Finding gay friendship in college

In in the past three years, I have written extensively—and often pessimistically—about being gay at Duke. My ramblings have covered how every aspect of being gay at Duke is uncomfortable: from finding a roommate, to walking past the chapel, to finding someone to date. Many students, alumni and professors have reached out to me to discuss an article, which I always appreciate and enjoy. But looking back I realize that I have painted a rather sad, although nuanced, picture of being gay at Duke. In reality, over the years I have experienced many beautiful moments of being gay and finding a community on campus. And I want to celebrate that—as well as reflect on why it can be difficult for most of us.

For this piece, I am going to speak mainly on my experiences with gay men, and for two reasons. First, it’s the experience I know and understand best, and I don’t want to extrapolate too much on the broader experiences of friendship within the queer community. Second, friendships with gay men carry an extra complexity due to the element of romance that in a school the size of Duke leads to interesting and distancing dynamics. I am sure woman-loving-woman circles experience this phenomenon as well, and I hope other columnists cover the ground I am unable to.

Being gay often feels like being a joke. We were raised on television shows and movies that made it a punchline, and those of us who were flamboyant growing up were taunted for it. Now in 2021, we have our right to marry and access to institutions of privilege, but there’s a social anxiety that will always exist, whether real or imagined. This exists for any member of the queer community who dresses or acts in a way that society labels as queer. As I get older, I try to overcome my fear of being laughed at or teased, and in doing so I compensate by making myself the center of attention. There’s a book called Velvet Rage that apparently talks more about this, but it was too accurate to my personal life, so I did not finish it. But my real point is, that I enter social situations with distrust and defensiveness—sometimes displacing this anger on other gays.

There are not many gay friend groups at Duke, rather a scattered network of gay men who know each other’s names but have never spoken. It’s odd to me that we don’t seek each other out, but I see many reasons why. When I entered Duke, I still had the fear of being perceived as gay (I think it’s called internalized homophobia), so I remember being nervous around other gays because it more clearly identified me as a gay person. I didn’t want to increase the reasons for people to laugh at me. Or maybe I saw them as competition, as they were performing the role of gay person better than me. I was still relying on friendships with straight people, and it made me do a great disservice to people going through the exact same thing as me.

Another reason that prevents friendship between gay men is the fact that some of us want to have sex with each other. Now, in a mature network of well-adjusted adults, this shouldn’t have to be an issue. But in the early adult years of college, this can sever the potential for friendship early on. And with the tiny gay dating pool at Duke, after a few hook-ups, you have effectively blocked your ties to entire social circles. It’s a shame that the awkwardness of college sex is so hard to overcome, and that flings end badly when two individuals could just continue as friends. But we are still left with a challenging cocktail of emotions when it comes to other gays, leaving us to be either enemies, allies or lovers—but never anything in between.

In addition to the drama of social cliques and sex, there are the issues of identity within the gay community. Some of us merely share a sexual preference, and come from vastly different backgrounds. Members of the gay or queer community may be separated by these factors, and predominantly white and upper class gay men create a culture of exclusivity. Luckily at Duke, the white gays in frats have not formed a clique yet, so their power as of now is diluted. But there are many other power dynamics within social circles and identities that prevent a cohesive community from properly forming.

Despite this, I have somehow managed to surround myself with gay men at Duke (groundbreaking right?). Some of my best friends are indeed women, as I will never let go of the strong girls and gays alliance formed since middle school gym class. But friendships with gay men are something I have had to work hard to develop in my time at Duke, and it has brought me a newfound comfort with my identity. It doesn’t just validate me, it makes me feel normal in some way. And I let down the guard I never realized I had up.

In 2019, I had the amazing opportunity of living in both San Francisco and Madrid, two of the gayest cities in the world. During these programs, I made or built on spectacular friendships with queer men that elevated my experiences and gave me a window into life post-Duke. Outside the environment of Duke, it was so easy to see how much we had in common, and connect in a way that didn’t happen as much on campus. Whether I was attending pride in San Francisco, volunteering at a queer film festival in the Castro theater, or dancing at a certain infamous gay club in Berlin, I was seeing the bigger picture of what gay community could look like.

I am so lucky to have the gay friendships that I have, and I want the same for everyone else at Duke. Of course I had help from my very gay inclusive selective living group, but many of my gay friends were made through various programs, random encounters or classes. It took me dropping my insecurities in being seen as gay and removing my internalized fears of showing even platonic affection towards other gay men. 

When I go out somewhere with a group of gays, I know people might laugh at us or give a side-eye. To be fair, we probably look a little bit ridiculous or over-dressed. But at least now, I’m not alone in my experience. We’re in on the joke together.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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