In April 2003, Lucas Schaefer invited a group of friends to his Durham apartment for a night of pizza and brainstorming. The Duke undergraduate wanted to discuss the campus’ reputation, particularly when it came to the treatment of lesbians and gay men.
“We all felt like there was a strong image of what a Duke student is,” says Leila Nesson, a history graduate student who attended the dinner. “If she was a girl, she was blond and skinny and carried a certain handbag. And we all just assumed the typical student was vaguely homophobic: not beating people up in dark alleys, but making little jokes.” Three years earlier, a Princeton Review guide had ranked Duke the nation’s most intolerant campus when it came to alternative lifestyles.
That night the students hatched an idea: They would print up T-shirts with the slogan “Gay? Fine By Me.” Scoring donations from several organizations, they purchased 1,800 shirts–and to create a buzz, they decided to distribute them free of charge. “We also knew that many of the women on campus would hesitate to wear a shirt that didn’t look cute, so we ordered a batch of baby-doll tees,” Schaefer and Nesson later wrote. “This served two purposes. First, it increased the number of women who wanted shirts. Second, it put our message in a package that attracted the attention of straight men, one of the major targets of our campaign.”
Each day for a week, a new batch of T-shirts arrived–and was snapped up within minutes. Then-President Nan Keohane wore hers around campus. So did at least three Blue Devil men’s basketball players. The atmosphere on Duke’s quad was electric. “It was as if something had been released,” says Nesson, who is straight herself. “People were excited to say they were on our team.”
Now the effort has gone national. This year Fine By Me became a nonprofit organization (finebyme.org) with Schaefer, who now lives in New York, as its full-time director. The group works with college and high school students in 20 states to launch T-shirt drives of their own. At Washington State University, 45 members of one fraternity with a conservative reputation donned the shirt, along with more than 700 others. At Notre Dame, thousands have sported a blaze-orange version to protest their administration’s refusal to recognize a gay-straight alliance. In Alabama and Illinois, high-school students successfully battled for the right to publicize and wear the shirts on campus. Most recently, Schaefer’s group unveiled “Gay? Fine By Business Across America,” which produces T-shirts that allow the slogan to be used with company logos, and another program to distribute the shirts through churches and synagogues.
The campaign has even spread to institutions that can legitimately claim the most-homophobic ranking–like Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, a Brethren in Christ school whose “community covenant” lumps homosexual behavior with drunkenness and occult worship as “sinful practices.” Messiah’s T-shirt drive was organized by engineering student Marten Beels, who had grown tired of hearing bigoted remarks from church leaders and fellow students. “As a heterosexual, I wanted to say I’m not part of the society that condemns and judges,” says Beels. Twenty-two people wore shirts one April day at Messiah–a modest number but nonetheless a breakthrough. “I think that we’re moving in the direction of establishing some safe space on campus where people feel accepted and welcomed from all sexual orientations,” says Beels–“and that we are a better reflection of Christ’s love for everyone.”