Fine By Us: A T-shirt campaign brings students out of the closet
Thursday, November 30
In 1999, my freshman year at Duke, the Princeton Review's college guide ranked my university No. 1 in the nation under the category, " Alternative Lifestyles Not An Alternative." This embarrassing citation of homophobia at Duke became a factoid that popped up in conversation throughout my time there. There was no better shorthand way to complain, "O ur school is so lame."
But aside from typical fratty juvenilia, you'd probably never see an open display of intolerance at Duke. On the other hand, you were equally unlikely to see an openly gay couple together on campus. In fact, I could count the number of "out" people I knew on two hands. That was Duke's sexual orientation "problem"--it wasn't so much that "alternative lifestyles" were actively discouraged, but rather that they were not really acknowledged in the first place. They were invisible.
Before I graduated, however, that changed unexpectedly and significantly. In the final few weeks of 2003, a distinctive T-shirt appeared on campus, hardly more conspicuous than your standard ironic hipster garb, except for its wholly un-ironic slogan:
gay? fine by me.
The shirts had been designed, ordered and distributed by Lucas Schaefer, a junior at the time, and Leila Nesson Wolfrum, a graduate student, along with a group of their friends.
"A lot of people we know support equal rights and oppose homophobia, but weren't vocal about it because there was the perception that everyone else was homophobic," explained Nesson Wolfrum, who is straight. The group deliberated carefully about the most effective way to shatter that perception, and crafted a plan that was both simple and, in its way, greatly ambitious. Schaefer, who is gay, added: "Ultimately, we wanted to create a community where people felt more comfortable coming out of the closet."
I ordered my T-shirt in the first batch. The first thing I noticed while wearing it was that this was actually a great way to meet women. But within a few days, the shirts were everywhere, and I noticed something else: With this personal statement painted on my chest, I shared a bond with every other person who was making the same statement. In those spring days, with prospective freshmen walking everywhere around campus, the Duke community was colorfully, proudly accepting of diverse sexual orientations.
This year, the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine, ranked Duke among the top 20 LGBT-friendly schools in the country. And since 2003, the Fine By Me project has taken on a life of its own. Word of mouth spread through friends, gay-straight alliances, and other support groups, and orders for more T-shirts came in from colleges across the country. For almost two years after that initial program, Nesson Wolfrum herself coordinated the distribution of over 14,000 "gay? fine by me" shirts.
And that was before the 2004 election, when things got really serious.
"That was the 'moral values' moment," Nesson Wolfrum recalled, in reference to the widespread interpretation that homophobic "moral values" was a major factor that November.
"Pundits and various anti-gay groups made it seem as if the vast majority of Americans were unsupportive of gay rights," Schaefer remembered. "That's just not true in my experience. Of course, I know that there is a great body of people out there who vehemently oppose me having the same rights as they do. But my hunch--and this is backed up by what we've learned through doing the T-Shirt Project in communities across the country--is that most Americans aren't homophobic, they're just shy about advertising their acceptance. They think that most other people condemn gays, and so they're afraid to stand up and say that they don't."
In 2005, Schaefer and Nesson Wolfrum relaunched Gay? Fine By Me, and incorporated it as a nonprofit organization. Today, Fine By Me campaigns have run in over 200 communities. Last month alone, at least 50 college campuses were treated to the coordinated display of 12,000 students, faculty, and staff who are openly tolerant of a diverse spectrum of sexual orientation.
Schaefer regularly travels to new campuses to give presentations about what the program is all about. From there, the effect is viral--the T-shirts have a way of moving themselves around--and every week a new group or two decides to launch their own campaign.
"Our basic philosophy is that you know your community better than we do," says Schaefer of his organization's relationship with the groups that run Fine By Me campaigns. "Our experience is that this program can work in any community, and we'll tell you what worked for us and what worked for other groups, but how you want to implement it is pretty much up to you."
The resulting campaigns have been remarkably diverse. For instance, at Boston College, over 1,000 shirts were worn to a march in demand of a change to the administration's non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation (the administration is currently "re-evaluating" the policy).
At the conservative Christian Messiah College in Pennsylvania, 25 student activists wore the shirt to an impromptu picnic. Marten Beels, the initial organizer of Messiah's Gay? Fine By Me campaign, had already attended one religious school--the traditionally-Mennonite Goshen College--before transferring to Messiah. "In Goshen, it wasn't totally open...but there was an active conversation with many people involved," Beels explained. "I was used to that comfortable atmosphere....But at Messiah, it felt like a big void, a prohibitive and even threatening void." Beels knew he wanted to do something for some time before he learned of Gay? Fine By Me.
Reaction to the campaign was, predictably, mixed, but in response, the Messiah faculty convened a panel discussion entitled "How to Have Civil Discourse." The program continues at Messiah this year, although it has now changed: Shirts read "homophobia is a social disease"--less succinct, but subtly poised to be more palatable on Messiah's campus. " In Christian circles, we often say you have to separate the sin from the sinner. Accept homosexuals as people, but not homosexuals. So a statement that homophobia is a social disease, that's more toward common ground," Marten said.
One of the most remarkable Gay? Fine By Me campaigns occurred at Notre Dame, a school that had also, in 2003, ranked first on the Princeton Review's "Alternative Lifestyles not an Alternative" list. That year, Notre Dame's gay-straight alliance was once again denied recognition as a student group--first by the student government, and then by the board of trustees. Recognition would have provided not just access to money for programming, but even the basic permission to advertise meetings and events. In response to the administration's refusal, the students ordered 3,000 bright orange shirts.
Joe Dickmann, who was at the time a board member of the unrecognized LGBT support group OutreachND, wrote over email about their campaign: "University administration...gave us no support and repeatedly tried to sabotage our efforts, [so] we ran on volunteer labor, credit card debt, favors, donations, and an outpouring of support that inspires me to this day. Our fliers got torn down, so we worked through email and word of mouth, ultimately delivering 2,300 T-shirts by year's end. We drove our big gay truck through every loophole we could find."
Ultimately, it will take more than a few boxes of T-shirts to change the policies of a school with strong formal ties to the Catholic church, but as a first step toward dialogue, the campaign was widely held as an overwhelming success. "The board of trustees could try to assert what the school was about, but the students themselves still had more control over who was an accepted member of the school's community," Nesson Wolfrum said. "They couldn't change the rules, but they could completely overwhelm as a visible presence."
The Gay? Fine By Me project does have its critics. Some argue that it sets the bar too low by calling only for individual tolerance, instead of complete societal acceptance. Joy Pugh, program coordinator of the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Virginia, acknowledged this limitation, but said that within these limits, the project is uniquely valuable.
"A lot of...LGBT work can gloss over the importance of allies, and this is the perfect program for allies," she said. "This is a big step, to get someone to put it on their body. It gives people a different experience than just talking about these issues in a safe space--there is a personal risk in taking a stand on an issue in a public environment where people might feel differently, and in doing that, their consciousness is raised about how LGBT people have to move around in the world between places that are 'safe' or otherwise. Several of our heterosexual participants told me that they found the experience empowering, in a way."
Many schools have made "Fine By Me" into an annual campaign, and though the novelty might wear off, there are always fresh students who are interested in participating. Gay? Fine By Me is also considering other settings and messages that might be effective, including, "gay marriage? fine by me" campaigns, and more subtle steps like "fine by me" pins for hospital nursing staff and social workers.
Of course, Pugh adds, "I would not want to see us doing this program 10 years in a row, because it would mean that we haven't been moving forward."
Schaefer is quick to acknowledge that "this is a first step, not a final step.... The purpose is not to create a country in which everyone has a Fine By Me shirt. It's to create a country where you don't need the shirts in the first place."
Greg Bloom is a freelance writer covering the ins and (more prominently) outs of the activist industry. Read more at http://mydd.com/user/greg%20bloom.