Mother So Queer

A Queer History of Wake Forest University


Chris Cooper

Interview conducted and transcribed by Miranda Davis (’13) on February 19, 2012 via telephone. Audio for this interview is unavailable.

Transcript of Interview

Cooper: Hello?

Davis: Hi Chris this is Miranda

Cooper: Hi Miranda how are you doing?

Davis: Good how are you doing?

Cooper: Pretty good I’m going to take you off speaker phone so I can hear better

Davis: No problem

Cooper: I thought it’d work well but it’s not coming across so well there. So what’s going on?

Davis: Alright so my name is Miranda Davis and I’m with Dr. Mazaris’s Queer Public History course. So I’d love to interview you, I know Angela described a little bit about what we’re going to be doing with these interviews but basically I’ll be asking you questions about your time at Wake Forest and all those type of things and if you consent to the release form then your history will become part of the university archives here and we’re going to be using it in a class exhibit in the library and it’s also possible that it could be used by future scholars. So um at the end of the interview I’m going to ask for your signature on a release form and you can ask for things to not be put in if you’d like or for names to be changed, that type of thing.

Cooper: (Laughter) okay

Davis: Just in case you have any concerns

Cooper: No I’m not sure why I would do that but…

Davis: Yeah we just have to say it to everybody. So anyway I guess we can just get started um do you have any questions so far about the process or the oral history project?

Cooper: Not really other than, it’s an oral history project so what are you recording these?

Davis: Yes I’m recording it right now and I’m going to be transcribing it so I’ll just write word for word what we said on this interview.

Cooper: Ok, gotcha

Davis: Yeah

Cooper: And then the transcriptions become the archive, or the transcription and the tapes?

Davis: Yeah the transcription and somehow we’re going to convert this into an audio file so the transcription and the audio file can be in the archives.

Cooper: Gotcha

Davis: Alright, okay well let’s get started. Okay we can start with the basics, what is your name?

Cooper: Christopher Cooper

Davis: And when did you graduate from Wake Forest University?

Cooper: 1996

Davis: Okay, um so were you here for four years?

Cooper: All four years, started in what, ‘92

Davis: Alright, how old are you now?

Cooper: Uh let’s see, I’m 37, just about to be 38.

Davis: Okay, where are you from originally?

Cooper: I was born in Pennsylvania, Lancaster Pennsylvania

Davis: Um do you have any, like where did you move after college or anything like that, or did you always live in Lancaster before you came to Winston Salem?

Cooper: Um well, no, my parents um my father was in the army in the navy so I was kind of a military brat for a while, lived all over the place. Then he became a minister, kind of fundamentalist Pentecostal minister after leaving the army and then we lived in Dallas for some time where he helped found one of those big fundamentalist mega churches. And we left there, my family’s from Lancaster so we somehow ended up going back to Lancaster where he started another church there and that’s where we were until I left, basically until I left for Wake Forest. And I.. in Pennsylvania for high school I debated for my high school and became pretty good in competitive debate for the high school and came down for Wake Forest’s uh like their high school tournament and debate camp, summer debate camp, and that’s how I got to know about Wake Forest and then was offered a debate scholarship and that’s why I ended up going there.

Davis: Okay and where do you live now?

Cooper: Well right now I’m in law school finishing up my law degree so I’m at Vermont law school which is South Royalton Vermont, the middle of nowhere. But that’s not where I consider.. I’m only here temporarily but I consider my home DC or when I’m not there I’ve lived in New York.

Davis: Okay so you’re a student right now?

Cooper: …

Davis: So you’re a student now? What were some of your previous jobs before you decided to go to law school?

Cooper: Oh gosh

Davis: You can just hit the highlights if you have a lot

Cooper: (Laughter) when I left Wake Forest I worked as a lobbyist for a while, a lobbyist for a subsector of the cement industry. I just…(inaudible) I just spent 30 minutes explaining what I did for them. I worked as a lobbyist so on the side coached both high school and college debate, and I got an offer to coach in exchange for helping a coach, the team at the University of Miami. I could get my graduate degree in communications, so I left being a lobbyist and went down to the University of Miami and coached their debate team, got my grad degree there and then I was set to be a debate coach and teacher, that’s what I wanted to do, I got a job teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas so I moved down to Dallas but there’s a whole other saga associated with this story. I ended up uh getting fired within the first week of getting to University of Texas Dallas because I was unable to drive the van, they hired me without asking if I was able to drive the van, the vans for, to take the teams to the different competitions. Which I can’t because one of my eyes is blind. So they fired me because of that and I sued them under the Americans with disabilities act but anyway there’s a whole other story there so what ended up happening is that I became a free-lance debate coach for a while, ended up back in DC which is kind of my home away from home. You’ll sort of find out that when I was outed to my parents I was kind of disowned, told I wasn’t welcome at home anymore so I uh was taken in by another Wake Forest alum uh David Styers. And David was living in DC at the time so DC kind of became my home. So anyway I went back to DC and I bartended for a while and I was the general manager of Remingtons which is the large gay and lesbian country western bar in Washington DC and then I got a job uh as a public relations specialist director for the American planning association which represents all America’s city planners. As that was going on though, the start of the 2004 presidential campaign and I was taken by Howard Dean early on back in January of ‘03 so uh with another guy I helped found “out for Dean” which was the outreach arm for the Howard Dean presidential campaign for gay and lesbian voters. And the campaign, I mean if you talk to anybody that campaign from the beginning was sort of run by the gays and so I worked on that until he you know lost the nomination pretty quickly after the Iowa caucus in 2004 and so I came back to DC and then took a job working in NYC for a Non-profit operating foundation which does work in.. I’ll just say the energy field and I helped found a non-profit called network for new energy choices which got me really involved in energy, renewable energy and utility law and from that experience I got a fellowship paid for by the department of energy to come get my law degree in energy law here in Vermont law school so that’s the very short version of my professional life after Wake Forest.

Davis: Okay, so how would you describe your sexual orientation?

Cooper: Gay

Davis: And how would you describe your gender identity?

Cooper: Male

Davis: How do you identify racially?

Cooper: White

Davis: I know you talked a lot about your father being a minister, how do you identify religiously right now in your life?

Cooper: Uh, I identify as Christic (laughter) if that makes any sense which means I’m not part of the Christian church I don’t follow the Christian church, but I think Jesus Christ was a model of righteous living so I try to do what Jesus would do, but not in the constraints of any church. So call that what you will, I call it Christic.

Davis: So um how would describe your class or Socioeconomic background?

Cooper: Well um my family was um, was poor. I’d like to say lower middle class but I realize now we weren’t. Everyone likes to think… everyone who thinks they’re poor likes to think they’re middle class, everybody who’s rich likes to think they’re middle class, but no we were poor and now I would consider myself middle class but I grew up poor

Davis: And I can probably guess this but what is your political orientation if you had to describe it?

Cooper: …ocrat (inaudible)

Davis: Sorry can you repeat that?

Cooper: Democrat, hardcore democrat (laughter) democrat, democratic

Davis: Okay and can you think of any ways that your sexual orientation has evolved since your time at Wake Forest or has it stayed the same?

Cooper: Well you know back when I was at Wake Forest it was right during a very transitional time in gay and lesbian civil rights in fact one of the seminal moments in the movement and in my life was the 1993 march on Washington where there was over a million gay and lesbian people present. You know a small contingent of Wake Forest students most of them who were actually closeted uh, not me, but went up there and it was transformative for us but it was also transformative for the movement where it became you know sort of the gay and lesbian movement sort of came… for a lack of a better word sort of righteous. So it was very identity politics focused um so I started out, that was ‘93 so It was very much it was very important then to identify yourself as gay and be sort of adamantly so and you know those structures, those identity structures, were very important then because we were fighting for fundamental civil rights. Since then you know both, you know we’ve gained more recognition in popular culture and social culture and more rights generally so there’s been sort of a post-structuralist turn in the gay rights movement where people are sort of more fluid about identifying themselves. Um I, because I, I’ve changed a little bit in that way what like what it means to be a gay man is more fluid for me I’m willing to accept those things but I still pretty much refer to identity politics. You know I’m not sure there’s really such a thing as bisexuality at least in terms of a political identification because you know if you’re bisexual and you’re with a woman society sees you as straight. If you’re a bisexual and a man society sees you as gay and I’m not sure it’s gotten to the point where they see anything different. It’s starting to get that way but I guess the short answer to my long explanation is I’ve evolved somewhat from an identity politics, very sort of a severe identity politics on my gayness, to a less severe and more post-structuralist one but I haven’t quite gotten there you know sort of the fluidity to get rid of identity structures all together um I mean I think that we can be all encompassing and use the term queer. I’ve always been in favor of that and actually used the word back at Wake Forest to indicate sort of anyone that has that suffers from the political structures of political identifications that are thrust upon people that have an affinity to people of the same sex but other than that I haven’t reached a point where I’m really comfortable with the expanding letters of LGBTQFRDWXK and whatever they are I think you know I’m pretty much gay and lesbian. I think those identities are important

Davis: Yeah. So we touched on this earlier but can you describe a little bit about your coming out process to me.

Cooper: Yeah um I pretty much uh you know knew from.. ever since I had an idea of sexuality at all I knew I was attracted to men. I didn’t have a word to stick with that until growing up in a very religious household the word gay or the orientation of gay became something that was very negative even though I knew I was. Uh so I knew so long as I was sort of dependent on my parents I couldn’t come out that way. Nevertheless about toward the end of my senior year in high school I started coming out to just a few really close friends but I wasn’t out toward my parents or the general public. And my idea was, my thinking was you know oh when I get to college I can do that because that’s what college is for I’ll be around people who are more open minded and I’ll be around other gay… and so it’s not so closed minded as Lancaster PA which was very conservative at least at the time it was. Uh so I get to Wake Forest and realize pretty quickly that there isn’t there wasn’t a sort of large gay community there at least an out gay community. At the time there was a group that met uh under the counseling center with a counseling group but it mostly was a bunch of closeted people, a handful of closeted people who the university dealt with as kind of people who had mental issues or faced particular kinds of mental stressors as a result of particular kinds of mental stresses as a result of conflicts that they were going through in their life or about their identity, people struggling with their identity. I never really had to struggle with my identity. I knew who I was I knew I was gay I just had to struggle with what to do about that what that meant in terms of coming out you know the implications of coming out to my parents and society. So I get to Wake Forest and figure out, go to this counseling center and do the stuff you’re supposed to do and I quickly realize there wasn’t very much of a community for people like me who weren’t otherwise struggling with their identity. And in fact I, so that was about the first half of my first semester there so I didn’t really you know come bursting out of the closet and the time I wasn’t sort of militant about it there was no reason for me to be that way but once I realized there was no sort of support structure there for you know for people like me who didn’t otherwise have to have a problem with their identity I realized I was basically the only person on campus who was out so I became really out. Then I was like well if somebody has to take the mantle of the… there was one other person out but he was a graduate student and didn’t live on campus he’s probably on your list of people to talk to oh… oh god why is his name escaping me, David.. Will… Will Hawk. Um he was a graduate student at the time he was out and would do things sort of socially with people who were closeted or who he knew but there was nobody who was on campus who lived on campus who was an undergrad student at Wake who was out. So I became really out and told a bunch of people there and I think they didn’t really know what to, how to deal with me because I wasn’t flamboyant, I didn’t have a lisp I didn’t wear a boa it was nothing sort of… you wouldn’t know it just by looking at me so I had to sort of tell people. Nevertheless that was sort of coming out on campus and there were some implications of that, especially being the only one. There were it was met with either resistance or just a plain awkwardness because the idea at that time was if you were somebody who was kind of quote “struggling with their gayness” that you kept that to yourself. And it was both I think the conservativeness of Wake Forest and kind of its southern roots. You know in the south you just kind of don’t talk about those things. So on campus there was kind of this transition then from.. getting some feedback still got me? (yeah) okay. So on campus for me there was this transition from- okay I’m not going to exist within this sort of the closeted structure that has been created for people here who are gay but there’s also not a, a gay community that is out so I kind of became this lone wolf of a person. You know I would walk around with these t-shirts on like “that’s Mr. Faggot to you” or “I thank god for all the men I’ve slept with” that sort of thing but I wasn’t out to my parents. What ended up happening though is I wrote a letter to my brother, I have one brother who was off in the military at boot camp and I came out to him in that letter and I told him specifically in the letter don’t tell mom and dad. Because I wanted to tell them on my own time in my own way. I was still dependent on them but we were so poor it really wasn’t economically dependent on them they didn’t have any money to give me anyway so it wasn’t like being disowned was going to have any real impact on my life. Nevertheless so he shows my mother the letter and he showed the letter it was toward the end of my second semester my freshmen year and it was the day, the morning of my Russian final and I get this phone call at 7am and you know, you know as a student you don’t call at 7am. I happen to be awake (laughter) because I pulled an all-nighter studying you know for this Russian final and I get this call and not two minutes into it she says to me “your brother told me about your problem” and I said my problem, what are you talking about. And she says your sexual problem. Um and I was like I don’t have a sexual problem mom everything works just fine down there and so this was a very short conversation I was like- I can’t deal with this this morning, I have a Russian final in an hour and a half- and uh you know so I was basically told during the conversation with my mom that I would not be welcome at home if I was going to be quote “that way” so I got off the phone with her and I went to my Russian final… this was back in the days you probably don’t know anything about this this was back in the days when you were allowed to smoke in the classrooms and in the hallways at wake and I smoked.. (wow) Yeah they used to have ashtrays at the desks in the rooms and so long as your professor say in the middle of a lecture would light up that would sort of signal that it was okay to do it so, you could light up then. But if anything you could always smoke in the hallways so I’m sitting outside the door of my Russian final that morning and I’m just chain smoking and my Russian professor comes down the hallway takes one look at me and is like -Cooper, what’s wrong with you, you look like…- you know so I kind of explained to him I just gushed it out you know I just came out to my parents blah blah blah I don’t know what to do and he’s like listen, you’re in no condition to take this Russian final right now why don’t you, you need to go to the counseling center and talk to them and we’ll let you defer your final for the moment I’ll just give you an incomplete and you can take your final later. Which I did. So that was that was basically my coming out. And from that point on it sort of became this weird problem it was right at the end of the semester and I was scheduled to go home or to go to an internship, well to go home first then go to an internship in DC which was an unpaid internship and I was just told that I couldn’t come home. So I had to make some real quick decisions about what I was going to do in my life and what do I do now? And I ended up I think I told you earlier there was a contingent of us who went up to DC for the 1993 march on Washington which was in March of ‘93 so while we were there we were housed, some of us were housed with Wake Forest alumnae who happened to live in the area one of who was David Styers. So I stayed I was sort of handed off to David Styers as you know- this is the person who you’ll stay with during the weekend of the march. And David and I became good friends and the only thing I could think of after I got off the phone with my mom and all these things were happening was to call David and you know ask him if I could come in. He lived in a studio apartment in Washington DC and he you know said let me think about it and within 24 hours he called me and said come, come to DC and this will be your home and he opened up his apartment to me and didn’t make me pay rent and then I got a job and started to pay rent or whatever you know basically became from that moment on up until this day he’s basically been my family. Uh and what was funny is we were joined later either that summer or the next summer by Will Hawk another Wake Forest alumnae and the three of us for a while shared a studio apartment in DC it was ridiculous and it was a blast man. We were so poor we existed off of rice and lentils all week long but it was a happy time.

So how would you describe your relationship with your family now?

Cooper: Well it, it took quite some time you know over the years for them to sort of gradually get to the point where I mean their big thing was, their issue was the, well two one was the religious issue that I’d be going to hell if I chose this lifestyle. And second was how it reflected on them as parents and people, you know if word got out how would that reflect on them. But, but, the first issue the religious issue was the most important for them. Over the years, for the first couple of years we didn’t sort of talk at all it was a very malevolent relationship but um over the years they got to the point where they’re not responsible for the outcome of my soul and we’ve gotten much closer. We don’t talk, they’ve sort of accepted the fact that I’m not going to change but we don’t really talk about the fact that I’m gay or my gayness and they’ve never acknowledged any of my boyfriends. Now the handful of boyfriends I’ve taken home they’ve referred to as Chris’ friends, you know Chris’ friend’s coming and I think um my mother at least has made clear that now that she has accepted the fact that I’m gay she’s really more comfortable with the idea of me being single and gay and sort of than with the idea of me being married or in a long term committed relationship with somebody which seems odd right but I think in her mind in her mind if I’m single and gay although this makes no sense if I’m single and gay I’m like a monk, but if I’m gay and in a relationship that forces her to acknowledge that i might be having gay sex which I think blows her mind.

Davis: So I know you talked a little bit about the close relationships you had with alumnae but were there really any professors or faculty or students at Wake Forest that um kind of helped you through your four years here. Did you consider yourself to have any mentors?

Cooper: Oh yes, but just one. There was Perry Patterson I don’t know if he’s still there but he was an economics professor and he was sort of loosely involved with the counseling group or whatever and he was you know gay himself and uh I sort of developed a friendship with him once he realized I didn’t fit into what the normal… the normal sort of mold of gay people who came into Wake Forest at that time were people struggling with identity that went into the groups and that’s how they’d sort of find other gay folks at Wake Forest it was all very closeted and I wasn’t I didn’t want to be that way so Perry saw how sort of lonely and depressed I was that first year at Wake Forest where I found out college wasn’t going to be this bastion of progressive thought where I’d hook up with other people who were out and proud so what he encouraged me to do, very progressive at the time. This might seem strange to you but when I got to Wake Forest we had computer labs and all but there wasn’t such a thing as the internet. Instead what there was was sort of a docs based… the internet was very rudimentary it was basically universities had what today would be called intranet, and then the intranet was sort of linked up by telephone line and you could ping another school and get a list of all of the people who happen to be on the intranet on that school because there wasn’t like webpages you’d go to and there wasn’t uh you know chat rooms and stuff like that but Perry, Perry actually encouraged me to sort of talk to people outside the university by using this newfangled technology which was you know pinging other universities and talking to people. And back then the way it would work was its kind of like very slow chat you’d write something in a little chat window and it would take a couple seconds to get to the other person and they would chat back. So anyway I used that an I started talking to a guy at Guilford college and actually we just randomly started talking because we were both on our universities intranet way late at night like 2 or 3 in the morning or something and you know had no idea that the other was anything but just by chatting and developing an online relationship eventually I found out he was bi, well he identified as bi at Guilford and I was gay and um eventually I got someone to drive me over there and drop me over at Guilford and I met him and he became my first boyfriend. Ever. Uh so that was all thanks to Perry Patterson that first year but other than him there wasn’t I know there was a woman who’s name I can’t remember who was a lesbian who ran the group at the counseling center. I didn’t really interact with her much after the first few quote “sessions” I went to because again her focus was on the students who were having identity issues who were struggling with that and Perry Patterson realized that was not where I was I was already beyond the struggling issue and now I wanted to be out and proud but you know how could he help me do that in an environment where at least for the first year there were no other out people on campus?

Davis: Wow. So I know you said you had a boyfriend at another school and you probably had friends at other schools. How do you think that your experience at Wake Forest compared to people at other universities or maybe more liberal universities or universities in bigger cities or..

Cooper: Oh I can tell you for sure at that time I went over and visited my boyfriend at Guilford and Guilford was you know maybe it’s because they’re a Quaker school or whatever but were far more progressive. There was you know out gay people there and a disproportionate number of gay people at least it seemed that way when they were out. I think Wake Forest was uh uh very [pause] conservative when it came to gay issues I think it took them a long time, I mean apparently for you know this was ‘92 when I came in and apparently for about 10 years before that the only thing that sort of existed as a gay culture at Wake Forest was this counseling center and it was kind of the only way the university sort of dealt with gay issues on campus was to think of it as a mental health problem and help to provide resources that would help them get through those issues. But there was not a, you know an out gay scene. And that was I mean I guess that was not unheard of at a time where basically a lot of northern or progressive universities already had gay groups on campus a lot of large schools but the smaller and more conservative schools didn’t they probably still had something like wake where it was just like they responded to individuals. So Wake Forest was I think particularly conservative, particularly behind the times but not severely so. I think the idea the problem at wake was there was less that there was institutional bias against gay people and there was more of a- we don’t know what to do with these people. You know they viewed it as a mental health issue. They especially did not know what to do when this transition started which was largely during my four years there from a community of closeted people who just showed up I mean the counseling center folks in order to get into this counseling group you would have to go to the counseling center have two sessions, private sessions with a psychiatrist therapist there where you talked about issues of your sexuality and then that person had to allow you into the group. And the group, nobody knew, like there was a group kept of the people inside the group but nobody knew who was in the group until they showed up to the session and the sessions were held at night in a sort of unmarked classroom in the basement of one of the buildings. So the whole thing was designed for you know don’t let anybody know there’s gay people at Wake Forest. And I think from a university standpoint they thought of this as sort of being protective of people who were going through this internal struggle. Well, you know so I come along and I want to be out and proud and I sort of helped, there had been prior to me a couple years prior I think Will Hawk had tried to start a group sort of outside the counseling center of people who wanted to be out at Wake Forest and more visible uh but it didn’t really go much of anywhere so I kind of was there and the university didn’t really know how to deal with me.. when I was uh when I was outed to my parents and they disowned me, the university was giving me financial aid based on my parents finances and the idea that they were going to help subsidize some of my tuition. So I was now in a position where they weren’t going to do that because I was gay. So I went into the student loan folks and said I’m on my own now completely, what can we do about this, and they look at me like I have three heads. They had never before sort of dealt with the issue and the idea that you wouldn’t have access to support from your parents because you might be disowned because you’re gay they had never dealt with nor did they know how to deal with it. So uh it took like the entire… I wasn’t sure how I was going to come back that summer but it took the entire summer of working with the financial aid department and the administration to come up with a policy of what they would do in these cases and I had to be um sort of emancipated, had to file all this paperwork and then they had to determine financial aid based on my income which was nothing. So I think in many ways it was strange because Wake Forest at the time I think the student body and the culture there was more conservative than the administration. I mean the administration and the staff wanted to be more progressive but they were sort of more clueless whereas the student body was more hostile and you know was sort of the beginning of the era of being publically gay at Wake Forest so I was the only out person on campus that first year and then a guy who had been a sophomore and actually was a member of a fraternity, my freshmen year he had been away at a semester abroad, came back the beginning of my sophomore year and he had come out while he was away on his semester abroad so he became the second out guy at Wake Forest. So it was kind of like within about a year or so, within my sophomore year or junior year all of a sudden there were a handful of us who started to come out and the university had to start dealing with that, both the administration and the students. And it was um you know it led to some conflict.

Davis: So I know you mentioned that you did debate were you… like what kind of organizations at Wake Forest were you involved in besides this kind of secretive counseling setting and maybe debate?

Cooper: Well so what we did was we sort of I think I told you two years prior to me there had been an effort to create a more uh visible gay group called GALA or GLBA. I think it was GALBA (gay lesbian bisexual association) so I kind of took over that for Will he was graduating and uh that became that was sort of the first kernel of a visible gay community at Wake Forest. There was like a handful of us that were out plus a handful who were closeted but not out but just kind of came across as friends of the gay people so they were kind of guilty by association. Uh but you know we started to do things that were fairly militant at the time sort of part of this identity politics thing like we held the first ever gay and lesbian rights rally at Wake Forest on campus which was covered by two of the local TV stations. It made such big news how Wake Forest the bastion of conservatism and Baptist culture and… but of course even at that time, so there was this rally and I think there were two of us who spoke and there were other people in the audience but nobody but the two of us who spoke allowed their pictures to be you know put up on the TV so it was kind of a strange thing this rally but a rally that people didn’t want anyone to know about. But it was a start and we used to be more visible we’d have weekly meetings and we started to hold a gay and lesbian film festival where we would you know on VHS tapes back then there were these things called VHS (laughter) and we would show the sort of art videos, gay and lesbian videos at the little festival and try to do some things that were sort of more out especially make it more comfortable for incoming students who like me had already decided to come out or were out so to give an option so we made up bylaws and we eventually got it took maybe two years but we got recognition by the administration there and actually by my third year which would have been my junior year we applied for and received funding as a student group. Uh and so the administration wanted to do right by us but they also didn’t want us to be too out there (laughter) like some of the things we did like for national coming out what did we do… oh we (laughter) one of the we used to do some really subversive things. One of the things we did, for national coming out day I don’t know what they what it’s like there anymore but back in my day like there was a Wake Forest look where all the guy wore khakis with like a white t-shirt and the, for national coming out day what a lot of universities did was jeans day, or you wear a certain color of jeans or something like that but we decided to flip it. We made, we advertised national coming out to show that you were out and proud to wear khakis that day right, so you can imagine what happened right so it sort of forced everyone else to where jeans which was not the thing to do and of course if you didn’t know you wore khakis and that became sort of a very subversive thing they were laughed at by their friends. I don’t know what it’s like now but back then the, each corner of the upper quad was where the frats would hang out and I think it was Theta Chi had this wall, you know this wall of the quad they would hang out on and Friday afternoons they’d drink and ogle girls or whatever. So we were really subversive we went out that day during the day and took sidewalk chalk and wrote in big letters on the quad sidewalk “too cute to be straight” with these big arrows pointing at the theta chi wall where we knew they would be sitting later that day. So yeah we would do shit like that. The administration, stuff like that was going too far for them. Uh so I think those first years like I said the administration tried to be supportive but didn’t really know what to do, had never really encountered people who wanted to use identity politics for change. Uh but and yet I still think they were more progressive than the student body as a whole. A good example of that being progressive is I actually started dating this guy who came back and was in a fraternity. So he came back, came out to his frat guys he was a Pike, I don’t know if they still exist there (yeah they do) uh yeah. So he was a Pike which at the time pikes were hardcore, there was nothing nelly about being a pike. Um so we started dating and he would take me to the pike formals or whatever and it was weird because he came out to his brothers and they were a little weirded out by it but they supported him as a brother you know so they sort of supported me as his boyfriend. It was the, when we went to the formals or whatever it was their girlfriends, it was the women at Wake Forest who were very homophobic and they would just say the meanest things. And i would say my entire time there was push back from the frats because they you know are frat boys they have to be that way but the real insidious homophobia came from the female population and kind of the female Christian population there uh which was large and pretty vocal at the time. I don’t think it was sort of like- it’s okay if you going to be gay and be in the closet and do those things behind closed doors but when you’re out and proud and publically ogling our men that’s going too far for them.

Davis: Interesting, did you guys have any involvement with the Winston-Salem LGBTQ community or did you have any perspective of what the larger city community was like?

Well at the time there was one really bad gay bar in Winston called the triangle. Or the triangle, the pyramid? I think it’s called the triangle. And it was you know pretty much it was very small and it was your locals and they had this tiny little dance floor and we would go out there on occasion but it was mostly sort of older gay men who would sort of ogle the… there wasn’t a real Winston Salem gay community you know people wouldn’t, you wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around the triangle it had sort of the blacked out windows but you know people would sneak in and there was a lot of I guess men who were either married or not out who would try to sneak in and do whatever but it wasn’t a very out community. Winston was not particularly progressive so once it got into sort of my junior or senior year there groups of us would take the drive and go drive to Greensboro where there was a club called the warehouse, warehouse 29 which was a little larger, a few more people, or we would take the time and drive all the way out to Raleigh Durham and go to um legends in Raleigh or uh a place called the.. I’d call it the powerhouse in Durham. And the Raleigh Durham community was huge and very progressive because they had UNC, NC state and duke and not only were those larger college populations but they also had larger and more progressive gay scenes so there was a much more out and proud gay community but that was still what an hour and a half or two hours away. So we would um interact with them socially but we didn’t really do a whole lot like there was no real interaction between the gay groups at Duke or Chapel Hill or Wake Forest. We were kind of out off on the western side of the state mostly to ourselves.

Davis: Can you think of any kind of defining events or moments on campus with the LGBT community? I know you talked a little bit about the rally in DC and just the kind of events you guys would hold. But can you think of anything else, like controversy with the administration or the students?

Cooper: Oh yeah, I’ve got a good one for you, I’ve got a good one. So the university announces that the class of 1996 the graduating class, our class what was it called, our commencement speaker was going to be Sam Nunn. Do you know who that person is? (no) does that name ring a bell? Probably not. (I don’t think so). Sam Nunn (pause) he served as the… he served for 24 years as a US senator from GA he’s a democrat but he uh he was also the uh I don’t know if he was….(pause) under the Clinton administration yeah so he was a moderate to conservative democrat but under the Clinton administration even though he was a democrat he came out vocally opposed to bill Clinton’s proposals well to allow gays to serve openly in the military and he’s one of the democrats who crossed over and, Clinton originally wanted the gays to be able to serve openly but because congress overturned him and statutorily overturned the uniform code of military justice he had to compromise. Well one of the reasons is because Sam Nunn crossed over with the republicans and opposed his policy. He also opposed the employment non-discrimination act and in fact there was some evidence that he would not hire gays as members of his congressional staff. So he had this really anti-gay thing. So he was our commencement speaker and of course we were as a group pretty livid about this because this was all taking place right at the time (inaudible) politics it was all at this time. So you know we talked to the administration about them making the decision but then those decisions were never made with any input from the students it’s kind of just that’s the guy that they hired. So what, it might still be this way but commencement took place on the quad, the upper quad (yep, still does) so we knew that they’d be setting up the chairs and stuff really early and the press would come and the cameras would be rolling and we also knew that any attempts to sort of flier or put information out ahead of time about Sam Nunn and his positions on gay people would, the administration wouldn’t like it. So what we did was the morning of commencement a bunch of us got up, most of us set up on the quad and the night before they set up all the chairs and put the podium up so we got up at the butt crack of dawn before the sun had risen and we had made all of these fliers with Sam Nunn’s record on gay rights like on it and we plastered the quad all of those arch, what are they called columns, we plastered the columns all along wait chapel everywhere we could. We taped up the little fliers that had Sam Nunn’s pictures and “do you know this about Sam Nunn” and had his sort of whole anti-gay record on there. And um so the sun comes up and people are starting to congregate and the administration is realizing that these are all over the place. They’re on every chair, they were taped up everywhere, so they called in the grounds crew and there was like this immediate attempt to sweep through and clean up all the fliers we had put out while we’re like running behind them trying to replace everything so it was this really funny fight that morning between the grounds folks who were being told by the administration to take down all the fliers because they saw it as inhospitable to Sam Nunn and the rest of us who were trying to get the word out that this guy who was about to represent our class and give this great speech to our class is really anti-gay. So it was that and we kind of got slapped on the hand for that. There was some talk at the time of withholding our degrees those of us who were graduating but they had no legal way to do that. But they were not happy we tried to embarrass Sam Nunn you know who was a big deal at the time. The other thing that we did and I think this started a trend which continued on for further years was we, in order to sort of show our allegiance go GALBA and against Sam Nunn (uh can you hear me? I can hear you) we tried to wear rainbow sashes you know with our robes (at commencement) and I think that continued on because I came back maybe 4 years late around the time when Martin Price was there on campus and they were still doing that so maybe that still continues to this day who knows but we started that.

Davis: So, would you consider yourself currently involved in any kind of LGBTQ or Gay community? And in what ways?

Cooper: Not right now, because I’m at law school, they have what’s called an alliance here but I don’t know if it’s the age difference or the personality difference but I absolutely detest most of the people who are involved in it so I don’t really get involved with it so I would say at the moment no but that’s only because I’m stuck here in law school.

Davis: Yeah so do you think that your group of friends all of you during your time at Wake Forest would you guys have considered yourself like a community of LGBTQ people or were you just kind of a group of friends? Or did you kind of try and pass on this sense of community of out people?

Cooper: No I think when I got there it was just a, I think that was the transition, when I got there it was just kind of a community of friends, closeted people who knew they were gay and probably went out socially or saw one another at the triangle but there was absolutely not a sense of gay LGBTQRVW community at Wake Forest but by the time I left there was, there was an established group and it was sort of handed off to people who knew they had a responsibility to maintain a visible presence of gay people at Wake Forest. And I think it was maybe a year or two later, it might have just been a year after me when sort of you know I was the only out person when I was there and I graduated and luckily I was kind of replaced by Martin Price either the next year or two years later he kind of became the next iteration the next real big leader of public era of the community.

Davis: How do you think that being a student at Wake Forest changed or influenced your perception of yourself in the community or yourself as a gay male?

Cooper: Huh. Well. You know as I said I kind of had this idea that I would go off to college and there would already be these communities there and there would already be people who were out and that’s not what happened at wake so I had to sort of make that for myself. I think that because of my time at Wake I ended up having to be far more vocal and militant and entrenched in identity politics than I otherwise would have been. For instance my uh choices came down to Wake Forest or Northwestern and you know Northwestern, much more progressive, in a big city, Chicago you know no big deal to be gay I think I would have just been another gay person at northwestern whereas at Wake Forest it was you know I felt this added responsibility at least for that first year when I was the only out person on campus I became this model of what people knew as a gay person. And um and that placed me in a position that carried on for years. In many ways I guess it was a good thing because I ended up leading to things like for the Howard Dean campaign being willing to co-coordinate on a national campaign on LGBT outreach because you know I had already had to deal with the idea of being visible and out and not really caring if anybody knew or what they were going to say or do you know. It was somewhat empowering but in my case it was empowerment that was by fire, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary.

Davis: Do you personally have any advice or anything you’d like to say to current Wake Forest students who consider themselves part of a larger LGBTQ community?

Cooper: Advice… uh (pause) I realize it’s sort of in many ways there’s sort of this passing of the torch going on where we’re sort of changed from identity politics to post identity politics where people have this fluid idea and maybe what my advice would be is to think more broadly than the national gay agenda. The groups like the human rights campaign and the national gay and lesbian task force, all of those came into existence at the same time period that I went through my gay you know came out and all this stuff was going on and they serve a good purpose but now like the group at Wake Forest they’re all sort of established so there is kind of a gay agenda that is articulated though those organizations. And my advice would be- know that we’ve reached a point in society where we’re more accepted. Don’t necessarily feel the need to adopt the same agenda as everybody else, be one step ahead and think more broadly. For instance I think it’s a bad idea for gay marriage to be at the top of our agenda I’m not even supportive really of gay marriage I think we should be against marriage period I think we should be against the idea of the government sanctioning any form of anybody’s relationship what is the government doing telling us what type of relationships at all we should be having as opposed to trying to gain entrance into an institution that is itself discriminatory. So it’s sort of the same for the civil rights groups you know we’ve reached a point where we’re recognized and we’re getting some rights, don’t use those rights to gain access to the country club that used to exclude black people instead break down the idea of country club all together. Take it further than that and don’t allow your agenda to be dictated by the national gay rights organizations.

Davis: Alright well I think that’s about all but I wanted to ask is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wish I had or anything at all that you want to discuss about your time or a burning story that you wanted to tell me?

Cooper: (laughter) oh I have lots of stories but they probably wouldn’t be publishable anyway and the guilty would hunt me down and kill me if they knew I were letting them out but one of the things is I heard you’re looking for pictures and stuff

Davis: Yeah I think so.

Cooper: I have a couple pictures, I actually have a picture of I came back to Wake Forest to sort of help with the group and to meet up with some friends a couple years after I graduated and that’s when I met Martin Price and I actually have a couple of pictures of Martin Price and I we decided to walk though Reynolda gardens and we had people take pictures of us kissing in Reynolda gardens. I figure I can send a couple of those

Yeah that would be awesome we are definitely looking for pictures

Cooper: And I can find some pictures from that time period, most of the pictures I have are actual picture pictures so I’d have to scan them and digitize them or something but if I have those who should I send them to?

Davis: I think you should probably send those to Angela, do you have her email?

Cooper: Yeah I think so

Davis: Or I can also give you my email

Cooper: I probably have yours as well because you’ve emailed me

Davis: Yeah and I’ll actually follow up with you after this as well because I have to email you a copy of the release form and the consent form and I think I have to have you either mail it to us or fax it to us

Cooper: Fax? What’s a fax? (laughter)

Davis: (laughter)

Cooper: Okay well I’ll try to see if I can dig up some appropriate pictures and I can email them to both of you

Davis: Yeah do you know anybody who would have any of those posters, the things you put up at the commencement speech that would be pretty awesome or even like remember what kind of things you wrote?

Cooper: Well it was, you know we had to do it pretty quickly so I remember it was just a white flier it was Sam Nunn’s face a picture of Sam Nunns face and I think the big title at the top of it was: Did you know this about Sam Nunn? And then it was just at the bottom big bullets three or four bullets about his not supporting gays in the military, opposing employment non-discrimination act and I think we also had a bullet point on there about how he had fired one of his staffers, congressional staffers after he found out he was gay. It was just like that it was pretty simple it was you know, it was incendiary and I think at the bottom we said “ask him” at the top it was like did you know this about Sam Nunn and at the bottom it was like ask him and in between were these bullet points. But of course he didn’t take any questions.

Davis: Yeah of course (laughter) of course not. Yeah well I guess if there’s anything else you can think of?

Cooper: Not off the top of my head

Davis: Well I unfortunately have to read you this oral consent form and then if you can just like answer affirmatively that you’d like to consent and I’ll follow up by sending it to you

Cooper: Okay

Davis: Alright so:

I, hereby give and grant to Wake Forest University the absolute and unqualified right to the use of my oral history memoir conducted by Miranda Davis on February 19th 2012. Any restrictions to this right are detailed below.

I understand the purpose of this project is to collect audio and video-taped oral histories of first-hand memories of the interviewees’ life experiences for the LGBTQ History Project sponsored by the LGBTQ Center and Dr. Angela Mazaris’s “Queer Public Histories” class.

I understand that these interviews (tapes and transcripts) will be deposited in the LGBTQ Center Library, and ultimately may be deposited in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University for use by future students, educators, and researchers. Responsibility for reproduction, distribution, display, and the creation of derivative works will be at the discretion of the Center Director and/or the ZSR library staff. I also understand that the tapes and transcripts may be used in public presentations including but not limited to books, audio or video documentaries, slide show presentations, exhibits, articles, public performances, or presentations on the World Wide Web through the LGBTQ Center’s website or successor technologies.

In making this contract I understand I am conveying to the Wake Forest University LGBTQ Center all legal title and literary property rights which I have or may be deemed to have in my interview, as well as my right, title, and interest in any copyright related to this oral history interview which may be secured under the laws now or later in force and effect in the United States of America. This gift, however, does not preclude any use that I myself want to make of the information in these transcripts and recordings.

Cooper: It’s good you had that last clause (laughter) but yeah that sounds good.

Davis: That’s all can you think of right now any restrictions you’d want to replace.

Cooper: I don’t think so, I don’t think I’ve said anything I mean I guess I’d have to review. I mean I’ll get a chance to review the transcript just to be sure I haven’t said anything completely libelous?

Davis: Yeah, I am going to be typing it up this week and then I should have the finished copy of the transcript done by next Monday so I can email you the copy.

Cooper: Okay I just want to make sure I don’t implicate anyone legally and I’ll be fine with that.

Davis: Okay, alright well thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and I will follow up emailing you the consent form so probably what I’ll do is send you the consent form along with the transcript so you can read it and read the consent form and if you have anything you want to edit out or change you can let me know.

Cooper: Alright that sounds perfect.

Davis: Alright thank you so much Chris

Cooper: Thank you, its amazing things have gone from my day to what you guys are doing now it’s really remarkable, it makes me feel old.

Davis: Yeah well it sounds like since your time there’ve been some great changes so glad to hear that at least.

Cooper: Thanks a lot.

Davis: Thank you, bye


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *