In response to the Feb. 19 column, “I rise in flame,” let me first say: I am sorry, Patrick. I was saddened and disheartened to hear of your experience as a gay man at Duke. Institutions of higher learning, and especially a place like Duke, should offer the opportunity to express yourself and come of age with excitement, freedom and dignity. The harassment you faced and the humiliation you endured will likely make you a stronger person, but these are still obstacles alumni from my generation hoped to eradicate. Obviously, even with the passage of greater rights and increased relevance in pop culture, the work is far from over.
However, I think your article—while poignant—paints but one of the many different experiences a student may have, and works against our ultimate goal of making Duke a better place. Highlighting only homophobia can discourage talented high school students from applying and current students from living openly. I offer a very different picture of coming out at Duke.
I am a Duke alumnus from 2002. During my time at Duke, Princeton Review labeled Duke as one of the most homophobic schools, as you point out in your article. However, my experience—while mixed at times—was overwhelmingly positive and helped shaped the person I became.
Unlike you, I was not out in high school. I grew up in a moderately liberal, middle- and upper-middle-class community in New Jersey (insert jokes here), just outside of New York City. I had a boyfriend (of sorts) my senior year, but we were not out and he was pretty much the only gay person I knew well.
I quickly retreated further into the closet my freshman year at Duke. During that year, while I may have battled with my sexuality at times, I had without question the best experiences up to that point in my young life. I learned new things every day in my academics, but most of all I learned from my fellow students. I made best friends that were unlike any I had before. I joined a fraternity. I went on Spring Break in Mexico with my new best friends. I was on a constant high.
By my sophomore year, I realized this gay thing wasn’t going to go away. And through the grace of God or fate or sheer luck, I made some wonderful friends outside of my fraternity who exposed me to the then-small population of out, gay students at Duke. They didn’t seem exactly like me then, but that was okay, and they were warm and welcoming. Many are some of my best friends to this day.
While my experience was overwhelmingly positive, I can recall vividly my internal strife of wondering where I fit in. I was an academic, leader and aspiring lawyer on the one hand, an Abercrombie- and Lacoste-clad, fist-pumping, beer-bonging fraternity [insert expletive here] on the other hand, and a be-tank-topped, gym-going, club kid on yet another. My identity crisis was in full swing. And I did not enjoy living a dual life with respect to my sexuality.
And then something happened: I came out at Duke. First, I was asked if I was gay by a couple of my best friends in my fraternity. Scared, sweaty-palmed and afraid of rejection, I looked them in the eyes and told them, “Yes.” I was immediately met with hugs and gratitude and true friendship. Later, my “big brother” in my fraternity made it a point to tell a group of our brothers that it’s “no big deal” (in his special way). My coming out engendered dialogue and an intimacy with my brothers and best friends that I never even knew was possible. Since college, many of us are still very close—I have been in their weddings, shared professional successes and sorrows, and watched their kids grow up.
As far as I can recall, I was only one of two out gay men in fraternities during my tenure at Duke. At some point I decided I owed it to myself, to others around me and to the broader Duke community to be out and to help educate other students about what it is like to be gay. I felt empowered by these discussions, by the opportunity to view firsthand the shifts in perceptions and attitudes—that homosexuality is not a choice and that I am very much like them with respect to personal and professional goals, upbringing and a desire for love.
Now don’t get me wrong. I heard “f*g” plenty. A pledge once apologized to me (very sincerely) for calling something “so gay.” Fraternity culture did not then generally foster the inclusion of same-sex relationships. It was not until years later that two of my pledge brothers would come out after Duke. Playful (or sometimes less so) name-calling and being targeted as effeminate at times did hurt, although my heterosexual brothers were not spared these attacks either.
But I did keep talking about it. I did stand up for myself. I did have a significant impact on so many whom I came into contact with at Duke, and whom I have come to know since graduating. And as a result, my fraternity did welcome a fellow male student as my date to events. And I had the support network and the comfort to be able to experience something I had not yet known before Duke—I fell in love with a man.
In short, Duke proved to be the perfect place for me and a fertile ground to express myself and grow into a confident, proud and enriched, openly gay man. It began with a paper I wrote on the nature versus nurture debate on homosexuality for a freshman psychology class. And it culminated my senior year with a professor asking me to speak with her son as he struggled with his sexual identity. So, Patrick, Duke can be a nurturing, positive environment for a gay man. I urge you (and all current and prospective students) to keep talking and keep living with courage. You will have risen up from the flames just by doing so.
David Rak, Trinity ’02, is corporate counsel for Apple Inc. and lives in San Francisco.