Over at my personal blog, I recently wrote offering advice to future cohorts of my peers.  During my writing, I found myself wanting to offer my experiences to the few, if any, of you who identify as a sexual minority who plan on obtaining theological education. I can only hope that there is at least one of you who plans on doing so at Duke Divinity, and at the same time don’t wish that sort of stress and struggle upon any of you. Yet, I also know that I, at least, have found the struggle to be incredibly fruitful, so I do wish it on you in a way.

Rather than babble on about whether or not I am wishing such an experience on you, here is some advice, based on my own experience, to those of you who do choose to partake in such an…experience.

This supposed ‘advice’ is going to be more obfuscated than the previous one. Life, on a whole, is complicated, and doesn’t lend itself to clean lines and neat packages. Life for a lesbian (or gay man, or bisexual, or [insert your situation here]) is even more complicated at times, especially when those times include theological education for training pastors, in the South, affiliated with a denomination that does not ordain gay pastors…. you get my drift.

That being said, I don’t even know where to start. And I’m already halfway down the page.
Perhaps I will start by explaining what served as my impetus for coming to Duke Divinity School. Why, the astute (hell, even the daft) reader may ask, did you come here then? And this is even before I release the fact that I also got into Yale and Vanderbilt, both of which are known to be much more liberal, and both of which offered me MUCH more money in the way of scholarships. Yet, here I reside, at Duke Divinity.

I blame all this on a man named Sanford Groff.

Let me back up and explain.

It was spring of 2007, and I was pretty set on going to Vanderbilt Divinity School. I had been offered a full scholarship, the school was known on being very liberal and accepting, and they had a fantastic certificate program in Gender, Sexuality, and Theology. But, I didn’t want to commit before I looked at all the schools on my list. Plus, I was currently on Equality Ride, and the idea of stealing time away by myself for a few days sounded like heaven. So, post-Patrick Henry protest, I got a nice community supporter to take me to the nearest car rental place and went on my way to Duke University. I remember the drive being breathtaking. It was likely because I was driving and alone, as opposed to sitting on a bus with 25 other queers, but nonetheless. Every time I think about that drive, I remember the colors of the trees. I keep thinking that I was amazed by the vastness of the fall colors (in California, all the trees are green, all the time), but that can’t be right, cause it was in April. (I still can’t figure out why or where that image is in my head from.) So, I am already thinking favorably towards this school.

After a much needed drive, I arrived at the Millennium Hotel, which Duke had paid for. A long, beautiful drive of solitude followed by a soak in a hot tub and a bedroom to myself—it’s like the cow being primed and fattened up before it is led to slaughter.

After a long night sleep, I arrive on the Duke campus, and it’s beautiful. And the divinity school is right next to the gorgeous, historical Duke Chapel. And there are tulips planted everywhere. Tulips! Its as if the Duke powers-that-be are already sprinkling on seasoning before the cow becomes a hamburger.

During the quintessential tour of the Divinity school campus, I happened to browse the events listed on a corkboard up next to the mailroom. One of the event flyers I saw advertised a “brown bag lunch” on homosexuality and Scripture. Hmmmm, I thought. I have these conversations every day for Soulforce, so you think I would want to avoid them on my short-lived hiatus. Nope. It sounded like fun. Part of it was that I was excited to see how much better a school like Duke would do at these conversations. And, if this was a school I was seriously considering, this was the type of thing I would be involved in, so why not start early?

Well, to make a very long story only a little less long, I left that brown bag lunch thinking that there was no way in hell I would willingly enroll in Duke Divinity School (so much for being primed). The conversation reminded me of the conversations I had been having all along on Equality Ride, at schools where Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham were popular, where you could major in apologetics and creationism, where you could be kicked out for being gay. I was appalled that students at Duke were comparable in their viewpoints.

The one positive part of the lunch meeting was this guy who was there. He was the one guy at the meeting who was gay, and supportive of gay people (you’d think those two go together, but not necessarily!). I felt sort of bad for the guy, and what he seemed up against, but I was also sort of inspired/encouraged by him.

I left the meeting quickly, too emotionally drained to even try to have conversations with these people, so I ran up back to the admissions office just in time for a financial aid meeting where they reminded me that they didn’t have a lot of money to give me. Yaaaaay Duke!

Unfortunately for me, when I left that meeting, ready to sneak off early from the rest of the days activities and go make better use of that hot tub before I had to head back to the big gay bus, this tall gay man who solely spoke so eloquently at lunch was waiting to talk to me in the admissions office. I said very little during the meeting, but, as a visiting student, I was naturally asked where I was from and what I was doing.

This tall gay man introduced himself as Sanford and asked if he could take me to coffee to talk. I, of course, obliged, partly because I was intrigued, partly because I thought it would be helpful for my Equality Ride experience to hear his story, and partly because I knew he would pay for the coffee—and who can deny a free mocha latte and biscotti?

We headed over to the Perkins coffee shop, a place I have come to know and love despite the memories of that fateful day, and got to talking.

This Sanford didn’t mess around. He took a few minutes to ask about me—what other schools I was looking at, where I was from, what I was up to with Equality Ride… But as soon as I finished the biscotti, he went into business mode.

“So, I think you should come to Duke” he said. If I were still eating the biscotti, I probably would have choked on it. That was nice of him to wait until I was done to spring this idea on me. I glanced at him warily, which he took as a sign to continue talking, probably wanting to not give me a chance to reject his suggestion.

He started off telling me about all the good things at Duke. The gender, theology, and ministry certificate program, the women’s center, Mary McClintock Fulkerson. I knew all these things, I pointed out, which was why I even considered it in the first place. Yet, Vanderbilt had these things, and they were much more gay friendly.

“Yes, “Sanford said. “I’ll give you that…. But…. You’d get bored at a place like Vanderbilt. You’re a fighter.”

Damnit. The man had a point.

All my life, I have been fighting against the mainstream (ok, so, in junior high and high school, that meant protesting abortion and fighting for the bible to be taught in public schools…. But it was still fighting…) I mean, I went to Wheaton for a semester! And as Sanford explained why Duke would be a good choice, I found myself thinking, Duke cant be as bad as Wheaton, and I managed that  (albeit, only for a semester, but I didn’t think of that at that point). Then Sanford pointed out, Duke Divinity needed people like me, like us. Not because we are fantastic people (though, we are) but, because of the need for diversity and lack of it.

He had me. It wasn’t an ego thing, at least I don’t think it was. I often err on the side of being hard on myself. There was certainly some level of masochism involved—there had to be. And, I was a fighter. Why go where things are going to be peachy and you can just blend in and live comfortably? I’m not one who does apathy well.

And people at Duke Divinity needed (still need) some help in the department of learning how to interact with LGBT people. Let me explain the different ‘categories’ I have experienced this year. I’ll use this as a springboard to give some advice to incoming gay students, and will hopefully do less blathering on about myself.

Categorical Types of Divinity School Responses to the Gays:

The Straight Ally. On one hand, there are the people who are genuinely supportive of the gays, and want to be supportive the best way they can. These are the people who have been of most comfort to me at Duke, but there has still been some teaching. Albeit, some are better then others—usually, those that have a gay family member or friend.  These individuals mostly just listen, and then become indignant with you on how a ‘school like Duke can be such a awful place at times for the homosexuals.’ These are the liberal, progressive-minded people who are incredibly supportive—sometimes they just don’t know how to be it. Future gays of Duke Divinity, get to know these people. They may think the word ‘queer’ is offensive, and ‘homosexual’ is not, but they’re learning—just as you are. You just have more at stake, and therefore have likely learned much faster, but you too thought queer was an offensive word at one point, and once believed that all gay men loved fashion and all lesbians didn’t. Be patient. They are trying hard, they just often don’t get what you’re dealing with. Try to help them ‘get it’ just a little bit more. Be honest with them, be patient with them, and be grateful for them.

The Hater. On the other extreme, you’ll have the assholes who really do mean you ill will and are trying to do you harm. You likely wont come across such overt hatred at Divinity School, but, if your at Duke (read: in the South), you’ll likely run into it somewhere—be it upon exiting a gay bar, attending a Pride event, or walking down a street with a significant other. Dealing with these people is simple. Don’t try to get them to change (you don’t want them to do that to you, and it wont work), be careful, and avoid them as much as possible.

The trickiest people to deal with are all the people in the middle, the people falling into the vast middle of the curve. There are a lot of variations within this broad category, I would just like to point out a few significant ones—the Apathetic Progressives, Those that Think They are Progressive but Really Aren’t, the Moderates type 1, the Moderates type 2, and the Sympathetic conservatives.

The Apathetic Progressives. These people are everywhere. This group is similar to the allies, but less diligent and thoughtful. I’m not even sure what to say about this group. It’s a mixed bag—on one hand, this is the makeup of most of my friends here at Duke, and I am grateful for them, and for their tolerance. These people are not the direct cause of any of the pain I’ve experienced. But, they have certainly contributed to my sense of isolation after I get frustrated or have a painful experience. This, in a way, makes these people the most frustrating. Be prepared for a lot of these people in your lives—make sure you have at least a few friends in the ally category. I always struggle with whether I should try to lower their levels of apathy by sharing my experiences, or, if it wont work, and I’ll I’m doing is rambling/talking about the same thing again, and contributing to my own isolation by doing so. It’s a sort of loose-loose battle in these situations.

Those that Think They are Progressive but Really Aren’t. Oh man (or woman). This is quite the group to deal with—the people who are much more prejudiced then they think themselves to be. When I think of this group, I think of people like Sally* (names are changed to protect all parties). Sally learned at the very beginning of the year that I liked the ladies. She likely learned this from my facebook or some other way that wasn’t hard to find out. At the beginning of the year, we were sitting by each other in a precept class.
“We should hang out sometime.” Sally said. She seemed like a cool person, and I was in the making friends mode at the beginning of the year.
“Sounds like fun.” I say. “When and where?”
“Lets go to Francesca’s [a local coffee shop] at some point.” She says. As soon as I am about to agree, she feels the need to add “just as friends.”
“Um, ok” I stammered. What I really wanted to say, was “don’t flatter yourself.”

There will be a lot of people who think they are and act as if they are progressive and a friend of the gays, but then, they do things like Sally did. Mind you, a lot of it is ignorance, and it isn’t ill willed, but it can get really frustrating. These are the people who will continue to call you a homosexual after you point out to them that it is not the correct thing to say, who will never ask you about your relationships even as they ask the straight person sitting next to you, who, when you bring up a relationship you’re in, will get really uncomfortable and quickly change the subject. Be patient with these types, but also be bold, and point out things when you see them. Audre Lorde says it best in her poem A Litany for Survival. She says, “When I speak, I am afraid. And when I am silent, I am afraid. So I speak, remembering, I was never meant to survive.

The Moderate type 1. This is the largest of any of the categories at Duke Divinity. These are those individuals who consider themselves moderate and who are supportive of civil rights for the gays. This does not mean they are ok with same-sex relationships though. These are usually the Hauerwas fans (which exist in very large numbers at Duke!) who feel that what the state does is what the state does, and should not influence, or be influenced by, the church. So, while these individuals believe that the state should give rights to LGBT people, they do not believe that the church should. I don’t have a clue how to deal with this group. On one hand, I’m happy that they are at least somewhat supportive, and would vote yes if a marriage referendum came up here in North Carolina (ahahahaha. And, oh yea, most of them choose not to vote). Yet, if I had to choose between government and church support, I’d choose the church support….

The Moderates type 2.  Read: the borderline fundamentalists with a lot more intelligence, which makes the situation all the more painful and depressing. These are those who most consider moderate because they are too smart to be considered fundamentalist, a term that often connotes backwoods, un-educated folk. Yet, they come in a different form in Duke, and because they are at Duke, they are called moderates or moderate conservatives. Let me illustrate with another story.  This one is with a girl we will call Jane.* To set the scene a little bit, it was a Thursday afternoon, and we were in the class Pastoral Care in a Cross-Cultural Setting. It was the final day of class, and we were finally getting around to talking about pastoral care with sexual minorities. To say the least, the class was awful. The teacher said things that were not at all supportive, students made really dumb and somewhat offensive comments, and the teacher recommended a strongly anti-gay book (Straight but Not Narrow). When I was finally allowed to speak, I was bluntly honest, and talked about my experiences as a lesbian, hoping to bring a little clarity and correct some things people said (cause, during most everyone else’s conversation, I was thinking, shit, if they have any gay parishioners, they’re screwed). As soon as I ‘came out’ to the class, it was as if you could hear a pin drop. It was absolutely hilarious…. Anyways, after class, Jane approaches me, and thanked me for sharing. After offering her thanks, she asked,
“ Have you ever read Romans 1?”
I kid you not. To her, I wanted to respond, ‘no, is that after Acts?’
She invited me out to lunch to talk about “what the Bible says about homosexuality.” There are many, many Jane’s at Duke Divinity school (Jane was not the only person who eventually spoke to me about “my decision”)

My advice for your interactions with the moderates (of both types)…. have some, but not too much. It is important to be around people who think differently then you—even if they are very wrong. Being friends with people who “think homosexuality is wrong” (whatever the hell that means?!) will be helpful for you and for them. Nietzsche said that that which does not kill you will make you stronger. Get strong. Plus, this is a perfect “evangelism tool.” I have some hope that some of the people I am friends with will change their opinions on homosexuality because they know me. But, on the other hand, know how much you can handle, and be cautious. Take care of yourself. I made the mistake this past year of trying to change everyone’s wrong opinions about homosexuality, and got very very frustrated and very very tired. Don’t bite off more then you can chew, and make sure to find some supportive people in your life who you can process stuff with, and who you can go crying to when you get tired of people telling you your life is a sin.

This brings me to the final group of people I’ll point out, the Sympathetic Conservatives. This is the most unique of all the categories I have experienced. Basically, these are mostly ethnic minority students, who are theologically pretty conservative, but, at the same time, ‘get’ what you are going through. These people understand what it means to be isolated and misunderstood. I have often taken solace in the company of the black students at Duke. There have been a few who have been immensely supportive, mostly a handful of black womanist women, but for the most part, they are not ….pro gay. Yet, they are not as offensive as others are, because they empathize with you on a deep deep level. True, it can be frustrating when push comes to shove, but the level of understanding can be incredibly uplifting and encouraging.

Alright, there you have it. There is my analysis of some of the types of people in the divinity school, and my subsequent advice. Here are a few more bonus pieces of advice:

–    Find some gay friends. They will understand things many of your other friends won’t. Mind you, they probably wont understand your divinity school student status, or your faith, but they’ll fill a gap that your div school friends can’t.
–    Journal about your experiences. It will help you act more calmly when new situations flare up, and it will help others who you can then pass your advice on to.
–    Pray. A lot. I don’t know if it helps, but it doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure.

Most importantly, if you’re trying to decide whether or not you want to come to Duke Divinity, I say come. It’s hard as hell—frustrating, exhausting, and isolating, but it will make you stronger, and besides, Duke needs you, and I need you.