations about gender, gender identity, sex and sexuality, you’re literally leading your kids to slaughter,”

In 2022, Howard was named the most inclusive HBCU by CampusIndex.com, citing policies, protocols, and safe zones part of campus measures to uplift the queer community. However, participants of the panel agreed that, though the place of queer Howard community members have changed, there is still more work to do to ensure inclusivity does not ring hollow.  

King, the new director of the LGBTQ+ and Intercultural Affairs Center, spoke to the current climate of Howard’s queer inclusion, stating that advocating for students is a mandatory practice for the center, alongside its mission of being a safe space. 

"We want to make sure that, with our office, we are curating a space here you all feel seen, advocated for, and celebrated too,” King said. “We can develop programing and initiatives in that office from or perspective, but it needs to come from what the [Howard student body] wants.” 

Fostering Inclusion 

While McElroy expressed the need to create a queer space for himself, Mobley also stated that not accepting queerness or embracing queer students has dangerous consequences that leave the population more vulnerable if they are in silos and without community nor resources.  

“If we don’t have these open conversations about gender, gender identity, sex and sexuality, you’re literally leading your kids to slaughter,” he explained. “Whenever I’m in a room of HBCU presidents or administrators, [I ask] how old are Black queer youth? When do they first get infected with HIV? Around 18 to 21. How old are your students?” 

Mobley also pointed to the social infighting between Black communities that are measures by other harmful, anti-Black cultural standards. “Our homophobia, transphobia, any of these intraracial tensions, are direct byproducts of white supremacy,” he said. “Anti-Blackness is quiet a byproduct of white supremacy.” Mobley is the creator of the Queer and Trans Student Identity Development & Affirmations model that details how HBCUs can create campus-wide policies that uplift their queer communities. This research was conducted with Leslie Hall, a Howard doctoral student in his final year. 

Anti-intellectualism that drives queerphobic misconceptions was another facet of the conversation. 

“I always go back to the literature historically, and in contemporary moments to say ‘Here are folks that have do this, they’ve written about it,’” Long said. “I didn’t create this but I’m just someone who will facilitate as a professor.” 

As a cisgender Black woman and LGBTQIA+ ally, Austin-Hillary, the president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus reminded those to “demand their seat at the table” and for students to center their queerness. From the legal perspective, Austin-Hillary also said that lawyers must stand on the side of oppressed groups for their freedoms.  

“Charles Hamilton Houston, a former dean of our law school...has this quote ‘Lawyers are either a social justice engineer or a parasite to society,” she explained. “This is not a fight for one community or another. This is a collaborative fight. This is a collaborative effort to pull on communities where equity and acceptance are limited.” 

Productions of Sonnets & Soul have taken place at Ira Aldridge Theater. Weekday shows have a 7 p.m. curtain and will run until March 1.