A Culture of "Integrity and Principles"
Last Thursday these words left me speechless, unsure of how to respond, who to turn to, or how to express the anger that was filling me. I was terrified, as I sat frozen in my seat, incapable of comprehending what I had just read, horrified that such hate could envelop my campus. And I was saddened beyond belief as I felt my heart physically ache for the members of the LGBTQ community, who were being threatened in a place meant to make them feel safe.
While I am not gay myself, I grew up with lesbian moms and being a part of an LGBT family has always been an integral part of my identity. I spent my childhood riding on top of floats during Pride parades, marching on Washington in support of LGBT rights, and testifying in front of the New Jersey state senate judiciary committee on behalf of same-sex marriage. My two moms are my family, the reason I am who I am today, and two of the best people I know, so the fact that I come from a gay family is generally one of the first things that people learn about me.
That being said, having two moms never struck me as particularly unique, or special, or as something that made me "different." I was born in Greenwich Village, New York, which is pretty much as gay as any place can get. I then moved across the river to Maplewood, New Jersey, a cute little town affectionately termed "the gayest town in America." Moral of the story, I grew up quite literally surrounded by gay and lesbian culture.
So you can imagine my shock when I arrived at Duke freshman year and not one other person I met had gay parents -- or at least they didn't mention it if they did. NOT ONE.
Before parents weekend last year I called my moms and told them how excited my friends were to meet them. Like I said, I talk about my moms a lot and my friends genuinely were excited to meet them, but beyond that, they were excited to meet their first set of gay parents. As I excitedly explained this all to one of my moms, she stopped me with a slightly annoyed tone to her voice. "Jess, you are making me feel like a monkey in a cage. I'm just a person," she told me. And she was right, as usual (Side note: if you think it's hard having one mom who is always right, try having two...).
About a week later, I wrote a blog post for the admissions office as a member of the First Year Social Media Team about my parents' weekend experience. This blog was not even remotely related to the fact that I have same-sex parents. However, it did include a picture of my family, which naturally, included my gay moms. After the publication of this blog post, I was congratulated endlessly on being brave and "making a statement for the gay community." The thought that this random blog post could be seen in support of gay rights had not even crossed my mind. Having gay moms had never once in my life been noteworthy or unique enough, that the mere mention of it was considered activism.
I'm not gonna lie, the thought scared me a little. It scared me that all I had to do to take a stand for my family was publicly mention them. It scared me that the concept of gay families was so off the beaten track and unique at Duke that a family portrait of one could be considered "brave."
And now it scares me even more. Terrifies me in fact, that we consider just mentioning something out of the ordinary to be activism. And this terrifies me because it shows how few real conversations are being had about these topics. On a campus where just last week a fellow student's life was threatened because of their sexuality, these conversations are imperative.
One of the real issues I have with Duke as a whole I feel was epitomized by this horrible act of hatred and bigotry, as well as the response that followed. I feel that we blow past these horrendous scandals -- the noose incident, the defacing of the Black Lives Matter poster -- with a quick rally at the chapel, and a nod to the "support of the Duke community" and then continue to laugh as we pass by the big 0 on the "days since the last scandal" sign out on the plaza. But to me, that big 0 is a constant reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, and the conversations that continue to be silenced.
Yes, there was a rally held the next day at the chapel. And yes students, including myself, did show up in support wearing their Love=Love shirts, standing proud, yet shaken, behind the members of Blue Devils United. Yes, a small fraction of the Duke Community did take those 30 minutes to support Jack and the LGBTQ community at Duke. But that was all.
Shockingly, the administration did not send out an alert that this hate crime had occurred until 11:39 p.m. the next day, more than 24 hours after the incident. In this email, the administration noted that "The swift and passionate response by Duke students is far more of an indication of the integrity and principles of the Duke community than anonymous graffiti could ever be."
On this point, I regretfully have to disagree. I believe that if the Duke community was one of "integrity and principles" then such anonymous graffiti would not be occurring. We are treating this as though it is an isolated incident and not one act in a series of microaggressions and a culture of oppression. While this may be the first time that that the words have been written in sharpie, exposed for the world to have to deal with, the sentiment lives on campus year round.
If Duke was a community of integrity and principles, the gay community would not be isolated and ignored. If Duke was a community of integrity and principles, there would be allies marching through the gay pride parade, not just the gay community alone -- after weeks of my friends excitedly exclaiming that they were going to go to party city and buy rainbow-colored everything and accompany the gay community through their march of pride, only one of my friends ended up marching with me.
The rest decided they couldn't "because it was raining." You have to show up for what you believe in ... over and over. Not when it's convenient. Not when it's sunny. The oppression forced upon the LGBTQ community does not stop because it is raining, activism and allyship can not stop either. Our culture is a culture of activism when it is convenient, a culture where activism is no more than posting a Facebook status, a culture where the mere mentioning of the fact that you are different, and a culture where the presence of activism is so needed and needs to be SO much more.
I come from a place where creating conversations about LGBT issues was not a central focus because these conversations occurred naturally. It took time but I have seen that my role as an ally has changed since coming to Duke. While I am no longer standing in front of the senate fighting for same sex marriage as we finally have obtained that federal right, that does not mean that my role as an ally is fulfilled by merely mentioning my moms. And ironically enough, I learned this through mentioning them. If mentioning them is considered activism than this is a clear sign that mentioning them IS NOT ENOUGH.
Growing up with my family and my background, my stake as an ally for the LGBT community is obvious. Yours may not be as clear cut, but try to reach beyond the simplistic boundaries that are created by family and friendships, and think about your peers, think about the Duke Community as a whole.
We all have a duty to the LGBTQ community, and to every other community beset by hatred, because we have a duty to ensure that each and every student on Duke's campus feels safe, and loved, and protected. And only then, only when we have achieved a goal that is so fundamental and essential to lives of Duke students, can we call the Duke Community "a community of integrity and principles."