Nathan Nye April 2, 2011
Britney Spears and the Fight for Visiblity
Durham—Four years ago, the last place senior Chris Perry would be was the Duke LGBT center.
He had grown up in a liberal household, had been openly gay since high
school and didn’t really think it was a big deal. “I didn’t really identify strongly as gay,” said Perry. “I had a lot of stigma about those who did have it high on their identifier list. I thought they were vapid. Obviously all they talked about there was Britney Spears in my mind.”
The next year, that perception changed for the Long Island native.
“This is embarrassing, but there was this guy,” he said. “He was a friend of a
friend and I knew he would be at an event, so I went. I was really nervous, but I ended up meeting everyone at the Center and they were so nice to me.” He paused and chuckled before continuing, “I never did meet the guy though.”
Flash-‐forward to April 22 where Perry participated in the LGBT Center’s
Lavender Graduation, between his first visit to the Center to his graduation he has been a student intern, been their blog’s editor-‐in-‐chief and served as the communications chair of their student group. He started his Duke career as a civil engineer, but now plans to go into advocacy work for LGBT youth. While Perry’s romantic intentions weren’t fulfilled on that first foray into the Center, he said he found something much more valuable—a community and a purpose.
The Beginnings Underneath the bustling plaza and Loop Pizza Grill lies an area that only a fraction of the student body will ever explore. The Duke Center for LGBT Life first opened its heavy wooden doors in 1994 with the mission to provide education, advocacy, support, mentoring, academic engagement and space for LGBT students. Then it occupied half the space it currently does and according to current Center Director, Dr. Janie Long it fulfilled its mission much differently. “The early years were nothing like what we have now; they were slow,” said Long. When she first arrived at the Center in 2004 programming was not broadly attended or even well known Long said. “There were four students who pretty much lived in the Center and that was it,” she said. Long thought it was time to change that. “The space was dark and not well-‐utilized so I changed that first,” she said. “I worked with the students who were already here and convinced them we needed to open the Center up and I started reaching out to other students.” For instance, for National Coming Out Day, Long wanted to have that year’s event on the Bryan Center Plaza. The idea was met with resistance. “They’d have thought burning me at the stake was a good idea when I suggested it,” said Long.
Eventually she did bring that event, and many others, into the public sphere at Duke and this is why she believes the Center has grown exponentially. “We had 40 seniors at Lavender Graduation,” she said. “That’s the biggest yet and it’s indicative of the overall growth we’ve experienced. Our limits before were not having students and now it’s not having space.” A Student Affair
The LGBT Center is a division of Student Affairs, but concurrent to that
structure is Blue Devils United, the LGBTQ-‐straight ally student organization.
“We are the student voice for LGBT issues on campus,” said BDU president
BDU’s mission can be summed up as providing social and activist outlets for
LGBTQSA students Wilson said.
“We create community and advocate for students’ rights on and off campus,”
said BDU Blog Editor Risa Isard.
Isard does this by overseeing what she calls the organization’s most public
face. The blog is a series of columns by Duke students and anonymous posts solicited from the Duke community.
Perry was the first editor of the blog and he watched it grow from 10 writers
with few visits to a much larger entity. There are now 40 writers and it's been visited by upwards of 177 countries and all 50 states Perry said.
“I used to read the blog before coming to campus,” said freshman Matt
Barnett. “It was my introduction to LGBT life at Duke.”
Barnett, who is the incoming communications chair for BDU, doesn’t think
the organization is doing enough though.
“We’re doing great things, but I want to do more,” he said. “We need to create
more community. We need to reach more folks.” Problems Within and Without
Some who openly identify as gay don’t want to be reached though.
“I think the Center is just a barrier to assimilation for the LGBT,” said
sophomore Rob Valdovinos. “I’m just a Duke student, why would my sexuality matter? I gave it a chance, but I realized that I was just making more problems for myself by going there.”
Valdovinos said that he and many of his friends think that frequenting the
LGBT Center only emphasizes difference rather than claiming equality.
Those aren’t the only negative feelings though. Isard characterized a divide in
the LGBT community differently.
“There’s an in-‐crowd and an out-‐crowd,” said Isard. “Some people feel
welcome and others feel ostracized.”
As Barnett said, “It’s almost like gay Mean Girls; lots of petty high school
The social divide, regardless of cause, is felt throughout the LGBT community
“While I’m involved and feel at home, I know there are those who aren’t
involved either because they don’t want to be or because they feel they can’t,” he
said. “The first reason is fine, but the second is a problem. If people want to be involved but don’t think they can be, then that’s an issue.”
Isard had a more blunt take.
“All gay people don’t need to be friends, that’s stupid,” she said.
Another issue pointed out by Isard pointed out was the marginalization felt
by those who were not male. Lesbians, queer women and transgender people feel that the Center and BDU address gay men more than them said Isard.
Long said the Center’s budget and resources were a difficulty in maneuvering
around those issues.
“In addition, women have a much harder time openly identifying as gay than
men on this campus, so men tend to be predominant,” Long said. She believes there is social pressure that doesn’t allow women the same ability to be openly gay as men have.
Others believe the divide is more intrinsic than that.
“It’s been better recently, but at times there was a huge schism between the
social circles of women and men at the Center,” said Perry. “I remember some of the guys would say some offensive things about the women, but it’s getting better. Still though, at the women-‐only discussion group there might be 40 women, but you might see a quarter at a general event.”
Over the Rainbow
Moving forward Long believes the Center faces many challenges, particularly
development at Duke.
“The West Union is being renovated and it looks like we might be moved,”
Long said. “When Few was renovated the Women’s Center was moved to Central Campus and they pretty much died. They had to start over once they got back to West. That’s my worst fear.”
Barnett believes that an organization like the LGBT Center might eventually
deal with legal barriers.
“In Texas, there’s a piece of legislation that would force university’s to also
have complimentary centers for all existing identity centers, like, if there’s a women’s center, there must also be a men’s center,” he said. “I think a straight center sounds absurd.”
Sophomore Luke Shuffield, a Texas native, thinks it makes good sense
“The bill is being used as a way to get rid of LGBT centers, and I don’t really
have an opinion there, but it’s about fairness,” he said. “If we’re going to cater to one group, we should cater to them all.”
A bill of this type has not been discussed in North Carolina as of now.
Finally, some want to see the LGBT community become more heavily
involved in activism. Perry is worried that student’s are becoming complacent.
“The exec board of BDU wanted to host a club this year, and that’s just odd to
me,” he said. “I fear if we keep going in this direction the Center will become how I feared it was as a freshman, a place to just talk about Britney Spears.”