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.