Think Raleigh-Durham is the last place you'd find a burgeoning queer culture? Think again. With a growing list of local hot spots, the Triangle has never looked so pink.
While the Chapel bells have yet to chime on Duke's first same-sex ceremony, both the campus and regional environments continue to grow more gay-friendly. Finally, the closet may be clearing out.
"There's so much awareness now in the culture," LGBT Center Program Coordinator Kerry Poynter said. With the recent decision to allow same-sex unions in the Chapel, Duke has taken another step toward inclusiveness, and that symbolic move may ultimately change the face of the University community.
Poynter posits that the increased awareness will show itself in other ways. "I wouldn't be surprised if in a year or so the number of out students that we notice at the beginning of the semester actually increases," he said. "Sexual identity is one of many things they take into consideration when choosing a college."
But can they be out and proud at Duke, a paradigmatic pillar of conservatism? Recently ranked by Princeton Review as the nation's most gay-hostile university, Duke faces an uphill battle.
"I think if you are an out student, and comfortable with your identity, you can tell people-you can easily find a community and socialization. If you're a student that's questioning, it's not particularly the best place to be," Poynter said.
Duke's new SAFE program, "Students, Administrators and Faculty for Equality," is an attempt to make things kinder on the curious. Progressive members of the University community are working together to foster "safe" space for the campus' queer constituency-further evidence of Duke's public commitment to its increasingly visible minority.
But Duke's evolution is no accident. Changes in the broader community have transformed the face of the Triangle's gay "subculture," and a variety of queer-oriented entertainment options have emerged. At the Artist's Escape, a Chapel Hill coffeehouse, gay and lesbian patrons gather weekly to watch Queer as Folk and the popular Will & Grace. Area lesbians convene for periodic "Queer Womyn's Picnics," and prominent gay thinkers like historian Geoffrey Giles make the Triangle a pit stop in their lecture circuits.
The area's expanding club scene has been a major outlet for the queer community as well, and the success of local venues has drawn greater attention to gay nightlife. Legends, a popular Raleigh destination, is part of the emerging landscape.
"Ten years ago, this area was a deserted warehouse district," Legends General Manager Mike Travis said. Like other queer social spaces, Legends attests to changing attitudes and preferences. Travis remembers the stark contrast of the mid-'80s, when predominantly gay clubs were kept underground. "It was like taboo then. The club was in the closet, so to speak."
With the closet door now ajar, Legends and other clubs, like Durham's Wonderland (which opens tonight) work to accommodate a diverse clientele. Travis suggests that the lines between "gay" and "straight" clubs are blurring: "Do those boundaries really exist anymore in today's society?" Legends, Gotham's "Insomnia" event in Chapel Hill and Durham club Visions regularly draw a number of straight patrons, suggesting that their appeal spreads beyond subculture.
Clubbing aside, the queer experience in the Triangle is changing, though it's not without its frustrations. Finding and maintaining romantic relationships can be challenging. Junior Jane Woodman lamented that, "The [dating] pool is very small, both at Duke and in Durham, which causes the annoying issues of everyone having dated their friends, or not dating much at all." Despite the perceived limitations, Woodman still finds a bright spot: "The situation here could be much, much worse."
Poynter agrees. "It would be great to live in a big city like Chicago or New York where you can find anything under the sun. That doesn't all exist here, but at least there is something." Duke's LGBT Center plays an important role in defining and expanding the opportunities for queer students, but Poynter says the mission, like those of the clubs, is becoming more universal: "We're trying to reach out to everybody, in addition to the LGBT population."
The Triangle may still be a far cry from the sunny streets of San Francisco, but momentum is building. Developments in the Duke and regional communities have proven promising for the area's gay population, and more changes are underway. Long silent, the Triangle's queer community is finally raising its voice-at the altar as well as on the dance floor.
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