Duke’s LGBTQ center celebrates new name, space

Sep. 28, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Jacob Tobia began his four years at Duke out and proud, in an accepting campus community for gays, lesbians, transgenders, bisexuals, queers and everyone in-between.

On Friday evening, alongside his parents, he celebrated the opening of Duke’s new LGBTQ center, in a new space with a new name.

Duke’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity opened its doors this fall in the Bryan Center, in the front in the student union. Students and alum walk past the dark purple and red walls every day. The center’s visible. It’s out. More than 100 supporters filled its new multipurpose room to reflect on how far Duke has come and how the university is beginning to lead by inclusive example.

A mere months ago, the LGBTQ center was in the basement of the West Union, where students said they felt removed from campus. Students had to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the entrance, immediately outing them if they were still wary about making the life-changing announcement.

“Look at how big it is. Look at how public it is. I can see the chapel,” said Tobia, a Duke senior and Student Government’s vice president for equity and outreach. The new center includes a patio overlooking a side of Duke Chapel.

Tobia wears lipstick. Bracelets line his wrists, and he’s comfortable in his own clothes, with who he is. Wearing heels around campus has become his signature - His campaign slogan for Duke Student Government last year was “Demand a higher platform.”

Friday he was in a pair of Target brown wedges, making him one of the tallest people in the room as he leaned over for hugs from university administrators, beaming students and center staff. Tobia has visited the center for four years, and he’s helped them make this move.

Both his parents were standing beside him during the Friday grand opening.

“It’s like my baby,” Tobia said. “And I told my mom I wanted her to meet my baby.”

Duke freshman Mera Liccione visited the center with her friends that evening and stood next to the finger foods. She has visited the center before for her Queer Writing Practices class this semester, which has led discussions on lesbian pulp fiction and play-turned-HBO miniseries “Angels in America.” Many of her friends identify, Liccione said, and she’s going to take ally training through the center, which teaches individuals how to stand against LGBTQ discrimination and serve as a supporter.

“They need to come in and see and engage in a dialogue. It doesn’t just affect those who identify, it affects everybody,” she said of Duke students. “... Every university should have this. This is definitely a safe place but this is also a place where people can get educated.”

The idea to move the LGBTQ center grew from a study group conducted in 2001. Thirty-five students, faculty, alum and staff canvassed the university and a clear message came back: It was time to move out of the West Union basement.

Tom Clark, the first openly gay president of the Duke Alumni Association and Duke trustee, spoke to the audience on Friday. He lives in New York City with his partner of 38 years, and as a former Navy man, stood up for the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

He said the challenges on campus for the LGBTQ community can be compared to the civil rights struggles for blacks at Duke in the ‘60s. He cited the rise and fall of inclusion on campus, including the Duke Gay and Lesbian Alliance being de-chartered by Duke Student Government in 1983 and sexual preference being included in Duke’s nondiscrimination policy in 1988.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Clark said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

Sara Jane Raines graduated in 1983 from Duke but came back five years later to serve in the Duke Police Department. She is now a police major who lives with her partner of 17 years.

“I’m just overwhelmed by how wonderful this is,” Raines said, glancing around at the newly painted walls and furniture.

When she first arrived at Duke, there was a gay alliance, she said, but it met in secret in a dinghy room. No one was comfortable coming out on campus. They didn’t feel safe. There was no ally community to back them up.

“You either had to fake a boyfriend, which was in my case, or had an arrangement with a member of the opposite sex,” she said.

She added that a physical space makes students feel safe, especially those who are being kicked out of their churches or disowned by their families simply because they’re finally being who they’re meant to be.

“We have traveled from invisibility and obscurity to a place at the center of our campus,” Raines said.

The Duke student a cappella group Rhythm & Blue sang “Somebody to Love” by Queen, making those who were seated bob their heads to the beatbox rhythm. Later in the program, Sabrosura, a salsa group on campus, had everyone stand and join them in a round of dancing.

Fred Steckler, Duke alumnus and chief administrative officer of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, also spoke during the event. He was a member of the Navy, until his career was cut short for being gay. He is now the president of the Duke LGBT Network.

The center’s new space demonstrates Duke’s full commitment to inclusion on campus, he said.

“You belong here,” Steckler said of the feelings it creates at the university. “And the other message, ‘Welcome home.’”

Duke Student Government President Stefani Jones also spoke of DSG’s commitment to looking into gender neutral housing, sexual harassment policies and helping different campus groups through their new vice president for equity and outreach position. Daniel Kort, president of Blue Devils United, a student group for LGBTQ undergraduates and allies, also shared how the new center has become his home, a place to be greeted by smiles, find a lunch partner or nap.

Duke President Richard Brodhead was the last to present, and the crowd erupted in applause when he said he regretted any past act in Duke’s long history that kept LGBTQ students from experiencing a full and comfortable student life at Duke. We’ve all heard “out-of-the-closet” before, Brodhead said. “Now we have the phrase, ‘Out of the basement.’”

Janie Long, director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, teared up at times during the presentations. When she got up in front of the packed room, she said, “My heart is full of love.”

Now they’ll move forward, in their new center and with their new name, both signs of progress and hope, she said, to participate in the N.C. Pride Parade on Saturday, which kicks off on Duke’s East Campus.

Tobia said he’ll be part of Duke’s float this year during the parade, which will be drag-themed with “Dukes and Duchesses.”

“It’s euphoria,” he said of the center opening and the parade kicking off in the same 48 hours.

“It’s just a big gay weekend and I couldn’t be happier.”

Want to attend the N.C. Pride Parade? The festival grounds open at 10 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Main Street and Buchanan Drive on Duke East Campus, with a pride rally leading up to the parade. The parade starts at 1 p.m. For more information about the route, activities and parking, visit www.ncpride.org/pride.