Brodhead Speaks at Opening of Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

President says the university regrets a past history of acts of intolerance

At the ceremony for the center's opening, President Richard H. Brodhead said the university has long
At the ceremony for the center's opening, President Richard H. Brodhead said the university has long "drawn strength from its gay community." Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

This week, Duke is concluding its year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the enrollment of the first black students at Duke.  That event marked a playing-out in our local world of a drama from the larger world. That drama is well known:  After the end of slavery, civil rights that had been newly won by the black population were systematically withdrawn, officially in the South and de facto in much of the United States.  Blacks lost their chance to vote, were excluded from first-class education and medical care, and were made to endure a host of daily humiliations designed to mark them as different and inferior. 

The Civil Rights Movement that opened Duke's doors was based on the recognition that every human is equally human, and every human is entitled to the same human rights -- not just technical legal rights, but the same fundamental opportunity for personal fulfillment.  The further teaching of the civil rights movement was not only that it's wrong to deny opportunities to others on prejudicial grounds like race but that the whole community is impoverished when some are excluded from full membership. When anyone is treated as less than fully human, there is a cost to us all.

The civil rights movement unfolded during my teens and my college years, and I well remember how a cause first focused on race began to broaden its concerns.  The women's movement gathered steam in the 1960s as an attack on another form of prejudice.  Later still, civil rights found a new cause in fighting the oppression of gays and lesbians.

It would be hard to describe today how deeply entrenched prejudice on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity was in this country at this time.  Homophobic prejudice was everywhere, with its aggressive mockery and crude repression. Further, people thought it a requirement of their virtue to uphold this prejudice.

The gay rights movement started later than the other chapters of the civil rights movement -- the Stonewall riot, the first rallying cry, occurred in 1969; and the progress was slow and the opposition intense throughout the next three decades. In the first years of this new century, there has been marked progress, more progress than anyone could confidently have predicted a decade ago. But we all know that this struggle is far from over.

As an institution within a larger culture, it's not surprising that the Duke of older times was saturated with homophobia. Last year, students in Blue Devils United brought forward evidence of official intolerance and active repression of homosexuality at Duke from the 1960s. They also shared personal testaments from graduates of that time. These Dukies testified that they could not be the people they knew themselves to be while they were students, could not have the love lives and personal lives they wished, were pathologized -- and even when the situation improved slightly, the pressures of swimming against the stream were dispiriting and exhausting. 

I've read these histories, and I'm sure we'll uncover many more in the future.  As president of this university, I would like to say today that this university regrets every phase of that history.  There is nothing in that past that I will not now confidently and totally repudiate. I regret every act that ever limited the human life of anyone who came here. 

But the history of the world can't be told only as a history of bad things, because that makes it seem as though the struggle for a better world meant nothingIn the depths of segregation, this university was designed by a black architect.  So too in its most homophobic period, Duke drew strength from its gay community: the most famous teacher at this university in the 20th century was Reynolds Price, a gay man was not always open about his homosexuality but who never denied it, and who wrote a celebratory memoir of it in Ardent Spirits.  More recently, my predecessors made Duke the first large employer in the state to give same-sex partner benefits.  My predecessor Nan Keohane agreed that same-sex unions could be performed in Duke Chapel long before such things were common anywhere.  Now, alumni who could not be gay when they were students are able to return to Duke in honesty, and to have their talents recognized with the university's highest honors. Tom Clark, who spoke earlier in this program, was an outstanding president of the Duke Alumni Association. Blake Byrne is about to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award at Founders' Day for his crucial work as the founding chair of the Nasher Museum's advisory board.  As an even more recent sign of progress, I would cite the video Duke student-athletes made last year with the message: "If you can play, you can play.'"

And now, to crown this history of progress, I come to this new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Janie [Long], I've been to your place before, but it wasn't quite as nice as this.  It wasn't as large as this.  And it wasn't as central, or as visible. Now, anyone walking from the Chapel to the Bryan Center is going to walk right past this space.  Anybody walking into the student center of Duke University is going to walk right up to this recognition of the value of sexual and gender diversity.  We've always known the phrase "out of the closet." Today, this Center comes  "out of the basement."  We've heard of things being "marginalized." Today this Center been centralized, placed at the visible center of Duke University. 

This Center will give a safe community place for students, faculty and staff who self-identify in non-heterosexual ways, but just as important, it will give a gift to every member of this community. A university is a place for learning, and if there are two lessons Duke University wants everyone to learn, they are, first, that everyone must be free to define the life they are meant to live, and to respect that right in others; and second, the human family serves us best when we allow ourselves to be human together, rather than make some people victims of artificial discriminations.

I'll say a word of thanks, and then I'm done.  I thank Janie Long and her staff and the many people in Student Affairs, not least Larry Moneta, who worked on the planning for this center.  I thank the students and faculty and staff who had input in the planning process.  But my deepest thanks goes to all those who built this community over the years. It could not have been easy to be one of a handful of advocates for a then-unpopular cause -- but thanks to that struggle, look where we have arrived.   Now, let's go forward together. 

Below: Students and members of the Duke community listen to Brodhead's talk at the center's opening.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

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