When Jacob Tobia posted on his Facebook that President Richard Brodhead had complimented his high heels, more than 300 people “liked” it.
This is not particularly surprising. If there is a face of activism on a campus typically bemoaned for its lack thereof, it’s Jacob, a sophomore from Raleigh who is attending Duke on a full-ride scholarship.
He has challenged students and administrators on issues surrounding Occupy Wall Street, racial justice, the use of conflict minerals, gender-neutral housing and most recently, North Carolina’s Amendment One. “If we’re looking for really socially conscious and active Duke students, it’s kind of hard for me to meet any new ones,” he said.
For Jacob, the heels are not merely cosmetic; they are radical theory put into practice. It is also courageous, at a school where an abundance of ideological liberalness doesn’t diminish how conservative Duke looks. Not that he’s an all-out contrarian. He’d rather more students take a cue from his book, which reads along the lines of the “live out loud” adage.
“Being out is everything,” Jacob said. “And that doesn’t have to mean being out in the way that Jacob is out. That doesn’t have to mean wearing high heels like I’m wearing right now, or big chunky bracelets that I’m wearing right now, or sitting cross-legged like I’m sitting right now, or wearing a dangly little feathered earring thingy like I’m wearing right now or having a queer ass haircut that’s like where the sides of your head are shaved and the back of your head’s shaved but the top’s still really long and flowy like I have right now. It doesn’t mean that. Being out is just, if people ask who you’re dating, you say who you’re fucking dating, you know? Like, if people ask about your past, you talk about your past. And you don’t filter out the queer part.”
A quick lesson for the uninitiated: The “Q” at the end of the shape-shifting acronym, LGBTQ, is more than just a catchall, and no longer a pejorative. “Queer” in academic or activist circles connotes more than just identity politics and includes an ethic of radical inclusivity.
“Queer as an idea... may not mean that people always gather around the fact that they’re a man who wants to be with another man, or a woman who wants to be with another woman but rather, that they gather for the ways in which they are different from the dominant culture, that they have trouble feeling accepted for. I hope we always have a queer community in that way,” Jacob explained.
Until recently, any reference to a community of this sort would have been purely symbolic. But something changed—this is the general consensus for those who have paid attention, or have simply been around for the past four or five years. People like Chris Perry, Pratt ’11, who returned to Duke this Spring to fill a temporary staffing role at the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life where he worked as an undergraduate.
“I thought homophobia was like, Selma 1960s shit—that we’d taken care of that a while ago. Homophobia didn’t exist to me. As such, gay wasn’t high on my identity list. Probably Italian was ahead of that. So when I got on campus I refused to go to the LGBT Center. I thought, ‘I’m not that kind of gay. I know the Yankees’ 40-man roster,’” Chris said. “But after a year, I literally knew zero LGBT people on campus [in 2007-2008]. There was just no visibility. You used to be able to search on Facebook, ‘Men interested in Men 18-22 at Duke,’ and like four people came up, and I was one of them.”
Durham isn’t much like Selma, but 2012 could still turn out to be a marquee year for social equality agitation in the state. The proposed first-ever amendment to the North Carolina State Constitution would provide that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized.” Gay marriage is already illegal here, but the amendment would invalidate opposite-sex civil unions as well. Perhaps more importantly, the amendment would send a clear message to LGBT students, both native and prospective.
But Duke is not a microcosm of North Carolina, and the campus trajectory, by most accounts, has spiraled rapidly in favor of gay students during the past four years. And though white males—those for whom sexuality is the only exceptional identity trait—may have reaped the benefits first, the school has made inroads to a more mature social equality.
Chantel Liggett, a bartender at the Armadillo Grill, is a queer black woman. Though she might prefer you didn’t know, she is also a Blue Devil on hiatus. (She will toil through another five and a half credits next Spring in order to finish her degree, a B.A. in women’s studies with a Sexuality Studies certificate). Chantel started at Duke in 2007 and began work at the LGBT Center shortly thereafter, where she oversaw the inception of programs like the Women Loving Women discussion and social group.
The group was formed as a response to the increasing popularity of Fab Friday, a weekly social that was overwhelmingly male in years past. Compared to Fab Friday, WLW was “anonymous and low-key,” Liggett recalled. “I think it’s becoming more normalized to see queer women on campus so it has to be less of a secretive thing now than it was at first.... I think one recent one had 35 or 40 women and that’s incredible, versus freshman year when there were two women that I could say were totally out and also came to the Center.”
Talking to Chris and Chantel, it’s still hard to pinpoint the root of such a noticeable campus shift. Was the proliferation of programming responsible for the success, along the lines of “if you build it, they will come?” Even after praising the LGBT Center’s programming and the emphatic efforts of employees past and present, Chris equivocated slightly. “Maybe it just reached a critical mass and became exponential from there,” he said. “I think that now we actually have a very large community—and I’m talking about gay men, here. I think that between Duke and UNC, we’re very fortunate.”
Coinciding with the ascent of a visible gay presence, the Blue Devils United blog was launched in the Fall of 2009. Beyond the regular publication of posts by a few dozen staff writers, the blog has posted close to 400 anonymous entries. If the visibility of Duke’s gay communities has expanded in recent years, so too has awareness of “closeted” students, who frequently express apprehension or fear about being open about their sexuality and sex lives, to varying degrees of magnitude.
“The interesting part of when we started seeing all these gay men comfortable and out—and I’d say, even a women’s community has formed during the past few years—is that there are still so, so many closeted cisgendered [gender-conforming] white men,” Chris said. “It’s just weird. Theoretically, on paper it should not be like that. They should feel comfortable on campus at this point, right?”
The question, like most worthwhile questions, can be answered “yes” and “no.”
Nick Vivion, Trinity ’06, spent his first few years out of college traveling the world, producing freelance travel videos for sites like Lonely Planet. In April 2010, Nick helped launch a new project, Unicorn Booty, which has already become one of the most popular gay blogs on the Internet. Though by no means activism-centric, the site was founded to help gay-friendly businesses thrive and find customers through social media and networking. Earlier this year, Nick moved from Seattle to New Orleans with his fiancé and blog co-founder to open Booty’s, an innovative “blogstraunt” that takes the shape of a restaurant, café and studio.
Despite an adventurous spirit, Nick was a surprising candidate to lead a gay business venture—it is not really a career groomed by his experience at Duke. He remembers knowing about 20 other gay students at Duke but having little interest in or knowledge of any kind of community involvement. He shared closer ties with his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, which he said elected an openly gay president during his junior year and saw his sexuality as a non-issue.
“I don’t really believe in the coming out thing. I think that everyone’s really different, and for some people it’s really cathartic,” he said. “But I do think it’s kind of messed up that gay people are forced to come out. You know, my sister never told me she was straight; my best friend never told me that.”
Nick’s philosophy is close to what Chris would call “post-gay,” a status that has nothing to do with being ashamed or closeted. He uses it more to describe students whose sexuality “doesn’t make it high on their list of identities. It doesn’t shape their experiences as much.” But this is only natural; in many ways, identity politics and minority mobilization are borne of necessity. The minority identities that crystallize into thriving movements, or so-called communities, often do so in the face of adversity or systemic oppression.
Amendment One then, might appear as an opportunity in waiting. But this would require that more Duke students take the issue more seriously, a challenge that Jacob and Chris have contended with throughout the semester. “So Duke already has a stereotype of political apathy,” Chris said. “And then you couple that with ‘it’s a North Carolina issue’ and we only have 15 percent in-state [students], so getting people to care about a North Carolina issue is even more difficult. Then on top of it, if we defeat Amendment One we’re still in the same place. An end game of status quo is not really compelling to people.”
Without a vital venue for activism, the outstanding draw for students to form a gay community is relationships. This is obvious enough, but sex and politics have never been easy bedmates, and the element of visibility—the compulsion to come out, or not—further muddies things. The interplay of romance and platonic relationships can toe a frustratingly fine line for people who have to rely on others’ self-declarations, intuition, secondary sources or their own risk taking. (Shots in the dark can have painful consequences, physical or emotional). It’s at this point that Nick arrives at an ambivalent reflection of Duke’s campus culture, as he experienced it.
“I have the right to create myself. That to me is what freedom is.... For me it was about going to Duke, and finding a space where I wanted to be known as Nick Vivion, not ‘that gay guy,’ and I don’t know if that’s some sort of insecurity on my part, but ultimately it comes down to that—I want to define my identity. If gay is my number one thing and I’m an activist and I’m out and I’m queer, cool. If I’m a fraternity boy who is closeted because I don’t feel totally comfortable with it, that’s cool too. But I think at Duke it can be really hard to do that because there’s a lot of conformity going on and you get so many kids coming out of a high school system where’s there’s cliques and groups and everyone has their place, and it’s just so much easier to box people into these stereotypes.”
The tension between stereotypes and normalcy is an issue of critical importance, one that links the disagreements between Jacob’s and Nick’s philosophies with generations of past civil rights discourse. The challenge: whether the nobler goal is soft assimilation—say, routes like supporting gay-friendly business, or emphasizing the compatibility of gay families with “traditional” society—or a demand for a radical paradigm shift from rote tolerance to real inclusiveness. Those in the latter camp are more likely to call themselves “queer” than “gay.”
But for Duke students, these conflicts don’t resonate at the level of theory or activism—it’s a question of love, and a pragmatic question at that. And in many ways, it resembles the dating and romance struggles faced by Duke and college students at large.
“I think that sometimes gay people forget that we are also just human, and very much the same as straight people, who sometimes have relationships that they don’t want others to know about for whatever reason. It can be nuanced,” Nick said.
Even beyond the question of being “closeted” or just not loud and proud, a merging of gay and straight angst at Duke fixes to the crucible of the so-called hook-up culture.
“There’s gonna be a huge percentage of people not interested in finding a relationship and that’s totally cool because life is a long, long process, and you need to figure out how you relate to people,” Nick said. “There’s nothing inherently bad about a hook-up culture unless it’s abusive, right?”
The problem with this social circumstance occurs when a hook-up culture arises from our inadequacies and does not fully capture the potential of young adult relationships. And for queer students, Jacob thinks the problem demands an extra level of confidence.
“Not to belittle the struggle of individuals. Not to say that if your parents are going to kick you out or stop funding your education that that’s not going to be hard,” he said. “I recognize that fear as very real. I felt it, I’ve been through it, I still feel it at times. But the other thing I have to say is that we have to demand moral courage of one another and realize that there are people that have come out and had to sacrifice a lot more than you to do so—and who will make that choice after you for time eternal.”
Considering the range of perspectives—and whether the closet is something to be overcome and not just an imaginary symptom prescribed for non-heterosexual students who don’t act the “right way”—illuminates the multiple ways to conceive “community.” Jacob’s stance is admirable; it paves the way for others to live more comfortably in their skin, at Duke and beyond. But for post-gays, or the label-free who would prefer that their sex lives not be politicized, there’s the rub: living within and without a campus community, a gay community at that, can feel like a maddeningly gentle half-gait toward progress.