Duke, UNC celebrate National Coming Out Day
Justin Davis was out at 27 years old, after spending his undergrad years at a conservative Christian university in Texas and undergoing years of reparative therapy at his local church, which believed everyone is born heterosexual.
Davis is gay. And he’s also going into ministry as a Duke Divinity School student.
He, along with dozens of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally students, convened in the Bryan Center Plaza this week to celebrate National Coming Out Day. They were out for those who can’t be. They stood for inclusivity on campus.
The national celebration is in its 25th year, created a year after 500,000 people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay RIghts on Oct. 11, 1987. This year’s theme is “Coming Out Still Matters.”
Davis, now a 30-year-old master of divinity student, said coming out was about being holistic and true to himself. Instead of making the decision to “sit there quiet and not say anything,” he even spoke of his identity on his Duke application. He is now the co-leader of Sacred Worth, the Duke Divinity School organization for LGBTQ students and allies.
Eirika Sawh, a Duke computer science and Japanese sophomore, came out as a sophomore in high school in Oklahoma, where there wasn’t a strong LGBTQ community. Sawh identifies as transgender and on Tuesday, passed the rows of rainbow flags on the plaza to pick up one of the 1,500 “Love=Love” T-shirts being handed out by Duke’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The shirts have become an annual tradition on campus.
Sawh said the center, as well as the strong women’s studies presence and resources on campus, makes Duke a more open community.
“It’s made it easier to be myself,” Sawh said.
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBTQ Americans, has spent this Coming Out Day celebration traveling the country to film people sharing their coming out story.
Sultan Shakir, director of youth and campus outreach at the Human Rights Campaign, said coming out is never just a one-step process. People may come out to family and friends, but then they come out to their workplace. Their doctor. Their place of worship.
“Students are starting to really own the power of coming out,” Shakir said.
He added that the HRC is seeing more campuses understand that if students feel protected and supported by the university, they will be better-performing students. And then those students enter the workplace, making their offices more inclusive.
Back in Durham, the new LGBTA Center at N.C. Central University, which opened its doors at the end of the spring semester, could not be reached for comment about whether they had plans for Coming Out Day on Friday. Deatrin Sutton, the president of NCCU student group COLORS, or Creating Open Lives for Real Success, said his organization didn’t have any plans.
But at UNC-Chapel Hill, the LGBTQ Center has hosted an independent film screening, a “men’s role in violence prevention” panel and healthy relationships training this week.
On Friday at 11 a.m., the center will have a rainbow sheet cake and swag set up at the Pit, UNC-Chapel Hill’s sunken courtyard hangout beside the student union used for performances and speeches, in honor of the nationwide celebration.
Terri Phoenix has served at the LGBTQ Center at UNC-Chapel Hill for nine years and is its director. Phoenix attended the original March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 to show support for HIV/AIDS activism.
Phoenix identifies as transgender and queer, married to another woman. Phoenix doesn’t go by “he” or “she,” but T. T came out at 14 years old in a small south Georgia town, where there was no visibility for the LGBTQ community.
Celebrating coming out can be a teaching tool for those looking for support or learning how to become allies. Then there are those who cannot take that important step in their lives yet, T said, especially those who live with intersecting, marginalized identities or live in rural areas.
Phoenix hopes to continue to increase visibility of the center at UNC, push for equitable benefits at the university, and eventually reach a point where the campus is so safe and inclusive, an LGBTQ center isn’t necessary.
“Being visible was a really huge deal because people weren’t as visible in that year, in that era,” Phoenix said of attending the original March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “... It felt important, and one of the things throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, among people who were activists, was that coming out is one of the most powerful things that you can do.
“Those of us that do have that privilege that allows us to come out, also have the responsibility to do so.”