Queering Duke History

New LGBTQ exhibit in the library acknowledges a murky history
September 25, 2014

At the opening of the new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity last year, President richard H. Brodhead acknowledged that the deeply entrenched homophobic prejudice in the U.S. also played out at Duke. “This university regrets every phase of that history,” he said.

“Queering Duke History: Understanding the LGBTQ Experience at Duke and Beyond,” now on display at the Perkins library gallery, captures the overt and subtle ways the university discriminated against students, as well as efforts by that community and its supporters to address the intolerance.

The exhibition’s genesis dates back several years, when Denzell Faison ’14 was involved with efforts to relocate and rename the Center for LGBT life. During a conversation with an administrator, he was told that Duke never actively discriminated against homosexuals. Skeptical, he began delving into the University Archives, where he found Duke University Police Department records from the 1960s documenting the arrest of at least sixty-four men for the then-crime of homosexuality. He kept digging, locating correspondence from President Terry Sanford in 1974 denying a request by the Duke Gay Alliance to add sexual orientation to the university’s nondiscrimination policy. Decade by decade, he traced the history of the LGBT community and university policies related to it.

In his senior year, he continued the research project as an independent- study project and augmented his archival research with oral-history interviews with LGBT alumni. History professor raymond Gavins and associate vice provost for undergraduate education Janie long (formerly director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity) encouraged him to share the history with a broader audience.

“Queering Duke History” is organized by decades and includes police records and university correspondence, ’70s-era queer publications, the dechartering of the gay and lesbian alliance in the ’80s, the establishment of the LGB center during the 1990s, same-sex unions permitted in Duke Chapel at the start of the new millennium, and a reflection of the current vibrancy of Duke’s LGBTQ community.

“Engagement with the past is the first step toward meaningful change in the present,” says Faison, now a first-year student at Columbia Law School. “This history speaks to the strength and perseverance of generations of queer students at Duke, and while much work remains to be done, this exhibit is a testament of how far we have come.”