LGBTQ students at Wake Forest University still face social hurdles

By Hilary Burns

This August the Princeton Review ranked Wake Forest University as the seventh least LGBT-friendly university in the country.

The ranking sparked outrage throughout the community, leading many students and alumni to speak out through social media.

But however enraged certain members of the community were, the ranking may have more truth to it than some would like to admit.

Many LGBTQ students at the university feel that the ranking is not completely out of line.

"Let's just say that there is a reason Wake got this ranking," freshman Shane Lutz said. Lutz said he thinks Wake Forest has a long way to go before LGBTQ students like himself feel accepted here.

Junior Gracie Harrington agreed that the university has much progress to make. She said that Wake Forest is an accepting place compared to many private Southern institutions, but not as accepting as other top-25 universities.

"The Wake Forest student body has a 'don't ask, don't tell' kind of policy, which is evident by the fact that the LGBTQ community on campus is rather underground," Harrington said.

Harrington came out as bisexual last spring during a Shorty's Open Mic night. At first she was overwhelmed with love and support from the community. Over time, however, Harrington said this support turned to negativity.

"As a community, Wake Forest needs to focus on education regarding the LGBTQ community and open discussion," Harrington said. "Many students come to Wake Forest from families where homosexuality is labeled as sinful and unnatural. It is important that Wake Forest educates its students on the many different walks of life."

Director of the LGBTQ Center, Angela Mazaris said that she has seen an increase in acceptance of the LGBTQ community in recent years.

When she first arrived at the university two and a half years ago there were only "hushed conversations in private places," about LGBTQ issues. These conversations are now a much more common occurrence on campus.

Despite this progress, Mazaris said Wake Forest still must push forward to become a place where all people can feel accepted.

"We look like a really wonderful, diverse and inclusive place and I think we are in a lot of ways, but I think a lot of students come here and think we are further along than we are. That can be really uncomfortable," Mazaris said.

This was the case for Shane Lutz. He said he was optimistic about coming to Wake Forest as a gay student. However, when he arrived he was disappointed to find that the university tends to "bury bad things when they happen on campus."

"If it was me I would've taken the 'rot in hell' sign [that students vandalized] and put it in the middle of the lower quad and said 'look what you have done'," Lutz said, referring to the sign outside of the LGBTQ Center that was vandalized in September.

Many people attribute this lack of acceptance to the idea that Wake is a conservative, private school with a large presence of Greek Life.

"I think that one of our biggest challenges here is that people perceive Wake as a conservative place and I don't know that is completely true," Mazaris said. "I wonder if this conservatism is a story we keep telling ourselves. Are we perpetuating this?"

Mazaris said that although there are many students within the Greek community who are committed to LGBTQ inclusion, there are also students who experience real challenges around their ability to be out as gay in their fraternity or sorority.

"I heard a really heartbreaking story," Mazaris said. "There was a student here who wanted to join a fraternity who was openly gay, and was friends with members of the organization. They took him aside and said 'we really like you but we can't take you because you're gay, and told him to drop out of the process, but he refused." The student did not receive a bid and was then "black balled" from all social and pre-professional events the group put on. He ended up transferring from Wake Forest last year.

To contradict this story, junior Lilias Gordon has had a wonderful experience as a gay student in Greek life. She said her sisters in Chi Omega are accepting and rushing sororities was not a problem for her.

Another student, Ryan Cleland, also feels accepted by his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
While he believes that he has changed some members' opinions towards LGBTQ people, other fraternity brothers ignore his sexuality completely.

"The brothers who have asked me personal questions - attempting to broaden their understanding of a different lifestyle - are far and few between," Cleland said. "I think this shows a broader problem at Wake Forest. People like to talk about diversity and inclusion and a lot of people like to think that they have a diverse group of friends; but core differences are often overlooked."

He went on to explain that homosexual individuals who choose to enter Greek life are "pioneering change in a culture."

While progress may be occurring, there is no doubt that Greek life is made of mostly heterosexual individuals. Thus, it is hard for LGBTQ individuals to feel comfortable with themselves in this environment.

"Sadly, I do believe Greek life makes it harder for people to come out, by any definition of the term," Harrington said. "I am a member of a Greek organization, and sadly most of the negativity I have received (regarding my bisexuality) has been from members of Greek life. Greek organizations stress the concept of unity, which is a very attractive thing to most students entering Wake Forest. I believe it is important to take unity in moderation."

For now, the conversations surrounding LGTBQ acceptance continues.

While many gay students have hope that the university is making progress, acts of vandalism and hate crimes that have occurred this semester remind the community of the harsh reality that these prejudices against the LGBTQ community exist.

Because of this, too many students at Wake are afraid to come out and accept their own, true identity.

Many students have not come out as gay, but there is an "underground" community of gay people who do not want their true identities to be revealed.

President of Sigma Pi, Adam Crowley, is openly gay. He attributes the lack of acceptance at the university to those people who are unwilling to come out. He said the more people who come out as gay, the more accepting people will be.

"This is probably not something people know of, but there is a decent underground gay community," Crowley said. "The biggest challenge in my experience has been dealing with those people because they are extremely paranoid and assume anyone that is out is flamboyant. This makes it really hard to meet people, much less establish any sort of 'community'."

Freshman Reece Guida went on to explain that coming out will benefit the entire community.
"To all those thinking of coming out, I would say that coming out is the best way to stand up for gay rights. When you come out, you touch the lives of those around you. You change perceptions of what it means to be gay. You make others realize that you're still you, not just someone who deserves to be labeled as gay. You inspire others to come out and change the world one step at a time."