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Becoming Visible: The Rise of Duke's LGBTQ Community

** denotes that an individual’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday, and senior Chris Perry is weighing his options for the afternoon. For the most part, they seem to be as follows: Read about steel. Draw diagrams of steel. Do equations about steel.

“Can you believe it? I’m taking an entire class on steel,” he says, pulling a blue baseball cap on backwards over his short brown hair. He jabs his finger across the desk to the brick of a book sitting beside his laptop. Steel Structures: Design and Behavior. “Every civil engineering major thinks they’re going to learn to build skyscrapers, and then there you are senior year, still trying to figure out how to stack metal beams on each other.”

Truth be told, what Chris wants to be doing at this moment has nothing to do with engineering—but everything to do with building of a different kind. In November 2009, he built a blog, Blue Devils United, to serve as a sounding board for LGBTQ student life at Duke (That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, for those of you keeping score). After that, he built a team of writers—gay and straight and in-between—all of them thoughtful and clever and relentlessly opinionated. Then he built a reader base. To this day he can’t tell you who they all are, just that some 300 of them visit the site every day. And as all of these pieces stack and interlock, Perry hopes the blog is helping to build something else—a community for gay students under Duke’s gothic arches.

Of course, that goal stretches light years beyond a single Web site and its founder, but the blog’s popularity is also no fluke. LGBTQ students at Duke today are more visible, more open and more organized than they’ve ever been before—steadying themselves against a campus that, while not always welcoming, is always susceptible to change. In fact, with a fourth of the undergraduate student body graduating every year, it all but has to be.

“There was so little visibility freshman and sophomore year—it was really difficult to find even one other gay person on campus,” Perry says. “But every incoming class has just been more out than the one before it—it’s crazy to see.”

But being gay or queer at Duke doesn’t just mean deciding where you fit into the great jigsaw puzzle of Duke student life generally. It’s also about making a space for yourself within the gay community—that is, if you think of it as a community at all.

Look across the pool of Duke’s LGBTQ students, and what you see looks a lot like a page out of a University admissions brochure, an almost comically diverse cross-section of the student body. There are athletes and musical theater aficionados and sorority girls, international students with crisp foreign accents and civil engineers who dream of becoming political activists. There are the men with hoop earrings and sparkly pink nails, the ones who, as one student put it, “couldn’t hide it if they tried.” And then there are the ones who do hide it—every day, from everyone, for four straight years. But between them lies a massive spectrum of experiences and trajectories, a group of students who prove incisively that there is no one way to be gay at Duke.

“When people ask me what our students are like, I say, ‘everything,’” says Janie Long, director of the Center for LGBT Life. “They’re like everything.”

On October 14, 2010, the Plaza went Technicolor. It started with bunches of brightly colored balloons tied to poles and tables. Then came the rainbow balloon arch, swaying over the Plaza’s entranceway and the legions of rainbow flags, clinging to ledges and railings and stairs. Drenching the monochromatic path to the BC with color, however, was only part of the day’s program. It was Duke’s National Coming Out Day celebration, and nearly 20 student groups—from the undergraduate gay-straight alliance Blue Devils United to the Law School’s OUTLaw—had set up tables to distribute information about LGBTQ life at Duke.

But one act quickly stole the show. Duke may be a campus of individuals, but its students unite under a powerful and simple truth: the path to their hearts goes straight through free t-shirt-ville (population: you). And National Coming Out Day was no exception. Throughout the morning, a long line snaked its way through the rainbow arch to the tables of volunteers distributing brightly colored t-shirts emblazoned with a two-word slogan: LOVE=LOVE, and an image of three stick figure couples—one male-female, one male-male, and one female-female. Within three hours, the stack of more than 1,500 t-shirts had disappeared.

As Janie Long is quick to point out, however, getting Duke students to descend en masse on a table of gay pride t-shirts isn’t exactly an age-old phenomenon. There was a time at Duke when National Coming Out day looked more like National Totally Inauspicious Friday in October Day, when the best she could pull together in celebration of the event was a “coming out” dinner in the LGBT Center—attended by five students.

Oh yeah, and that time? It was four years ago.

“It’s funny to me now to look around and realize that none of the students on this campus were here before Coming Out Day as we now know it,” she says. “They can’t even begin to appreciate what it was like before.”

But Long herself is pretty well versed in the particulars of that before. When she arrived at the LGBT Center in the Fall of 2006 to take the reins as its director, the thing that surprised her most was how empty it was. “I kept asking myself, where are all the students?”

The Center, which occupies a sprawling space beneath the Loop, was always intended to serve as a social and organizing space for the entire community of LGBTQ-identified students and their allies, but instead Long found that it was regularly visited by a grand total of five students, all of whom she says, “pretty much lived there.” The tiny group regarded the Center as their only safe haven on campus, a position Long says she found “totally understandable,” but their ethic wasn’t exactly inclusive.

“Every Friday we had an open social event called “Socially Queer,’” she says. “They’d all sit on the couch in the back room, turn on Star Trek, and watch it in the dark.”

Long, however, had other plans. As she negotiated with the small community of Center regulars, she started making herself known on campus, speaking to any student group or administrator who would have her. She worked to support and build the sluggish LGBTQ-oriented student groups and organized people to ride a Duke float for the annual North Carolina Pride Parade. And one more thing—Socially Queer had to change.

In its place, Long put together an event she named Fabulous Friday. “We turned the lights on,” she says. “We made it an actual social event.” By the end of Long’s first year, in May 2007, Fab Friday regularly pulled in a crowd of 15. By the end of the following year, that number was 25—and Coming Out Day hit the Plaza for the first time. The first round of LOVE=LOVE shirts had found their way across campus, and suddenly, Long says, you didn’t have to guess that there were people who supported LGBTQ students on this campus. You could see them every day in your engineering lecture and your English seminar, standing in front of you in line at Dillo or scrunched beside you on the common room couch during a Duke basketball game. And more and more, they started coming to the Center—for community, for activism, and just because it looked like a fun place.

“I used to say when I first started, the campus needs to know we’re here,” she says. “And how are they going to know if we don’t tell them?”

But when you’re 18, far from home, and just trying to figure out what the hell tenting, jungle juice and Econ 51 are, often the last thing you want to do is wedge a point of difference between you and everyone you know.

Junior Ollie Wilson, now the President of Blue Devils United, says that after traveling halfway around the world from New Zealand for college, he didn’t want in his first semester to be known as “the foreign gay.” So, he says, he told just a few friends, and steered clear of the LGBT Center—at least for a while.

“I didn’t want to be typecast,” he says.

Looking out across East Campus their first semester, many students say, they didn’t know what kind of school Duke was for LGBTQ students—or how far out on a limb they could go with their sexuality. “One person asked me how being gay was going, as if I were trying out a new diet plan,” says Hassaan Ghuman**, a senior who is currently taking a year off to work for an environmental organization.

Before sophomore Veronica Ray even arrived on campus, her assigned roommate asked to switch rooms after seeing on Facebook that Ray identified as gay. That kind of hostility is particularly jarring when you come to college thinking you’re walking into a totally safe space, says freshman Jacob Tobia. In high school, his older friends always played college up as a kind of gay Mecca, full of cute, smart boys to date and interesting causes to work for. He arrived at Duke unapologetically out and in search of an LGBTQ community on campus.

At one of the first BDU meetings he attended, someone gave him a rainbow flag to put up in his dorm window. But when he hung the flag—from a common room in his East Campus dorm—someone tore it down. And not just once, over and over again.

“It was one of the only times in my life that I’ve been so angry that I literally couldn’t go to sleep,” he says. “I felt profoundly alone. Taking a flag down that is a symbol of someone’s identity and throwing it on the ground crumpled up in a ball says, you are worthless. You don’t belong here and you are worthless.”

Tobia’s flag was part of an ongoing visibility campaign that Blue Devils United has waged since last Spring. According to Wilson, during this school year alone they’ve received more than 200 requests from students asking for a flag to hang, a sign he sees as evidence that despite incidents like what happened to Tobia, the Duke community as a whole takes LGBTQ issues seriously.

Not every LGBTQ student is clamoring for a pride flag of their own, however. “If I have a pride flag in my window, that puts one single label on me,” junior Alex Eisner** says. “Just like I don’t want people to not talk to me because I’m gay, I also don’t want people to talk to me just because I’m gay.”

For him, that’s reason enough to avoid the LGBT Center, though he says he doesn’t knock its value for many students. But on a campus with only 6,000 undergraduates, if you’re out and choose not to frequent the established LGBTQ-oriented space, finding others like you—whether for empathy or…other purposes—takes a bit of creativity. Many gay men say they troll among other Web sites Craigslist and Facebook, ask friends, and scope out who’s at Triangle LGBTQ bars, compiling an informal list of the men who are out and open on Duke’s campus.

“It’s not official, I don’t have a card or anything, but I’d definitely say I’m in a network,” Eisner says. “We all know who’s who.”

But if the men at least know who’s out there, many women feel that they’re kicking around in the dark. Junior Megan Weinand and senior Summer Puente say they’d guess there are five or maybe six “really out” women at Duke. Ray told me she only knew 20 lesbian or bisexual women in total on campus—many of them closeted.

Any way you cut it, the pickings are slim. And that can create a vicious circle. If not many women on campus openly identify as lesbian or bisexual, not many more will want to. “You come to Duke and you don’t want to be ‘that girl,’” Weinand says, “because ‘that girl’ is really tired. She’s always having to be the voice for all the queer women on this campus and she just seems exhausted.”

Puente says that even within the Center, many women feel marginalized—outnumbered and overlooked by their gay male friends. They say they often feel the pressure to walk a tightrope between standing up for themselves and not coming across as too militant or distancing.

Neither Puente nor Weinand, however, seems interested in making the issue into a gay steel-cage death match between the genders—after all, the L and the G have to stand right next to each other in LGBTQ until the end of time. And anyway, they say they’re more interested in making Duke women feel like they can identify as something other than straight on campus.

But trying to change the culture of an entire school isn’t exactly the simplest of projects, and it can be dizzyingly difficult to translate frustration into a tangible goal. So when Long suggested to Weinand last Spring that she start up a magazine about the experiences of queer women, she snapped at the chance to finally do something, and quickly drew together a staff—including both women and men—to steer the ship. That summer, she, Puente, and their managing editor, Jack Grote, nabbed University funding, scoped out submissions, and gave the formless thing a name: WOMYN.

By early November, they were done, and the completed product finally arrived on campus: a stack of Duke-blue magazines with superhero-esque female devil staring out from the cover. Long says she couldn’t be more proud of the final product, but for Weinand and Puente, its real success will come from something they can’t ever really measure—they hope that queer women on campus will pick the magazine up, flip through its pages, and perhaps finally see themselves at Duke.

For senior Allison McDonald,** that’s already happened, both through the magazine and the staff who put it together. “I’m so grateful to these women who are out there, being spokespeople [for LGBTQ women] so the rest of us don’t have to be,” she says.

Anyway, McDonald couldn’t exactly tell you what she’d be a spokesperson for. She never considered herself anything but straight—until she fell in love with her female best friend.

The pair started dating covertly at the beginning of their junior year. McDonald says the secret weighed heavy on her, but she was afraid of how people would see her if they let it slip out. Anyway, she says, she’d fallen in love with a person, not a gender. But with her sorority sisters in particular, everything felt suddenly complicated. Should she go to mixers with fraternities, even though she wasn’t exactly barking up that tree? And what about date functions? Could she bring her girlfriend?

She tried it once, she says, though they posed as “just friends.” The following weekend at her chapter meeting, the sorority president chastised the group for inviting “too many women” to their date function. From there on out, she told them, they were only to bring “real dates.”

“It was like they didn’t even consider the fact that I could have been bringing another woman because she was my girlfriend,” McDonald says. After that, she says she began to withdraw from her sorority’s social functions—not because she felt any malice toward the individual women, but because greek culture no longer felt like it offered her what it once had. Most of all, say McDonald and other greek-affiliated students interviewed for this piece, it promotes the assumption that everyone is straight—frats mix with sororities. Sororities have date functions with frats. And while there’s sometimes room for individual LGBT greeks to subvert the system and be accepted, the culture as a whole isn’t exactly leading the charge for inclusivity.

***

“I’ve never done this before, so here it goes: I’m a senior at Duke, and I have a big secret,” began an anonymous post on the Blue Devils United blog on September 13. “The big secret is that I’m gay…I’ve never told anyone except [one friend] before because my parents wouldn’t allow it, I have a girlfriend and I’m in a fraternity at Duke…We’re supposed to look good and fuck girls and play around because we can. And I do.”

Since the start of the BDU blog last Fall, the site has featured a weekly anonymous post, an unpredictable soup of love letters (“This blog is AMAZING!!”), political rants, and personal stories—many of them testaments to the loneliness of only being able to confess your sexuality anonymously.

“I’m gay,” the poster continued, “but I’m not gay in the way my [fraternity] brothers mean the word—I’m not weak and I’m not weird. I’m just gay. I like guys. And I’m really, really afraid.”

For junior Anthony Jenkins** things are even more complicated. In one sense he’s been out since he was 15—as a lesbian. But when he got to Duke, he remembers, he started to feel a lurking discomfort just being in his own skin. Everywhere he went on campus, he realized, people saw him as a woman—a fact that made him feel increasingly anxious. By February of his sophomore year, he’d admitted to himself that he was transgender.

But that threw him into a newer and even more terrifying closet, he says, one he says he’s been trying to kick his way out of ever since. “Every month or so I decide I want to take another teeny tiny baby step, like buying men’s jeans, and I make myself sick with fear about people’s reactions, but then when I actually do it no one even notices,” he wrote in an email.

Jenkins says he visits the Center, and is out to Long and a couple of students he’s met there—as well as several of his close friends. But he says he hasn’t yet felt comfortable introducing himself to the rest of the Center cohort as Anthony, rather than his female name. “I do think people would be supportive if I was able to reach out to them,” he told me, “but, well, I’m still in the abject terror stage.”

On a Friday afternoon in early November, the Center opened its doors for its weekly Fab Friday social hour. But on this particular afternoon, as the 50 or so students who’d dropped in flopped down on the couches, talking and noshing on cookies and fruit, there were also some special guests in the house, representatives of the newly minted Duke LGBT Alumni Network. When the room settled down, they introduced themselves and explained their group, which was designed to provide networking opportunities for LGBTQ-identified Duke grads.

As the two men made their pitch, they kept looking out into their audience incredulously. “I can’t believe how many of you there are here today,” Maneesh Goyal, Trinity ’97, said.

When he was a student in the mid ‘90s, he remembered, the Center was just a couple of offices tacked onto counseling services. He himself didn’t come out until after he graduated. But when returned to campus this year, he said, it immediately felt different. As Goval walked across campus he saw a rainbow flag hanging from someone’s window. Then another. And another. By the time he reached the Center, he’d counted seven in total.

“Coming back here and seeing that,” he said smiling, “that was like a welcome banner for me.”

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