Intolerance, Mahatma Gandhi once said, is a form of violence and an obstacle to a true democratic spirit. Although those words weren’t repeated at the late-September opening of the new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, it seemed a sentiment with which attendees would concur. Just as the former LGBT Center had moved from the basement of West Union into the prominence of the top floor of the Bryan Center, past issues of sexual orientation and gender identity prejudice seemed to move firmly toward a far more progressive place.
It’s a shift that was described by the event’s multiple guest speakers. One, Tom Clark ’69, the first openly gay president of the Duke Alumni Association and the first openly gay trustee of the university, traced the milestones of the LGBT group, and noted the university had come a long way from having the Duke Gay and Lesbian Alliance dechartered by Duke Student Government in 1983 because of legal concerns about promoting homosexuality, which was then against the law.
Later at the event, president Richard H. Brodhead spoke of a time when Duke was “saturated with homophobia.” He described how last year Blue Devils United students brought forward evidence of official intolerance and repression in the 1960s and shared memories from graduates of that era who testified how “the pressures of swimming against the stream were dispiriting and exhausting.”
“As president of this university, I would like to say today that this university regrets every phase of that history. There is nothing in that past that I will not now confidently and totally repudiate. I regret every act that ever limited the human life of anyone who came here,” Brodhead said.
And in a nod to openness, Brodhead added that the university is a place of learning “and if there are two lessons Duke University wants everyone to learn, they are, first, that everyone must be free to define the life they are meant to live, and to respect that right in others; and second, the human family serves us best when we allow ourselves to be human together, rather than make some people victims of artificial discriminations.”