Rainbow coalition: the Duke float in last fall's North Carolina Pride Parade. Jianghai Ho
Rainbow coalition: the Duke float in last fall's North Carolina Pride Parade. Jianghai Ho

Gay. Fine by Duke?

Policies in place over the decades have made the campus climate more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, but some say acceptance is still a goal unrealized.
Writer: 
April 1, 2008
 

On a pleasant October day, a multicolored archway of balloons rises like a miniature rainbow over one end of the West Campus Plaza. To one side, students are swarming a table of pork barbecue and hush puppies, and a guitarist is performing ironic versions of top-forty hits.

Volunteers are busy passing out stickers, brochures, cookies, and T-shirts. Behind them, on the railing, hang rainbow flags, signs boasting the names of various student organizations, and banners with slogans like "Get Out and Stay Out." On the front of each free T-shirt is a short logo: "Love=Love." On the line below are three sets of universal symbols arranged side by side—a pair of female figures holding hands, a pair of male figures holding hands, and a male and a female figure holding hands.

It's not the first time Duke's LGBT community has marked the day, but it is the first time that they've done it so publicly. In years past, small groups had congregated in the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life and elsewhere on campus to support one another and encourage individuals questioning their sexuality to feel comfortable about the process. But this year, they are doing it big. Their aim is simple: visibility.

To some observers, the community's pursuit of visibility is an imperative that calls for courage. After all, they say, this is Duke, and Duke, lest we forget, is a Southern university with a capital "S." To others, it may seem offensive, silly, or even superfluous in this day and age. As an elite American university, isn't Duke a bastion of liberal political correctness?

But for those on the ground, those members of the LGBT community and straight allies who experience life at Duke every day, the reality of life on campus is more complex, more nuanced than that. In general terms, they acknowledge, the university's administration and board of trustees have been supportive of the LGBT community in recent years, embracing progressive policies and providing funding to support the center and various student groups. But press them on specifics, about such things as the campus climate and the ease of coming out of the closet at Duke, and you get mixed responses. Just about the only thing that can be said for certain is that every individual's experiences and perceptions are different.

In 1989, responding to calls from vocal gay and lesbian advocates, Duke added the category "sexual preference" to its nondiscrimination policy. By that time, the gay-rights movement was in full swing—New York's Stonewall riots, considered by many to be a watershed event in the growth of the movement, had taken place two decades earlier. And, like many other colleges and universities, as well as corporations, Duke was beginning to feel pressure to offer additional support to its gay constituents. The following year, President H. Keith H. Brodie convened a task force to advise the administration on issues of importance to gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the university community. The group remains active today, advising President Richard H. Brodhead.

Members of the task force "monitor the university climate and report back about their experiences," says Damon Seils, a senior research analyst at Duke's Center for Clinical and Genetic Economics and co-chair of the task force. The task force comprises faculty and staff members representing a variety of campus divisions—from student affairs to residence life, student health, and athletics—and students. "It's crucially important to have student voices on the task force," says Robin Buhrke, senior coordinator of research for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and a longtime task force member. "Staff and faculty experience the campus culture, but not in the way students living on campus do."

Basic equation: all for love

Basic equation: all for love. Summer Puente

The group, which reports directly to Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity, comes up with policy reports and recommendations. Seils acknowledges that the need to work through administrative bureaucracy means that sometimes the going is slow. But Laura Micham, director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture and the task force's other co-chair, points out that the task force's official capacity has allowed it to be "action-oriented, goal-oriented, and successful."

Over the years, its reports have inspired a number of changes in university policy, including, in 1994, the extension of health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees. It also supported a move to open the Duke Chapel to same-sex unions. So far, one such union has been held, in 2000.

Three years ago, the task force formed a committee to consider extending the university's nondiscrimination policy to transgender individuals. (The term "transgender" refers to any individual whose gender identity or expression differs from his or her biological sex at birth. It can include transsexuals, both pre- and post-operative; transvestites; and others who exhibit gender-bending behaviors.) The committee examined policies favored by peer institutions, as well as state governments and corporations. After ten months of research, it issued a report to Reese, recommending that the university protect transgender members of the university community from discrimination based on "gender identity or expression." Last February, the board of trustees approved an update to Duke's statement of equal opportunity that included the words "gender identity." At the same time, it voted to change the wording of the section covering gays and lesbians to refer to "sexual orientation" rather than "sexual orientation or preference," to reflect the evolution in the ways that the nature of sexual orientation is understood.

When psychologist Buhrke arrived at Duke in 1992, the university was just beginning to figure out how to offer institutional support to gay and lesbian students. As coordinator of gay and lesbian services for CAPS, she was the first staff person hired by the university to focus primarily on the LGBT student population.

She recalls spending her first few years on campus advocating, along with the task force, for a center for gay and lesbian life, "a place with a constant presence" where gay and lesbian students could come to support each other and socialize. Just downstairs from Buhrke's current office in the Page building, there is a small seminar room, measuring roughly sixteen feet by sixteen feet. This was the center's first home. "It was an empty room when we got it," she says. "We made a sign on the computer that said, 'LGB Center,' and slapped it on the door."

In the early days, the center was staffed by work-study students and graduate-student volunteers. In 1996, it moved to a slightly larger space and hired a half-time director, who also taught in the history department. By 1999, it was known as the Center for LGBT Life and had a full-time director, as well as a part-time assistant director.

Since 2004, the center has been housed in a 2,500-square-foot suite, just off the West Campus Plaza. Its full-time staff of three is led by Janie Long M.R.E. '81, who has served as director for a year and a half. A therapist by training (she holds a Ph.D. in couples and family therapy), Long previously taught on the faculties of Antioch University, the University of Georgia, Purdue University, and the University of Louisiana. She primarily trained graduate-student therapists, but also regularly taught an undergraduate course in human sexualities. On the side, she advised LGBT student groups and helped to start faculty and staff groups on several campuses.

At Duke, she has continued her commitment to the same sort of networking. Duke has several student groups dedicated to LGBT issues, at least enough that the landscape can seem confusing to an outsider. The Alliance of Queer Undergraduates at Duke, or AQUADuke, caters to undergraduates, and its partner group, Duke Allies, to straight supporters of LGBT rights. DukeOUT represents the Graduate School; OUTlaw, the law school; Sacred Worth, the divinity school; Fuqua Pride, the Fuqua School of Business; and the LGBT Alumni Network, Duke alumni.

In the past, these groups worked independently of one another to come up with programming for their various constituencies, but Long has made an effort to bring them all together, inviting the leaders of each group to join a new advisory board for the center and encouraging them to co-host campus events and collaborate on projects. "They are truly beginning to get that we can go much further on this campus in terms of increasing the visibility of the LGBT community if we work together," Long says.

"Janie's been an advocate for the center and its constituencies," says Seils, the task force co-chair. "She's been big on making sure the student organizations are active. She's been giving them a kick in the pants."

Long also created Duke's first LGBT organization geared specifically toward faculty members and employees. In just a year, its e-mail listserv has grown to more than eighty members.

For someone who reports to the division of undergraduate student affairs, her focus on the faculty, staff, and graduate student body is somewhat unorthodox. But she defends it, saying, "I'm a very big believer that we have to look at the campus as a whole." If the university is not friendly and welcoming to all LGBT people, she says, it will not be an entirely comfortable environment for LGBT undergraduate students.

In an effort to create the type of friendly campus she envisions, she has ramped up the center's programming. Every Friday, she and the center's staff host a "Fabulous Friday" themed social event. The events, which draw a regular crowd of twenty or more students, have included poker nights, a Thanksgiving dinner, and a recruiting reception sponsored by Wachovia Corporation, the country's fourth-largest bank. With the various student groups, the center has also sponsored films and lectures on campus, including a talk by gay former NBA player John Amaechi, who is now a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.

Of course, not all LGBT students at Duke use the center or socialize with the various student groups. Some say that students who patronize the center have a reputation for being cliquish, while others worry that they will be painted as LGBT activists if they attend too many events hosted by the center, even social gatherings. And there are those who have simply developed comfortable social networks and informal support systems of their own that include LGBT and straight students alike.

Comfort zone: Long, with freshman Jack Grote, works to build connections between disparate members of the university's LGBT community

Comfort zone: Long, with freshman Jack Grote, works to build connections between disparate members of the university's LGBT community. Bill Bamberger

For example, senior Jenny Williams, a lesbian who asked that her real name not be used, says that, over the last year, she has been contacted by several students looking for advice about coming out to their friends or to their parents. She gladly meets with them and tells them her own story, then listens to their stories. "They don't need me to tell them what to do," she says. "They just need to say it out loud, and know that someone understands."

Other students consult with professors. John Clum, chair of the theater studies department, who has taught at Duke for forty-two years, says that over the course of his teaching career, he'd be asked to lunch by students, and he "knew what that meant. They wanted to come out, wanted help in coming out. It's one of the most important roles I have served as a teacher."

LGBT issues remain contentious in the U.S., both socially and politically. In the wake of visible and, at times, vitriolic controversy over the consecration of its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church has been divided by the question of how to respond to LGBT parishioners and clergy. Opponents of gay marriage have passed amendments to several state constitutions explicitly banning same-sex unions.

The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay man, in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, inspired proponents of LGBT rights to promote the Matthew Shepard Act, which would extend federal hate-crime legislation to protect individuals against crimes committed against them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The act passed both houses of Congress this past fall, but did not survive a conference committee. And supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, chose to drop language protecting against discrimination on the basis of gender identity in an effort to push the bill through Congress. Despite the compromise, the bill failed to pass.

Still, advocates for Duke's LGBT community say that times are changing. They point out that this generation of college students came of age long after entertainer Ellen DeGeneres made headlines by coming out of the closet; these students were raised in an era when Will & Grace, a sitcom that prominently features several gay characters, was in syndication on network television.

Steven Petrow '78, a journalist and former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, remembers coming to terms with his sexuality in the mid-1970s. The year that Petrow started at Duke was the first year that the American Psychological Association stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disorder. "We didn't talk about LGBT then. Most gays and lesbians were closeted, were fearful."

He says that back in those days, there wasn't a support system in place for gay and lesbian students, nor were there real role models, per se. "If you watched 60 Minutes in the late '60s, gay men were always pictured in shadow behind potted plants," he says. Now, he adds, gays and lesbians are much more visible in society at large.

LGBT buttons

Summer Puente

"The younger generation of students is coming in with a high level of cultural literacy about lesbian and gay issues," says Micham, the task force co-chair. "It's common in the high-school world to have allies. Lots of students are coming out in high school, which wasn't so much the case ten years ago."

Center director Long likewise credits the prominence of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in high schools with making a huge difference in the mindsets of today's incoming college students. More than 3,500 GSAs in schools across the country have registered with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a national education organization that focuses on maintaining safe school environments.

Duke, like other places, has also changed in more subtle ways. Early in her tenure as coordinator of gay and lesbian services at CAPS, Buhrke was assigned to counsel most LGBT students who came to CAPS, regardless of their needs or questions. It's a reflection of progress, she says, that now every counselor is trained in LGBT issues, and the students "are coming in and seeing anybody in the office."

And five years ago, a group of students spearheaded a T-shirt giveaway to promote acceptance and counter public perception that Duke was a homophobic campus. They created an initial batch of 500 T-shirts featuring the slogan "Gay? Fine By Me." Demand was so strong that they ended up producing and handing out an additional 1,500 shirts in ten days, before going on to create a nonprofit organization to organize similar giveaways at other campuses. The Love=Love T-shirt giveaway on Coming Out Day was partially inspired by the success of the earlier project.

Even before Long arrived at Duke, the university was named among the twenty "best of the best" in the 2006 edition of The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students.

But despite all of the work that has been done, LGBT leaders interviewed by Duke Magazine almost universally say that coming out of the closet—and staying out of the closet—at Duke is not an entirely comfortable proposition. While some students say they find the process relatively simple, and the campus perfectly friendly, others say they do not.

Some of the pressures to stay in the closet that LGBT students say they feel come from outside Duke. When Petrow, the journalist, visited the LGBT center last spring, he and a group of students shared their coming-out stories with each other. He was shocked to find that even among the self-selected group that came to meet him, none was out to his or her parents. Many students continue to worry that if they come out their parents may cut them off, financially and emotionally, says senior Ashley Walker, president of AQUADuke.

Other pressures are more universal in nature. In almost any situation, LGBT leaders say, coming out is an emotionally—as well as politically—fraught process. A Chronicle opinion column written in November by junior Justin Noia questioned the notion of "gay pride," arguing that the concept "demands respect on account of one's sexual lifestyle," a notion he deemed unacceptable. In a reply, also published by the newspaper, third-year law student Scott Thompson, a member of OUTlaw, explained that, rather than being some sort of boast, gay pride, "like black pride or pride in any disenfranchised group," is an attempt to counter internalized homophobia developed from years of facing discrimination.

Though Duke has not had to deal with violent attacks on LGBT students like those seen on some other campuses—Vanderbilt and Georgetown universities have both seen incidents over the past year—Long says she has received reports of what she terms "hate speech" on campus—derogatory terms directed at specific LGBT individuals and at the community in general. Early in the fall semester, for example, she says she and her staff noticed that the word "faggot" had been traced in the dust on a vent right outside the center. Not long afterward, a Chronicle story about a housing issue involving a transgender student sparked public discussions between students on campus that were not always, as she euphemistically puts it, "LGBT-friendly."

"When these things happen, even though none may seem to you to be particularly atrocious, think of the cumulative effects," she says. "Our students hear about it. If it happens, they hear about it."

They also continue to hear when terms like "gay" and "fag" are thrown into everyday speech to connote, in the words of senior Kyle Knight, "anything from 'not cool' to something quite hateful." Posts on a popular campus gossip website founded earlier this school year are rife with this type of language. Knight says he's not shy about correcting classmates when they use the words and has never faced any ill will because of it. "That doesn't mean that it stops completely," he says, "but they're at least a little uncomfortable after they say it."

More troubling to him is the tendency of his fellow students to think about homosexuality as an "issue." Classroom discussions about homosexuality often become "abstract political discussions," he says, where students on various sides of an issue will make declarations about what being gay means, not realizing that there might be a gay person, or two, sitting right next to them.

Along with the fear of politicization comes the fear of being stereotyped. In discussions about sexual orientation, many openly LGBT students at Duke are quick to say, "I'm gay, but it's not a major part of who I am." But Long suggests that what these students actually mean is, "It's not all of who I am."

"They tell me they feel almost compelled to say that, because once somebody says openly on this campus that they are LGBT, that's all they become in the eyes of other people, no matter how many other activities they are involved in.

"It's really a shame, because none of us are only one small component of who we are. We are a totality of things. To have to feel like we have to hide a certain part of ourselves so as not to have that become our sole identity is unfortunate."

But many students at Duke say they feel as if they do have to hide that part of their identity, Williams says. "At Duke there is a strong core culture that most kids buy into," she says, echoing sentiments expressed by many other students and administrators. "Most people are incredibly motivated, and they know what success looks like. They place value on affluence and power.

"Being gay doesn't fit into that view, because when you are gay, you lose some political power, some social power. Being gay doesn't fit into their idea of what their life should look like."

Walker agrees. "A lot of times, you get the sense that it wouldn't hurt you if you told people, but it wouldn't really help you—if you know what I mean."

Even in areas typically seen as welcoming of LGBT individuals, there is sometimes an evident lack of openness. "Duke's must be the only theater department in the country with no openly gay majors, which is very bizarre," Clum says.

In this respect, some suggest that Duke, despite the strong institutional push to be inclusive, has fallen behind some of its peer institutions. Other top-tier universities, notably the Ivies, "are characterized by a better climate for LGBT individuals," says Ara Wilson, a member of the LGBT task force who worked at Ohio State University and Mount Holyoke College before coming to Duke a year ago. Part of Wilson's job as the new director of the Program in the Study of Sexualities—which examines sexuality broadly, rather than focusing on homosexuality—is to revive an academic program that was once among the nation's strongest, featuring well-known scholars like Eve Sedgwick and Michael Moon, and a training ground for future stars like José Muñoz.

Fine by them: Lucas Schaefer '04, Leila Nesson Wolfrum A.M. '04, and Blair Cooper '04, co-founders of the Fine By Me T-shirt project

Fine by them: Lucas Schaefer '04, Leila Nesson Wolfrum A.M. '04, and Blair Cooper '04, co-founders of the Fine By Me T-shirt project. © 2003 The Herald-Sun /Bernard Thomas

To accommodate students who are looking for advice but prefer not to come to the LGBT center, presumably for fear of being publicly identified as LGBT, Long says she has established regular office hours on East Campus and also makes herself available in more informal settings. These venues have been popular. "I jokingly tell people I've had more coffee in the past year than I ever thought I could consume," she says.

She says that she has spoken with several students who were out to their friends and family in high school, before coming to Duke, but have since gone back into the closet. Likewise, she says she knows of faculty members who are unwilling to come out to colleagues.

And, despite its positive ranking in the Advocate College Guide in 2006, Duke was ranked as among the most homophobic campuses in the U.S. by the Princeton Review just seven years earlier. (Long cautions against putting too much weight on the rankings, whatever they indicate. Though she's proud of the center's recent work, she says that the results of surveys can vary drastically depending on "who's asking the questions, who's answering, and what the questions are.")

Students and faculty members alike say that it's easier to be out in some departments than in others, often depending on whether the department has any openly gay faculty members. "A noticeable gay presence in the arts and humanities" faculties, for example, makes those departments seem more welcoming to LGBT students and faculty recruits, Clum says.

No concrete figures exist on the number of openly LGBT faculty members at Duke, but many faculty and staff members report that it is less common to find openly gay faculty members in the social sciences than in the arts and humanities, less common still in the hard sciences and the medical school.

A university-wide faculty survey on work climate conducted by the Provost's Standing Committee on Faculty Diversity in 2005 asked questions about sexual orientation, but administrators reported there were not enough respondents to those questions to draw any conclusions or make recommendations. The committee is now working with the LGBT task force to develop focus groups that will capture a more accurate picture, according to chair  Nancy Allen, vice provost for faculty diversity and development.

Besides the programming sponsored by the LGBT center, students say, there isn't much of an LGBT social scene on campus. Williams says that since coming to Duke, she has had one serious relationship that lasted a year and a half, but it's over. She knows of only three other lesbians in her class. "One has a girlfriend from home, and I'm not interested in dating either of the other two. It's almost silly how limited that is."

She says she believes that the problem is, to some extent, a Catch-22: If there were more of an LGBT social scene on campus, then closeted students would have more of an incentive to come out. If they did, they would improve the scene.

Others share this sentiment. Knight says he is especially frustrated by the "sideline relationships"—often secretive one-night stands—between members of the out gay community and closeted gays at Duke. The gay community does not want to forcibly out any of these people, he says, but at the same time, their occasional forays only serve to remind members of the community what life could be like if more people were out in the open.

Williams says she knows that there are more-established gay and lesbian scenes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in Raleigh, and perhaps she could find women she is interested in if she explored more outside Duke, but adds, "I'm really well established in a social group, and my social group doesn't [go to those places]. So that would require doing research and jumping into a situation where I don't have any common interests with people except that we are all gay." Instead, she continues to go out to straight bars with straight friends, and, over the course of the night, watch them pair off with men and head home.

According to an ongoing study by a team of Duke researchers, she is not alone in her struggles. Much has been made in the press of the so-called "hook-up culture" prevalent on college campuses, an atmosphere characterized by casual, no-strings-attached sex. As part of a larger study on the development of romantic and family relationships of young adults, the Social Science Research Institute Faculty Fellows Working Group on Family Change and Variation, which consists of nine Duke faculty members, is studying the phenomenon of "hook-ups" on campuses like Duke's.

The study has not yet been completed, but preliminary interviews suggest that "the heterosexual hook-up culture is part of what makes the gay experience more difficult on college campuses," says sociologist Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and a member of the team. "When that's the normative culture, how do you create an alternative narrative for yourself where you can be comfortable?"

Some students have been able to identify alternate opportunities to socialize. Senior Parker King, for example, says that since

Banner year: Duke participation in the N.C. Pride Parade and Festival was up tenfold from last year

Banner year: Duke participation in the N.C. Pride Parade and Festival was up tenfold from last year. Courtesy 2007 Pride Committee of NC

He came out last year, he and several gay friends have spent many weekend evenings hanging out at gay bars in Raleigh. But others have not. According to LGBT Center director Long, the difficulty many LGBT students have in finding alternatives to the typical heterosexual social scene may be owing, in part, to Duke's housing system. Duke requires students to live on campus for three years. She says that this makes it harder for some to get out and mix with the outside Triangle community, a community that she points out "is actually pretty LGBT-friendly."

A crowd descended on East Campus in September for the annual North Carolina Pride Parade and Festival, which has been hosted by Duke every year since 2001. Just inside the campus gates, row upon row of booths were brimming with brochures and wares from custom jewelers, adult-toy stores, LGBT-friendly real-estate agents, advocacy organizations, and nearby museums. Along Main Street, colorful floats were lined up, and groups of riders milled about, waiting for the action to begin.

The celebration was not the in-your-face orgy that many opponents of gay rights think these things are. Sure, among the bagpipers and convertibles were a few marchers in drag, but, overall, the mood of the large crowd suggested a family-oriented affair. Even a row of protesters from a local church who line part of the parade route with signs warning, "Abortion is murder. Homosexuality is a sin. Islam is a lie," have brought children along.

Among the parade's participants were some sixty Duke students, a number that's all the more impressive, Long says, when compared with last year's six. Long attributes the improved turnout to better leadership and networking in the ranks of the student groups.

Long says she believes that bringing events like the Pride Parade to Duke may allow students to feel more comfortable on campus and reach out more into the community. This past November, she helped arrange for Duke Law School to host the inaugural conference of Equality North Carolina, a statewide organization that advocates for equal rights for the LGBT community. Several Duke students attended the conference, which featured lectures, panel discussions, and workshops organized around the theme of LGBT rights and advocacy.

In addition to educating students about their options, she says, it is crucial for the center, as well as the task force, to continue to reach out to diverse groups on campus, engaging various campus divisions in discussions on, for example, how to make the university more welcoming for LGBT employees and students, or what the transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination policy means for them.

As simple as the new policy might seem, she says, it raises many questions that will have to be answered in the coming years. In fact, the university was challenged on the policy early in the fall semester, when a transgender student awaiting surgery from male to female was granted access to a female bathroom while living in a male wing of a dorm. After the other students living in the hall were informed of the situation, a parent called the university—and the local media—to complain.

"I was outraged about it," Lee Chauncey, the parent, told The Chronicle. "I have absolutely no problem and fully support the young lady getting the procedure done, but the living arrangement was inappropriate until the surgery was done. It was not only inappropriate, it was against state laws." The student was moved to a room with a private bathroom.

Long says the question about bathroom access will not likely be the last question the university faces regarding the policy. "Just like any other policy you put in place, you're going to have to learn what it means all across this campus," in terms of not just housing policies but also things like employee health benefits and workplace dress codes.

"It's about the bathrooms, it's about showers, but it's also about what is acceptable within the work environment," Long says. "Is it acceptable for people to dress in nontraditional ways, and is that only acceptable if in fact they're going to have surgery or have had surgery? Or is it acceptable if that's the way they feel most comfortable and choose to be?"

Despite the university's best efforts to establish policies and institutional mechanisms to deal with these kinds of issues, unforeseen questions and challenges will always arise. Finding answers to these questions and challenges, she says, will take time, effort, and many long conversations.