What we learned from planning Duke's first Pride Invitational

guest column

“This weekend was perfect for me and was helpful to not only my decision to commit, but my mental health. I feel like here I can actually (and now already do) have a community of gay people which I've never had before, and without this weekend, I don't think that would've been possible.”

This quote from a participant of Duke’s 2019 Pride Invitational program reflects a sentiment that many of us may have felt as high school seniors: excitement to set foot on campus but apprehension about what joining the “Duke family” actually entails. As the turbulent period of high school exams and yearbook signing comes to a close, we end a chapter of our lives and begin writing a  new story, full of exploration and newfound challenges. And this process is especially unique for those beginning to tackle questions about their sexuality and gender identity. 

As minority students ourselves, we were in the midst of embracing the singularities of our own stories when we began planning Duke’s first Pride Invitational. As we learned to overcome certain obstacles and form pockets of community where we felt safe, we realized that our collective experiences could be leveraged to make this transition into college a bit easier for those who came after us. 

This wasn’t a novel idea: programs like Latino Student Recruitment Weekend (LSRW) and the Black Student Alliance Invitational (BSAI) have long been connecting Latinx and Black students with specially catered resources and programming. We interacted with these programs ourselves and saw how participants arrived on campus with a cohort that they could lean on and already aware of what Duke provided. We recognized that a similar program for incoming LGBTQIA+ students could be crucial to their sense of safety and community at a time when many of them are only just beginning to explore their identities. 

Such a program had long been just an unlikely possibility among Duke’s queer circles, but in fall, 2017 we decided to forge this idea into a reality. Just bright-eyed sophomore Duke Student Government senators at the time, we could never have imagined the rollercoaster ride that planning an invitational program from scratch would entail. How could we convince Duke that, in order to make its goals of diversity and student safety a tangible practice, this invitational was a necessity? How could we convince high school seniors to expose themselves to an LGBTQIA+ college program at a time when being openly queer continues to carry the risk of violence and shame?

These questions planted themselves at the front of our minds as we began piecing the program together. We spent two years committed to planning: meeting with students and faculty, exchanging countless emails, reaching out to Durham groups, pursuing funding, and coordinating volunteers. 

Finally, in April 2019, Duke welcomed its inaugural Pride Invitational group. These students had all followed very different paths to reach this point, but arrived with a shared eagerness to explore Duke and Durham and an open mindedness towards what the community might offer them. They participated in a welcoming event at the CSGD, an “Honesty Hour” at the Mary Lou Williams Center, a dinner at the LGBTQ Center of Durham, a drag show featuring local performers Naomi Dix and Stormie Daie, an alumnx and faculty brunch, and finally, closing remarks from President Vincent Price. 

We watched with delight as participants stood in a circle before heading out, laughing as they passed their phones around to exchange numbers and follow each other on social media. This was the small community we had set out to create—the first sparks of a flame that will hopefully be stoked with each iteration of the program. 

Creating this program taught us how to tackle the web of Duke’s bureaucracies head-on. We learned to compromise when necessary and defend our ideas when they were met with resistance. We discovered which administrators were our allies and which offices would elevate our work. We were grateful to have the support of the Office of Admissions and Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, but we knew early on that we would be doing a lot of labor on Duke’s behalf. 

Duke is making its mark among its peers in promoting inclusion and safety for its LGBTQ+ students. Of course, despite the program’s rainbow aesthetic, we know that participants will eventually arrive on campus and confront a reality as queer students that will not always be rainbows and sunshine. Historically, the university has discriminated against its queer community and these effects still live on today. The invitational is born from this history and the need to combat its legacy.

We hope this article might act as a call to others to join us in tackling these concerns and building a better program in the following years. We hope it serves as an institutional record for future student organizers and an anecdote of perseverance and patience in advocating for our communities, often in spite of resistance and deflection. 

We recognize that this invitational is just a small step in the right direction for Duke. But we are confident that its growth will allow LGBTQIA+ students to form unbreakable bonds to shield one another from societal discrimination. In acknowledging what Duke lacks and revealing what it has to offer, we can begin setting the foundation for what Duke can be. 

We want to thank the CSGD, the Office of Admissions, the LGBTQ+ Center of Durham, all our volunteers, and, of course, our participants for working in community to build a better Duke.

Maryam Asenuga and Ivan Robles are Trinity seniors and co-creators of the Pride Invitational. Asenuga is the DSG Cabinet Director for Multi-cultural and Racial Outreach, and Robles is the DSG Vice President of Equity and Outreach.


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