April 8, 2010

To #1, Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Center

[This is kind of out of the ordinary, but we got this anonymous entry today in response to another one that was posted on Monday. I figured it was time sensitive and also WAY too long to go in our regular post for next Monday so I'm just posting it now!]

As a non-Greek woman at Duke, I have a complicated relationship with sororities. A lot of women I sincerely admire and respect are members of them. But, during the wonderful day known as “Bid Day”, I find myself cringing at all their high-pitched wailing of Greek letters.

Now, I didn’t join a sorority, because like a lot of non-Greeks, I possessed an image in my mind of what a sorority girl was supposed to look and act like. I didn’t feel like I would belong, so I found alternative social circles to devote myself to. Honestly, I can say that I love the people I spend time with and I don’t regret my decision to not participate in Greek life. However, thinking about the justification behind my decision to refrain from sororities reveals some intriguing parallels with the common reasons people give for not coming to the Center. In this post, I hope to articulate my understanding of the current divide in the Duke LGBTQA community between Center “regulars” and Center “non-goers”. At the end, I also hope to provide an engaging incentive to attend Center programs other than “give us another try, we promise we’ll try to talk to you.”

Before I start, let me preface by saying that I am devotedly loyal to the Center. I work there, I socialize there, I eat there, etc. So yes, I am biased in favor of the Center, but give me a chance and hear me out.

From what I can discern, there are two main reasons why people don’t come to the Center. These reasons are not necessarily mutually exclusive and of course there are tons of other reasons why people don’t attend Center events. However, the two main ones I most commonly come across are:
1. Personal apprehension with being “visible”
2. Exclusivity

The first reason is a complicated one that most need to overcome individually. Of course, personal apprehension with being out could be alleviated with having a better and more inclusive campus culture. However, what I’m really interested in is the exclusivity that is associated with the Center.

What do people mean when they say that Fab Fridays are “exclusive”? Well, on a simple level, they mean cliques, coteries, the “in-crowd”. On a deeper level, they also may be referring to the behavior norms of Duke’s LGBT community.

It’s no secret that any community will have community “norms”—for better or worse. Norms include language, common interests, clothing style, you get the point. I think part of the reason some people don’t want to come to the Center is that they feel that they won’t fit in. Nobody wants to feel marginalized for not following the norm in larger society only to find that they are also outside the norms of a smaller community. Just as I had a preconceived image in my mind of what norms a sorority girl must follow, I think many students have an image of what queer life at the Center is.

Now, the LGBT community both at Duke and in the larger context (contrary to popular belief, there is a world beyond these gothic, pollinated borders) is unique in a lot of aspects, but it is especially distinct when it comes to norms of behavior. Usually, I believe you can’t rightfully criticize a community for having norms. Yes, you can challenge them, question them, fight them. But you can’t criticize a community for actually having a set of norms to operate in. In other words, you can challenge the law, break the law, fight the law. But you can’t criticize the existence of laws. Some of you anarchists may disagree with me, but I tend to think that having some sort of legal system is probably a smart thing for a civilization to have.

This principle of having a common set of norms holds for every community, except when it comes to the LGBT community. We are a group of people whose very existence challenges the propriety and utility of gender norms. In this same vein, I find it incredibly regressive when, as a community, we try to regulate how gay men and lesbians are supposed to act. For example, we shouldn’t use a love of Lady Gaga or the Indigo Girls as an indicator of someone’s sexual orientation. Sure, it’s funny. Maybe it may even be true most of the time. But, it’s still backwards to our mission as a community: to prove that sexuality cannot be embodied or encapsulated by mere physical appearance.

So how does this relate to me not joining a sorority and the Center in any way?

Well, even though I don’t regret my decision not to join a sorority, I do regret my reasons for doing so. I gave Greek life an unfair image without ever giving it half a chance to prove me otherwise. And, as someone recently pointed out to me, if my perception of sorority norms was so troublesome, I should have done more to engage with and change the norms.

So if you don’t come to the Center because you don’t particularly care for Lady Gaga and you don’t think you fit the community norms, I give you a personal challenge. We at the Center will do our best to reach out. But meet us halfway and challenge the way we define ourselves. The more diverse individuals with diverse interests we get, the better. With every new face and new personality at social events, the closer we are to proving that the LGBTQA community is more than the way we dress or the music we like. This is a truth that we must convey to the larger community, but, more importantly, to ourselves. See you at the next Fab Friday, Women Loving Women discussion, and/or Blue Devils United meeting :D.



  1. Oh wow, thank you Michelle for writing this. There's a lot of truth in this post. I think it's so important that we do challenge our norms and ourselves - it's the only way that we'll be able to move forward and embrace all members of our community.

  2. I like your letter Michelle but I also want to point out something: I think you're overlooking one of the reasons of the perceived exclusivity of the Center. The clique as people refer to it is not just about some norms about LGBT students at Duke, but (at least for me) also the fact that a lot of people who attend the events are basically all best friends with each other. Obviously, this is not a bad thing, but it makes it all that more difficult to enter the group since everyone already has a tightly-knit group of friends. Even if you do love Lady Gaga, it doesn't mean that will help you make friends with the others who love her as well. That's just my two cents, and I'm not sure how you can really entice people to talk to newcomers instead of their close friends.

  3. Michelle/Dr. Strangelove,

    Just wanted to say thanks to you and everybody else who has addressed my post (#1) from earlier this week. It's all been quite thoughtful and enlightening. Here's my thoughts on the discussion thus far:

    -I am actually really sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by the regulars at the Center -- that the perceived cliquishness is solely a function of normal, benevolent tendencies of people who hang out together to become best friends. While I think it's good to be conscious of the need to be friendly to outsiders in a situation like this, I am naturally inclined to believe that any perceived exclusivity is totally innocent. What I am still somewhat wary of is whether this is a fully honest answer. The impression that I have gotten from some of my friends disillusioned about the Center and the gay community is that there's a distinct element of... well, the best way that I can describe it as is, again, Mean Girls-ness. I don't think such a mentality or pattern of behavior if present is unique to Duke's gays and company -- in fact, there seems to be general consensus that it's a major factor in the university's larger social scene -- but, to be honest (any yes, I know I'm stereotyping, but forgive me) cattiness/bitchiness oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with being gay. As someone who has had some hookups gone awry with a couple people who are much more active in the community than I am, it's something that I am particularly aware of; however, I am not personally afraid of this as much as I'm trying to get people to ask themselves whether there is some truth to this perception/potential misperception.

    -The second point that I was hoping to have addressed but don't feel has been fully addressed is the more positive spin on my question about the Center: why should I go? Like I said earlier, as someone who is socially content, I don't I don't feel any innate longing get involved with the LGBT community. One potentially legitimate response to my query could be "well, no one is forcing you to go to anything, so if you don't want to get involved, don'!" which is a totally legit response. However, I felt obligated to get a good, in-depth answer to this question since so many people DO seem so thankful to have gotten involved. Right now, my only motive for going would be to meet guys, which makes me feel a little bit disingenuous about actually getting involved with anything if I'm in it for the sex.

    Anyways,thanks again. I have enjoyed everybody's responses and would def. appreciate more.

    P.S. Even though I guess I fit the "straight-acting" mold, I absolutely LOVE Gaga.

  4. Michelle, I don't disagree with you about meeting each other halfway. I am perfectly willing to make an effort in order to have one returned. Indeed, I have done that.

    Unfortunately, my experience was not met halfway. I am a fairly outgoing person and I tend to get along with people pretty well. I will certainly admit that I have struggled to be outgoing more in the gay world because it was (and to some extent still is) so different from my life normally that it always felt like a huge deal for me to interact with gay women. However, I have gone to the center many times. I have been to Fab Fridays more times than I can count and I have even, after much mental effort on my part, attended a WLW group. I have tried to talk to people and make friends, but I have always found it close to impossible. On every occasion, I always found an opportunity to say hi and introduce myself to someone, but I was never able to really talk to people. No matter how many times I have gone to the center, I remain the only lesbian I know. Even though I have talked to people at the Center and some gay women on campus heard me speak personally at the WLW event I went to, I still don't feel welcome at the Center. I have run into some of the people I have met around campus and at best I get a smile. Not to sound cocky, but I make friends easily and have never had this experience elsewhere. In theory, the Center is welcoming, but in practice I was not met even part of the way, let alone halfway.

  5. Last poster....FUCKING GENIUS!!!