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BDU president Emma Cairns recounts history of LGBTQ+ community at Duke, outlines goals for next year

As Duke strives to become a more inclusive institution, sophomore Emma Cairns will ensure that LGBTQ+ students have a seat at the table.

Cairns, a member of the independent Editorial Board, was elected as the next president of Blue Devils United, which strives to provide LGBTQ+ students with social opportunities, ability to outreach to Duke and advocacy for their needs. 

When Cairns initially joined BDU as a first-year, running for president did not cross her mind, as students tend to assume major leadership positions later in their Duke career.

“When I first joined BDU I had no plans of running for president,” Cairns said. “But the more involved I got and the more I got to know last years leadership team, the more I realized it was the place I wanted to be.”

With consistent participation at BDU events and the advice of older peers—such as outgoing president Max Bernell, Trinity '19—Cairns was motivated to be at the helm of BDU.

“I was drawn to BDU mainly because I had never been in a place where a group like it existed,” she said. “As in, at my high school, there [were not] any spaces for LGBTQ+ students to connect with each other.”

As president, Cairns is prepared to strengthen the organization’s goals substantially. Cairns noted a history of restrictive policies in North Carolina against LGBTQ+ rights, specifically those of transgender people.

For example, North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2 in March 2016, which mandated that individuals use the bathroom corresponding to their sex at birth. 

The legislation drew the ire of the entire nation, including the NBA. Under the guidance of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Trinity ‘84, the NBA pulled the 2015 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

Although HB2 was later repealed, this incident propelled Cairns to pursue social activism on behalf of LGBTQ+ people. 

On campus, there has been vandalism and a death threat against LGBTQ+ students, and students have come together to support the LGBTQ+ community.

“I also had some vague idea of Duke’s history with LGBTQ+ students on campus, including incidences of hate crime in the last four years, and North Carolina’s legal battles over trans people’s access to use public restrooms,” Cairns said. “Both of these things also inspired me to get involved with whatever was happening in LGBTQ+ communities on campus.” 

Even if some of the goals appear “lofty” at first glance, Cairns said that the high standards set have inspired BDU to surpass any barriers in the way and to accommodate any suggestions from new voices. 

She is particularly focused on extending medical coverage to students undergoing hormonal transition and improving the general ways in which Duke discusses those outside of the gender binary.

Hopefully, as students feel more comfortable on campus, Cairns added, BDU will be able to discover hidden issues and provide solutions for them.

“We plan on leaving open the specific issues we would like to tackle until the new academic year rolls around simply because—if any students not currently involved with BDU come forward with an area for advocacy that they are passionate about—we want to be able to effectively support them in pursuing that change making,” Cairns said.


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