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Devils in the closet

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It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday night at Duke, and I am happily tucked in bed after a long night of socializing. Bored and curious, I open up the gay dating app Grindr and scroll through eligible bachelors in my area. The page is filled with blank anonymous profiles, mostly college-aged and within 1,000 feet of me. Bios read “Discreet” and “DL” (down-low) or say “DM me for a face pic.” The few profiles with face pics belong to my friends. 

The gay community at Duke is notoriously underground. Even with an overall tolerant campus environment, active queer spaces, and LGBTQ organizations, there is a tension within the gay community that keeps it dispersed and sometimes hidden. Queer students who are out and proud form tight-knit groups based on common identity and feelings of safety. Gay male students who assimilate better into traditional social groups are removed from queer circles and organizational involvment. And many more gay male students do not disclose their sexuality on campus, or prefer to keep it private. There are forces at Duke, not necessarily unique to Duke, that act to prevent gay inclusion. I will focus mainly on the gay male experience, as it’s the one I know best.

Thanks to enormous leaps in gay visibility, we tend to think homophobia has been eradicated. Five years ago, when gay marriage was legalized in the U.S., many saw it is a cultural marker of a concrete change. Gay culture exploded into the mainstream media. This altered aspects of life ranging from more gay characters on TV to what is considered socially acceptable vocabulary. This influx of acceptance and immediate monetization legitamized the gay rights movement, and set new standards for how to be inclusive. It was so sudden and drastic that we tend to forget how society has treated gay people in the past. We wrongly assume this wave of acceptance is universal and ubiquitous.

All-male spaces can be intrinsically hostile for gay men. In middle school and high school, I was surrounded by all-male groups much more frequently than I am now. I remember how homophobia functioned in guy groups. Being gay wasn’t just an undesirable thing to be, it was the undesirable thing to be. Jokes about homosexual acts and acting feminine constituted peak humor. As we grew up, we became less bigoted towards actual gay people, but the concept of being gay remained in opposition to masculinity, and thus implicitly out-of-place in our circles. In groups of guys, our conversations revolved around the attractiveness of women and the achievement of hooking up with women. The idea that one of us was gay was never on the table.

When I came out after high school, I remained friends with all of my guy friends. They were extremely supportive and I noticed a huge shift in our conversations and their efforts to include me. But it took having a gay person around to actively create an inclusive environment. In the cultural shift towards acceptance of gay people, I see this pattern among all-male circles. They are increasingly tolerant towards gay people, but operate under the assumption that their peers are straight until someone tells them differently. 

For example, in my first year here, I was in a room with some guys and one of them called another guy a f**. Immediately after, he turned to me, and said “Ah, sorry, Nathan. I need to stop saying that.” It was acceptable to be homophobic towards a straight person, but unacceptable to be homophobic towards a gay person. This attitude limits the inclusivity of guy groups, and acts as another mechanism to keep closeted gay individuals in the closet.

Duke has many all-male spaces that create an innately exclusive, even if tolerant, environment for gay men. In gendered greek organizations, mixers and date functions create an expectation that members are interested in members of the opposite sex. The dominant straight culture creates a clearly defined norm, making it harder for gay members to publicy break this norm. A lack of visibility of openly gay members encourages a continual invisibility of discreet members. 

The barriers to coming out at Duke go beyond perceived social pressures. Queer students at Duke who grew up in brazenly homophobic families or church communities face external pressure even when away from home. Publicly disclosing their sexuality could mean losing support from their family, both emotionally and financially. Many queer people at Duke fear severe ramifications from coming out publicly, and must wait till financial independence to be open. Their identity is a threat to their place at Duke.

I see Duke changing, becoming more open, as each class seems to have more out gay students than its predecessor. My class had a queer GroupMe of only about 30 students before we got to campus. Openly gay people are integrating in social organizations more than ever before. I have gay friends who never would have considered taking a guy to a date function as a first-year, but now could happily take their partner and maybe not even be the only gay couple there. Gendered social organizations are expanding their language in how they talk about gender, opening up possibilities for members outside the binary. 

With all of this visible change, we tend to forget where we were not too long ago. It’s also easy to overlook the spaces on campus that remain unwelcoming to queer people, which often need the most efforts in inclusivity. Fear of rejection from one’s closest community prevents queer people from disclosing their sexuality. 

The road to self-acceptance and social acceptance is long for gay people. I personally know how difficult it is to get there when surrounded by traditional or all-male communities. I think most students at Duke would be nothing but accepting to their friends if they came out as gay. But they need to be accepting before that point. Being an ally is more than supporting openly queer people. It is creating an environment that is holistically inclusive to queer people, whether you think they are present or not. 

Be ready for your friends and peers when they are ready to step out of the closet. But leave the door unlocked.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity junior. His column typically runs on alternate Mondays.

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