Last weekend a friend asked me if I had any wise senior advice for the incoming Class of 2022. My immediate reaction was of shock that I was actually a senior and that I only had a month left at Duke. But the question prompted me to start reflecting on my time at Duke, what I may have done differently, what I really “learned” over the course of my academic experience. When I think back to my biggest regret—besides missing out on the Alfred Hitchcock class or sleeping through my first Chem 101 exam—my answer always stems back to spending the first 19 years of my life in the closet.
I pretended to be straight for 19 years, repressing my feelings so far back that I actually convinced myself that sexuality was a choice. But everything hit the fan sophomore year. My grades were awful, I was skipping class multiple times a week. I drank too much and let many friendships fade away; my mental health was at one of its lowest points ever. For a while I could not pinpoint what was wrong, except I knew that sometimes when I drank a bit too much that my attraction toward men would begin to creep its way out and cause me to drink even more in an attempt to cover up those feelings. I remember drunkenly making my way back to my fraternity’s section, crawling up to the third floor bathroom and looking myself in the mirror. As I looked in the mirror I felt so lost and confused and let the shame I was feeling completely take over and I started sobbing on the floor of our section bathroom. After this incident, I spent the rest of the semester trying to figure out my identity, but doing so in private. I didn’t tell anyone for the longest time and bottled up my feelings for at least 5 months.
When my big, former Greek Ally Week director Tyler Nelson, asked me to get involved with Greek Ally Week as a straight ally facilitator, I felt an urge to say yes even though I knew I wasn’t exactly straight. I figured in some weird way that this might give me insider knowledge of the Greek community’s acceptance, if any, of the identity I still hadn’t fully accepted. As someone who identified as “straight,” I was tasked with leading the ally discussion group. Through breaking down the issues that plagued our campus and coming up with questions for discussion, I started to question my own sexuality even further. Years of repression because of bullies and heteronormative social spaces began to unwind. For the first time since early high school, I allowed myself to reflect on the feelings and thoughts I had toward men. What I previously brushed off as admiration was actually attraction, and I was finally able to admit to myself those three seemingly terrifying words: “I am gay.”
One of my most fond memories of the week was seeing the turnout of my own chapter. Members of my chapter from all political, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds turned out in support of the already out gay members of our organization. After seeing how my chapter and other chapters turned out in large masses to support their LGBTQ members, I felt inspired to begin the coming out process myself. I started by coming out one-by-one to several close friends, including several members of my chapter.
By the time that I felt like this was complete I was studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was ready for the big coming out to the rest of the my chapter. I decided to write an email to my entire chapter about the authentic Lukas Gschwandtner. Hitting the send button on that email is to this day on of the hardest and most nerve racking things I have ever had to do. I had this feeling of “there’s no going back from here” looming over me as I watched the message move from my Outbox to Sent. I turned off my phone and computer and went to enjoy a bottle of wine with some friends to celebrate. When I returned I had over 50 messages and emails from current members and alums expressing their happiness for me and support for me living out my authentic life.
Recognizing the inherent issues within the Greek system, this year my co-director Claire Stout and I want to use Greek Ally Week as an opportunity to address social issues as they occur in the larger Duke Community. While we are bringing back events like Ally 101 training and a panel of Greek LGBTQIA+ students to speak about their experiences at Duke and as a part of Greek life, we have added Ally 201 training, aimed at bridging the gap between Greek life and the greater Duke community, as well expanding upon topics such as intersectionality and microaggressions. We have also teamed up with the campus organization, Empower Her Voice, to put together a panel of Greek women to speak about sexual and gender violence at Duke University. The entire Greek Ally Week team, made of individuals of all years, chapters and councils, is more than excited for the week to come and look forward to the opportunities to strengthen the community.
Two years ago, the support I received from the Greek Ally Week community and from my chapter helped me to fully accept my authentic self. Greek Ally Week allowed me to become more comfortable with myself, and as one of the directors this year, I hope that I can help the Greek Community as it helped me.
Lukas Gschwandtner is a Trinity senior.