When she arrived as director of Duke University’s Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Life three years ago, Janie Long was confronted with how to celebrate National Coming-Out Day, traditionally held with a dinner at the center on West Campus.
“And I said, ‘Help me understand how that is National Coming-Out Day, that’s National Coming-In Day,’” Long said. “How was that a message to the campus?”
She suggested that the dinner be held in the middle of the plaza, decorated with a huge rainbow arch and flags. Students looked at her like she was crazy. They had dinner in the center.
But the next year, Long moved the dinner out in the open, rainbow arch and all. It was a huge success, with a larger turnout.
Since then, National Coming-Out Day has been celebrated in the plaza. The center distributes information and food and is joined by student groups and the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
But with this increased visibility on campus, there has been at times a negative backlash. There have been incidents of hate speech and vandalism, including the destruction of one of the center’s signs (they have since been replaced with official metal signs from the university) and homophobic messages written on an East Campus bench.
“I would definitely say homophobia is alive and well, but is it any different than any other college campus? I doubt it,” Long said. “I think the visibility definitely keeps us in the forefront of people’s minds.”
Last year, the center distributed T-shirts that had separate cartoons of two men, two women, and a man and woman holding hands. It said “Love equals Love,” and the center gave away 2,000 shirts in less than an hour. It seemed innocuous enough, until a student on the school newspaper, The Chronicle, wrote a negative article about having gay rights “shoved in his face.”
The students at the center were upset and hurt, and struggled to think of a way to react. Coincidentally, the center had already purchased 1,500 more of the shirts. Long invited the student body to the center, and in one day the center handed them all out.
“There was a response in the papers, but nothing spoke like another 1,500 shirts appearing on campus,” she said. “It was such an affirming thing for our students for people to flock here to get the T-shirts.”
Over at N.C. State, the GLBT Center has experienced its own challenges. As the most recent center of the Triangle’s big universities, its struggle to establish itself began in earnest in the spring of 2007, when administration held focus groups around campus to gauge interest. Director Justine Hollingshead called the response an “eye-opening experience.”
“There were some heated, angry folks that were upset their money was going to the ‘gay movement,’” Hollingshead said. “It actually helped [get the center established] because it reinforced, from an educational standpoint, that people really are homophobic and that it’s an issue for which we need to provide support services on campus.
No protesters showed up at the center’s official opening, and the occasion came and went with little fanfare.
Now the center is up and running, with Hollingshead as its full-time director, along with interns and student volunteers. There is even a mentoring program that matches first-year students with openly gay professionals in the area, a program Hollingshead said she wanted to see increase.
The center also offers weekly student meetings, a resource library, internships and Project SAFE, an ally training program.
Hollingshead has been involved with LGBT issues at N.C. State since she arrived in 1995, though there was no center established then and little LGBT activity on campus. She took a role in the movement to establish a center, including helping write the proposal.
In 2007, she decided she wanted to be the center’s first director and excused herself from the planning process. Now, as director, Hollingshead said she has enjoyed trailblazing the position and making the LGBT community more visible on campus.
“The more you educate people and make them aware, the less of a problem a social issue is,” she said. “You break down those barriers and someone says, ‘My gosh, I met Justine and she’s the director of the GLBT center and she’s an out lesbian and it’s really no big deal.’ As you break down those barriers it becomes less threatening for people.”
Hollingshead hopes to expand the center along with Talley Student Center, where it’s housed. This expansion, which should commence within the next four or five years, would triple the size of the LGBT center.
The upgrade would put it closer in size and services to Duke’s center, the quality of which is a huge draw for students, Long said.
Currently, there is a Cyber Center, a private room with laptops, a small kitchen and a larger all-purpose room, which is loaned for free to various groups, from sororities to the campus police. The Cyber Center is the most popular room, with its comfortable feel and computers. Long is proud to report that even heterosexual friends of the center (“allies”) hang out there between classes.
Every wall is covered with student artwork and pictures, and it’s laid out according to the students’ wishes. This reflects Long’s philosophy that the center exists for the students.
For example, before she arrived, about six students regularly headed to the center on Fridays to watch episodes of Star Trek. They called it “Fabulous Friday.”
When Long publicized Fabulous Friday to the larger LGBT community, students started watching not only Star Trek, but a wide range of movies, and the center served food. The next year, attendance averaged 25 students. The year after that had 35, and last year “Fabulous Friday” averaged 60 students.
The center also has options for students who aren’t ready to “come out” to the community. Since arriving, Long has started or expanded a number of student groups and activities, including the Blue Devils United, the LGBT Discussion Group and Women Loving Women.
The LGBT Discussion Group is private, and all the groups’ meetings are held in the center. Long pointed out that there is a public and a private entrance to the center. Students can decide which entrance they want to use.
“There are, at times, prices for visibility, so you have to weigh it,” Long said. “But it’s about the LGBT Center being able to have the same level of visibility as any other identity center on this campus.”
Correction (Aug. 20, 2009): Matt Woodward’s name was initially misspelled.