It’s a Tuesday morning, my class has just ended, and as I’m walking out of the Bryan Center, I am greeted by a rainbow balloon arch. Rainbow flags decorate the plaza while students, staff, and faculty are lining up to pick up their famed, “Love = Love” T-shirts. Coming Out Day. Although set on the anniversary of National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Oct. 11th, 1987, at Duke, the celebration is best known for the 1500 shirts that are given out to the student body provided by the school’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The shirts depict various couples – interracial, trans, cis, homosexual – in addition to the “Love = Love” message in a variety of colors. Beyond the shirts, various student groups table for their organization, providing resources for students connecting the LGBT+ community to their group, be it the Center for Jewish Life or Inter-Fraternity Council, demonstrating to the community that our community is truly a spectrum, and there is no one way to be gay.
During my first year at Duke I was not in the closet however, I was definitely not out and proud. I was still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality, and I hide away from such topics when brought up in conversation, be it in an academic setting or a group of friends. In fact, I tried to avoid the topic and redirect the conversation. I rarely visited the center, which back then was still in the basement of the West Union, unless dragged along by friends. I continued to be in this limbo state of not being closeted but certainly not being really out for quite a while, and retained a sensation of being lost. For me Coming Out Day was the steppingstone into developing a sense of self.
One day on my way to class, I walked on to plaza and came across a very similar scene as the one I have described already. The amount of rainbow was overwhelming and made me a bit uneasy. However, I lined up to grab a shirt (once I knew they were free of course) and at the table, I realized I knew one of the volunteers. I decided to go around and say hello and hugged them. And, in that short exchange, someone in line confused me for a volunteer and said to me, “Oh, do the shirts cost a hug or something?” and for some reason my answer was simply “Yes” and, suddenly, that stranger came over and actually did hug me. It was awkward at first but, to my relief, ended quickly with a “Thanks for the shirt!”. Before I realized it, everyone in line was giving me a hug in exchange for a T-shirt – it was so strange yet oddly welcoming.
I did not think of that event until a few days later, when a random person walked up to me and exclaimed, “Hey you’re that kid giving out shirts for hugs!” and proceeded to give me a hug and go on their way. That happened on and off throughout the semester and sparked up countless conversations. It surprised me how many students remembered me, and even more so that I had actually stayed the entire event giving out countless shirts. I realized that in those random moments I did not shy away in talking about my sexuality or in even asking my own questions to the people that came up to me: I was simply myself. In my own, way I came out to myself, allowing myself to start dialogue with the LGBT+ community and not restricting myself.
This year, I am a student staff member at the center, and I am part of the committee that helped plan the event. Walking out to plaza, and seeing the rainbows decorate walkway, and the hundreds of people line up to pick up T-shirt, and wearing them throughout the school year, I find it amazing not just that so many students come out to support the community and providing visibility but that in doing so they are providing an opportunity for others to come out, to be comfortable with themselves, and start a dialogue.