At about 3 a.m. on Nov. 5, someone scrawled graffiti in a Duke University freshman dorm. It read, “Death to all fags @Jack.” “Jack” is Jack Donahue, 18, a gay first-year student at the elite Southern university that has witnessed multiple episodes of well-publicized racism in recent months and now this anti-LGBT hatred. “What this tells me is that it’s still not okay to be queer [at Duke]. To talk gay, to dress gay or be gay,” said Tyler Nelson, president of the LGBT student group Blue Devils United, at a rally in support of Donahue. Unfortunately, Duke is not alone in facing this kind of anti-LGBT sentiment; last week, police at the State University of New York at Potsdam charged a former student with two counts of second-degree aggravated harassment/hate crime, a felony, for what the university has called a “heinous hate crime” — two notes containing homophobic and racist language directed at a faculty member.
Donahue joined Steven last week during an online chat. This excerpt of their chat has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You said after the incident that you “have lived as a proudly out and visible gay man on Duke’s campus.” What does that mean?
By “proudly out” I mean that I make it a point to make my orientation visible and to engage in conversations surrounding LGBTQIA+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and agender] issues. I figure that so many queer people have had their voices silenced so I try to reclaim that space.
On Facebook, someone posted, “Sexual orientation is a private thing and has no business being part of one’s public persona. If a heterosexual were to go around ‘proudly out and visible’ with their sexuality, they would be shunned as a creep or pervert.” What’s your take on that?
Heterosexuals are virtually always “proudly out and visible” as [nearly] all spaces are tailored for heteronormative discourse and behavior. The bars, clubs, classrooms, and more here at Duke are made for straight people (as they are everywhere) and allowing of straight people to be openly straight. A history of oppression and forced closetedness necessitates a boisterous voice and visibility for minority groups of all natures.
Okay, so let me take you back in time. As I understand the timeline, someone scrawled, “Death to all fags @Jack” in your dorm in the middle of the night. How did you find out about it?
I didn’t find out about the writing until roughly noon the next day when my roommate texted me while I was in class. My first reaction was total disbelief and confusion. I simply closed my laptop and finished class, as I wasn’t prepared to process something that outlandish and odd.
The next day, a rally was held in support of you and other LGBT students. The Chronicle reported that upwards of 250 were present. What was your message to those present?
My message was to not allow this incident to be viewed as an outlier but rather a physical manifestation of prejudice and oppression that queer bodies experience daily. I also wanted people to understand that these macro aggressions only exist because of micro aggressions that are done daily and commonly on campus. Lastly, I stressed that the average cisgender straight person is the issue, as very few “allies” are truly active allies.
Duke officials tell me the investigation is still underway. Do you have any idea who is responsible? Can you explain what you meant by, “The person who wrote on the wall is greatly unimportant.”
I do not think anyone will be found culpable nor do I know who might have done it. What I mean by that [statement] is that hatred exists. Hateful people exist. Violence exists. We cannot change those things. What we can hopefully change is the general attitude toward and treatment of queer people. One bigot need not be the focus of this incident.
Do you think LGBT students are safe on the Duke campus? On college campuses in general?
By judging responses of the community here at Duke, the answer is no. The same goes for other campuses. There are many college-specific institutions that frequently and systematically make queer students feel unsafe such as Greek life, hook-up cultures, lack of queer faculty, and lack of administrative response and protection.
I know you need to go to class. Where do you go from here?
Duke’s administration can improve life for LGBTQIA+ students by following through on the list of [demands] made by Blue Devils United as were voiced at the rally. These included a zero tolerance hate speech policy, sexuality major, and establishment of a committee to review the historical targeting and expulsion of gay students. Moreover, demands should not be strictly the responsibility of students but also staff. The burden to relieve oppression is on the oppressor, not the oppressed.
Editor’s Note: Steven Petrow is a Duke alumnus and Duke Alumni Association board member.
What’s your point of view on what happened at Duke? And what should campuses be doing to protect all students? E-mail your thoughts to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow.