Did you know that as recently as the 1960s Duke’s University Security was writing letters back and forth with the FBI in collaborative efforts to identify potential homosexual members of the Duke student population and expel them? A security activity report on campus crime in 1964 lists “homosexuals” along with “explosives”, “fires in dormitories”, “rapes”, “assaults”, and “intoxication”. At least 64 gay men (apparently gay women didn’t exist back then) were expelled for the “crime” of homosexuality during this time period. This is our history.
If you took the time to walk through the Queering Duke exhibit in Perkins Library last semester, you would have been able to see some jaw-dropping documents on display. Reading a typewritten letter from former president Sanford openly condemning homosexuality and implying it to be a “choice” sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t believe it, but somehow, there it was in front of me.
What I find even more chilling is the fact that President Sanford was considered to be one of the most progressive leaders of his time. Current Duke president Brodhead noted in his remarks at the opening of the Queering Duke exhibit that U.S. President John F. Kennedy even considered dropping Lyndon Johnson and taking Sanford as his VP candidate for his second term for this very reason!
We have come a long way. Now when I think of progressive leaders on Duke’s campus, I think of Jacob Tobia pulling off killer heels on a flyer for a DSG Equity and Outreach position claiming to be the “Candidate with the Best Platform(s).”
That said, I still can’t shake the fact that there are still 29 states—North Carolina being one of them—where it is legal to fire someone for being homosexual. There are still 16 states without full marriage equality. The average lifespan of a transgender individual is still just 23 years old. Transgender persons are four times more likely to live in poverty and experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. Not to mention transgender persons of color experience unemployment of up to four times the national rate. On top of all this, there are still people who think it is okay to attend gay pride parades with disgustingly hateful posters—it’s not a prejudice they feel the need to hide. Yet, that is.
I am blessed to have friends all over the spectrum of sexuality and gender performance. Witnessing their journeys and acceptance of themselves has been critical to my own path towards greater self-love, acceptance and exploration. When hanging out, social justice is naturally a topic that pops up in our conversations. We have all pondered what it will take for society to reach full acceptance for sexual and gender diversity. A couple weeks ago, one of my guy friends who identifies as bisexual made a point I found very eye opening. “Discrimination against non-heterosexual individuals has much less to do with hatred,” he said, “And much more to do with fear.”
We considered the many degrees of this fear. There is fear of not being able to put someone in a predictable category or box. “As a bisexual male, it’s frustrating when people think I identify as bi because I am just not brave enough to say I’m gay,” my friend said. “I have explored. I like both. I am bi. Period. And that’s scary to them for some reason because it feels too variable.” He went on to discuss how those who usually felt most threatened by his sexual liberation were straight men. It was as though they saw his identity expression as a threat to their own masculinity. This perceived threat sometimes led to the next degree of fear, a fear of being associated with homosexuality and responding through aggressive attempts to distance oneself from it by hurling hurtful remarks like “That’s so gay” and “Don’t be such a f*g.” It’s the perfect example of pushing someone else down to erase one’s own discomfort with one’s self— of trying to prove one’s strength, but actually more thoroughly pronouncing one’s insecurity instead.
I was reminded of another comment a female friend of mine had made that “one of the greatest marks of homophobia is the fear of being perceived as non-heterosexual.” This is something even those who wish to serve as allies can find themselves struggling to overcome. Where does this fear come from, we wondered. How could socialization and taboo possibly be that powerful? Are we truly that terrified that if people could freely express their own identities then it would put our own in question? What does that say about the stability of the means we use to define ourselves?
Despite all of the questioning this issue digs up, I still believe we are making progress forward. Because the events that happened at Duke in the 1960s do feel shocking now. And one day the homophobic events presently happening on campus and across the country will feel shocking, too.
I believe, one day, the worst that will come of an individual exploring their sexuality will be that person realizing they don’t like something, for themselves, and letting that be that. No judgment, no boxes, no xyz label. I believe, one day, a person’s sexuality will not be seen as their entire identity, but rather just one of many characteristics that make up who they are. I believe it will seem obvious that gender is a spectrum— and the concept of needing to identify as entirely straight or entirely gay will seem outdated. The binary of gender will be recognized as the social construction that it is— an obsolete tool derived from unfounded fear, need to categorize, and need for certainty.
Spoken word artist Andrea Gibson—who also happens to be queer—writes, “I am what I am when I am it.” I believe, one day, this will be an expression we feel applies to all of us. Because we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to decide. We can just be.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday.
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