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Column: My image of 'me' versus my image of 'gay'

Once I got into an argument with a guy over whether or not I was gay. I said I was. He said I wasn't and told me his "gaydar" was never wrong. "Darling, I know gay, and you're not it," he said.

Of course, I am, and I think our argument reveals a problem facing homosexuals that's rarely discussed. I know good "liberals" at Duke are always talking about how straight people make it difficult for gays to come out, but we almost never talk about how gays make it difficult for other gays to come out. I think it's time to start.

First, some background: See, I haven't had too many problems with straight people. When I came out a year ago, my family and friends were loving and supportive. I know my story is not typical. I realize many homosexuals are horribly discriminated against and I know there are homophobic government policies worth fighting. But on a personal level, I've always been fortunate.

Despite my luck, though, I waited a long time to tell people. And my decision to stay in the closet had just as much to do with gay guys as it did with straight ones.

The best professor I've ever had likes to tell his classes "you can't have a society you can't imagine." For a long time, I couldn't imagine a society in which I could live as a gay man, because my image of "gay" didn't jive with my image of "me." All the gay guys on TV and in the movies were either super-effeminate caricatures or seriously troubled. Worse, they all seemed to be defined by their sexuality, and I didn't want being gay to become my defining characteristic. I didn't come out for a long time because I couldn't imagine a society in which people like me would be accepted, because I was never exposed to people like me - not in entertainment, not anywhere.

I realize it seems silly. I graduated from a "liberal" high school, dedicated to "diversity." Why would I have such a narrow view of homosexuality coming into college? I think it's because all a "liberal" education teaches you about homosexuality - at least all it taught me - is that you have to respect gay people. It didn't teach me homosexuality comes in many different shapes and sizes or that there are options available for gay people not interested in "the gay scene." A liberal education (rightly) teaches you gays have been historically oppressed. But while you're constantly taught to respect the "gay community," you're not taught how to build a community in which people are truly integrated. A liberal education teaches you to be allies of gay people. And kids don't need allies; they need friends.

Once I got to Duke, the gay groups on campus didn't make it any easier. That's because in my experience those groups do nothing to reach out to gay students involved in activities that aren't stereotypically gay. What happens as a result is the gay frat boy or the gay athlete or the gay kid in the Central apartment who just isn't really into the "scene" ends up staying in the closet. Students thus develop a very set image of "what it means to be gay," because most of the kids who are gay and don't fit that image don't come out.

Gay organizations at Duke seem to appeal to people who are already caught up in their own very narrow definition of what it means to be gay. The one and only time I went to an AQUADuke meeting everyone was welcoming and friendly, but the two major topics on the agenda were planning a gay semi-formal and gay fashion show. Fine ideas, but they were the only major events being planned. It seemed like AQUADuke was sending the message: "This Is What Gay Looks Like." And I don't look like that. Sometimes when I talk to "active members" of "the community," I suspect they think I'm scared to "act gay" because I have straight friends and don't want homosexuality to define me. In truth, I'm just being me, and "me" doesn't fit into their notion of "being gay." (Granted, my experience with these groups has been limited, but that's my perception-and in this case perception is everything).

Similarly, the most recent mention of an "LGBT issue" in The Chronicle was in an article about finding a larger space on campus for the LGBT center. "Surely, the gay center should be well-decorated," its director, Karen Krahulik, says in the story. Is this really the message we want the director of the LGBT center sending? I realize she's kidding, but subtly she's promoting the very stereotypes which help stop some guys from coming out.

To be honest, I probably wouldn't have come out myself, had it not been for a close friend who unexpectedly did. His coming out enabled me to envision myself coming out, to envision a society in which I could be gay, but not only gay - in which my sexual orientation did not have to be my defining characteristic.

I have been told by gay people at this school I am uncomfortable with my sexuality because I am not more "involved" with "the community." What they don't seem to understand is I don't care if they accept me as "gay enough." I don't want to be seen as gay or straight; I want to be seen as me. Oftentimes I see gay guys lecturing straight people on how they don't want to be judged by their sexuality, when their sexuality is all they talk about. Maybe real gay activism would involve creating an environment in which all people could feel comfortable coming out, without feeling like they're going to be deemed self-hating if they consider their gayness only one aspect of their personality.

I know there are people at Duke who think they might be gay and don't know what to do. None of the images they see of homosexuality represent who they are. They don't identify with "the community." My best advice to you is to remember the ultimate authority on you is you. And there are people like you, we just may be a little harder to find.

Lucas Schaefer is a Trinity junior.


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