Interviewed and transcribed by Ally Carson at Wake Forest University.
Transcript of Interview:
Ally: I’m here on the 24th—Ally Carson, I’m with—
Dustin: Dustin Fletcher
Ally: Dustin Fletcher, okay. So I’m just going to write your name down. All right, so your birthday. And you can just put an approximate year if you want—
Ally: Apparently some people didn’t want to give their actual birthdays away.
Dustin: Aww, that’s sad.
Ally: I guess there were some much older people who preferred not to.
Dustin: I was born May 1986.
Ally: Your hometown?
Dustin: My hometown is a small town in rural southwest Kansas
Ally: And you currently live in?
Dustin: I currently live in Winston-Salem
Ally: How many years at Wake? Including if you work here now—
Dustin: It’s been eight years.
Ally: And are you currently working here? What’s your occupation currently?
Dustin: I actually just graduated in December. So I am just in the intermediate in-between waiting to walk for graduation and figuring out my next step. So I do have some on-campus jobs here. Just working around.
Ally: Sexual orientation?
Dustin: I’m gay
Ally: This one is—sort of goes along with this question. Gender identity or what you prefer to call yourself? Like, pronoun preference? Would you consider yourself a man?
Dustin: Yes, yeah.
Ally: And then, your racial identity?
Dustin: I am a Caucasian Native American mix.
Ally: Your religious identity?
Dustin: Oh, umm—
Ally: Always a fun one.
Dustin: (chuckles) Yeah, especially after taking Religion and Sociology last semester. I am–I am spiritual. But I don’t count—identify with a specific religious tradition at the moment. So I wouldn’t say that I’m, like, Baptist or Methodist or anything like that. But spiritual encompasses that I have faith and that I believe in a higher power, just don’t want to conform to something in a box.
Ally: Okay, so now I’m just going to start asking you questions and you can just elaborate as much as you want and please feel free to do so. So just want to describe your childhood in any way; just start off by what was your childhood like?
Ally: I know–it’s a broad question!
Dustin: It’s a broad question. Umm, so I feel like my childhood was fairly standard for growing up in the rural community I grew up in. A very small town of 2000 people total, like, going to school, my graduating class was size 46. So very small. Grew up in close proximity to most all of my extended family, both of my grandparents, maternal and paternal, lived in the same town that I lived in. Quite a few of my aunts and uncles and cousins all lived in the same town. So, just very much a tight-knit community, a lot of emphasis on family and religion and–yeah.
Ally: Were you religiously affiliated as a kid, growing up?
Dustin: Yes. I grew up in what’s called the Church of God and it’s affiliated from Anderson, Indiana, There are two different ones, and it’s very important to make that distinction. Like, doctrine-wise, they are very similar to Southern Baptist. Very conservative, straightforward, literal interpretation of the Bible. And so, I was very much involved in the church as a child. My family, all of my extended family had active roles as laypeople within the church. And then even as I was growing up throughout middle school and high school, I took lay roles in the church too. Leading the music ministry, doing stuff with vacation Bible schools and summer programs and Christmas plays and that sort of stuff. And so I was just really personally active in the church as well.
Ally: Did you enjoy being active in the church?
Dustin: I did.
Ally: You didn’t feel like it was imposed upon you in any way?
Dustin: No, I didn’t. It was just kind of natural. It was something I really enjoyed. Music—I’ve always been musically inclined, and so just kind of a way to give back and be involved and I really enjoyed all of my time that I put in, in that capacity at the church.
Ally: Okay, so when did you first realize you were attracted to men?
Dustin: Umm, that happened when I was in, probably, I want to say–I spend a lot of time working with this—probably somewhere between sixth and seventh grade when I first realized it. It didn’t really sink in much, probably until later in high school. Like there was the idea of something feels different; something’s not quite right, and conversations with peers and that sort of stuff. Like, I’m not talking about the same things, I’m not really interested in discussing girls in the same way or in wanting to kiss them or wanting to hold hands or whatever that was. Even though that didn’t stop me from dating and doing all that sort of stuff just kind of to make the normative behavior be there even though it wasn’t quite fitting and cliquing like I thought it should be.
Ally: When did you actually come out to your family? Or have you come out to your family?
Dustin: Awesome. Umm, so I actually came out to my family after my second year at Wake, during the summer. So it was quite a lengthy time after I’d actually realized what was going on. And—I didn’t necessarily plan the conversation was going to happen when it did, but—it just—sometimes you don’t get to control life the way you want, so…
Ally: [Do you know] why did you not come out to your family before then? Was it a personal—?
Dustin: I do. So—I, I just knew having grown up in the religious home and community that I had grown up in that being gay wasn’t going to be widely accepted. That my family was going to take it—have a difficult time really coming to terms with it themselves and being able to accept me as a gay man. And so, I kind of just thought to—having grown up where I grew up—we didn’t have much—like I didn’t have anybody in the community that I could look at kind of as a role model of maybe, this is maybe what my life will look like or its going to be okay because, like, so and so in the community has a partner or has adopted kids or has done anything to kind of lead me to believe, okay, the community treats the person this way, it might be okay, or that sort of thing. So, coming to college, Wake isn’t terribly—wasn’t terribly at that time friendly and accepting. Just in the fact that, like, I wouldn’t have come and introduced myself as, “Hi I’m Dustin, I like boys” or something like that. There were definitely places that I could go and feel comfortable being my entire self, but that wasn’t just something that I was going to, just, shout from the rooftop once I got here. And so, I wanted to personally do more research and find out, okay, so I’ve grown up with this religious tradition that’s told me that this is wrong. I need to dig and do my own research to figure out: is that really true? Because once I got to campus, I plugged into a campus ministry here on campus, and the campus minister’s incredible, I absolutely love her to this day. And, and talking to her about it was not an issue. And so I needed to figure out how to be able to help my parents understand there are two ways to look at this. And here is my perspective, you can choose whatever fits for you, but this is how I’m dealing with it, this is how I reconcile at the end of the day, how I can be a spiritual person and still claim faith and still be a homosexual. And so, I didn’t really have all those answers yet, and was still kind of struggling with acclimating to Wake still, managing going from a 4.0 student, straight A, top of the class student as all star to average student who made decent grades and really wasn’t a rock star in any sort of capacity. And so, I put more time and effort into that then kind of this quest for personal identity, discovery, and realization, and so—I actually planned on coming out to my parents after I finished Wake, and would have graduated and would have been able to say, “Okay, my life is going to take this turn and here’s this big turning point, let’s all get back on the same page and go from there.”
Ally: Well what made you—what influenced you to tell them sooner?
Dustin: I was actually dating someone at the time, and that sort of came out through a series of life events, and kind of threw me out of the closet that way.
Ally: Are they accepting of you?
Dustin: They are not. We’ve dealt a lot with our differences and issues, (pause) and one of the ways we’ve done group counseling and done a lot of things to work on our relationship and rebuild it. I would say it’s a lot better than it has been before, but it’s still not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. My current boyfriend, they don’t talk about him, they would never ask questions about him, they’re not interested in him at all. So it’s kind of one of those things that’s there but we just don’t talk about it.
Ally: Do you think that that’s ever going to change?
Dustin: I actually—I—I don’t know. For a while I had faith that it would change. At this point, I really don’t know that it will. I think part of the difference is, now that I am quite a distance from home, it’s, it’s—there seem to be a lot more pressing issues that come up in life that are what we spend the time that we do communicate—that’s what we put our focus on instead of these minor details. I feel like at some point maybe further down the road when I’m more established and have a career and maybe have chosen to settle down and partner with someone and we’re looking at holidays and vacations and that sort of stuff, it will probably be something that’s revisited at that point, but…I feel like that’s further down the road, and for right now, I mean, I’ve kind of come to the place too where I’ve said, you know, I knew since potentially sixth grade and high school and it took me until—I didn’t even come out to friends at Wake until after—until second semester my freshman year, so I was dealing with it for seven or eight years and so it’s going to take them potentially equally as long if not longer to put it all together and deal with it themselves, so, I feel like time will heal things, but also with us being separated it kind of—it’s less importance on finding kind of a middle ground immediately.
Ally: Do you have any siblings?
Dustin: I do. I have a sister who’s older than I am. She’s five years older than I am.
Ally: Are you out to her?
Dustin: I am out to her as well. I thought that things would go a slight bit differently than they did when I came out to her in that she had also gotten away from our hometown, to go to college and to go to grad school and married a guy that grew up in a very liberal family, considering he grew up in the South, in the deep South. And so I figured kind of all those things would possibly have influenced her thinking and her belief system into, maybe not to say that it’s okay, it’s fine, I’m going to accept and we’ll move on, no big issue, but I thought it would make her slightly more accepting than she actually was initially.
Ally: Is she more accepting now?
Dustin: Umm, it’s—the relationship with her in that sense is kind of in the same place as it is with my parents in that we just don’t really talk about things. She actually is, I’m fairly certain, aware that I’m dating someone, but still we don’t really talk about him. I would be more apt to discuss it with her husband than I would with her. And as to whether or not I think that relationship will every change and become—have a different dynamic—I do. I think at some point I will be able to have a partner at family functions that they’re at and that sort of thing. I think it will just take time, and I think—I think part of that is based on maintaining the relationship that we both have with out parents and kind of not picking sides for her maybe in the issue, and just—I don’t know, it’s very interesting. In general, I’m still not out to really anyone that I grew up with or went to high school with or that is from my hometown. There was a guy who was maybe two or three years older than I was in high school, in coming through school, and he came out, umm, a few years before I did and the community was not very accepting of that. And his family, I feel like, had a lot of trouble just based on that information that was really—undo them, because it really wasn’t the community’s issue. He wasn’t living in the community. Just because his parents were there—I mean they were having a hard enough time dealing with it themselves, they didn’t need the community saying, “Oh my gosh, what have you done? Your son!” So mainly the reason I’ve not made it an issue is that I just don’t travel home, I don’t really see or communicate with a lot of those people. I’ve kind of lost ties with them. And so I am more fearful for backlash that would happen to my parents then for how I would be treated when I go home. And so I just don’t—like, I don’t feel like it’s my parent’s place to have to deal with the issue head-on when, I mean, they’re already dealing with it in their own sense.
Ally: Is there anything else you want to add about your childhood at all before we move on to questions about Wake?
Dustin: Not really. I think that’s good.
Ally: All right, well, what year did you come to Wake?
Dustin: So I started Wake in the fall of 2004.
Ally: Okay, and can I ask—you were from Kansas, so how did you hear about Wake Forest?
Dustin: (Laughing) So I kind of knew that I wanted to get away from home. The high school that I went to was probably, maybe divided into thirds, like the graduating class. Like a third maybe wouldn’t go to college, maybe slightly over a third would go to college but typically a junior college or maybe a state school. And–well I said thirds and that really leaves nothing for the other third. And like a small handful would actually go to a state school; be successful there, finish there, and then go on to do something beyond that. And so, I kind of wanted to break the mold and do something big and something different. My sister had gone a long ways from home to a small private school in the South as well. And so, just visited her while she was in school and I was in high school, and seeing her campus and her friends and just realizing the opportunities that were available for cultural things and just learning opportunities and just the idea of growing and seeing a world bigger than what I had known all growing up just really struck me. And so, I applied to several schools—my safety school was a state school in Kansas and then I had two of three schools that I applied to that were a fairly set deal and reach—Wake was my reach school. So I actually—when I had gotten accepted to Wake, I had never been out here to see the campus. I had just seen photos online and done the admissions chats and all sorts of things and so when I actually came to visit after my senior year during the summer, I just fell in love. And the intoxicating experience a lot of people describe with their first time coming on campus. How beautiful it is. I saw the next four years for sure being here and I thought great things could happen here. So, despite my parents not really wanting me to come all this way–it’s quite a distance from home, to drive it takes about twenty-six hours and my parents don’t fly–so driving trips with them. They were very worried just going that far away from home and of course a community of 2000 versus a campus–at that time we had 4000 undergrads on campus and that’s not counting the business school and the law school and then just the community of almost 160,000. Quite overwhelming, even though Winston is a small city in comparison to so many around. But just adjusting to all of that and being so far away from home. There was a lot of concern from those who were closest to me, especially my family. But I’d fallen in love with the specific program that I was coming to do. I was going to be a Health and Exercise Science major, and I really loved the program and thought that I had my career path all set as to what I was going to do, and so I was very excited to come out and start my life here at Wake.
Ally: What did you—What was your experience like when you first came here and started becoming a student. Just want to talk about that a little bit?
Dustin: Sure. So, coming here was interesting. I actually came out and did a preschool orientation conference to get to meet people and hopefully find a couple people to just latch onto and be friends with to navigate the rest of what would be kind of a crazy week or week and a half. And so I did that and found a core group of friends that actually stuck with me throughout the rest of what would have been my traditional four years here at Wake. Just kind of crazy that—I think that the people that I met on the first day or second day are the people that were most important to me still when they were graduating. And I think that really speaks volumes for the kinds of connections you make here at Wake and also just the caliber of people that are here. I think the students are really amazing people. And so, I found that group of friends and kind of went about navigating just the other challenges: the being away from home, the difficulty of classes, the schedules and keeping on top of myself and sort of [not] having a parent to look over my shoulder and manage my homework schedule or my eating schedule. And stuff was kind of difficult adjusting the first semester. I actually lived in Palmer Piccolo, and so the experience living out there as a freshman was slightly different than it was living in one of the main freshman dorms where there were more students. It was kind of a smaller community and I feel like we kind of knew each a little better out there, which was nice, especially in worrying about the size transitions, so that was good. And coming, like in terms of sexual identity and sexual orientation, I really—even though I knew in the back of my mind, in my heart of hearts that I was attracted to men and that that was just going to be the way things were, I had decided to kind of make a final go at having relationships with girls. And so my freshman Fall, there were two different girls that I was kind of sort of seeing, juggling between the two of them. Just kind of interesting—they were in the group of friends that I had befriended that first couple days and so it was just an interesting dynamic. It’s hard to say at what point I realized that that wasn’t going to work out. There just kind of came a point where it was the same situation it was in high school. These relationships aren’t going where they should be, given what I see around me in the standard male/female college relationship. I felt like it was only fair to just kind of say, “eh”—gotta go our separate ways, this isn’t working out. And so after that I kind of just did my own thing and wasn’t really interested in seeing anyone or trying to date or anything like that. It wasn’t like I jumped from girls to guys or anything like that. I just took a step back and said, “Okay, for all intensive purposes I gave it my best effort and,” (Laughs) “Clearly it’s not gonna take. Sorry Mom and Dad, I tried that one.” It wasn’t until second semester in maybe the final week of classes or during finals week that I finally decided that guys would be the way that it was going and I kissed my first guy at that point. Right before I went home, after my freshman year, I came out to two of my closest female friends, which was no big thing, kind of anticlimactic. Both of them said, “Oh gosh—wish you could have told us that before you started dragging those two girls around and making us answer all the questions about ‘Oh, is he into me? Is he not into me?’ Like, would’ve been so much easier if you let us tell them then.” It did change the dynamic of the relationship, those two relationships, but I really feel like it made them stronger. A lot of what I’ve seen and come to see over my extended time here at Wake is that I don’t feel like students are nearly as vulnerable with one another as they can be. I feel like—just like the competitive nature of Wake and students competing for grades, competing for the officer positions in whatever organizations they’re involved in and competing for the resume building things, just all that sort of stuff—I feel like a lot of times they—they cut themselves short by not being vulnerable to their closest friends and finding support that would help them to be able to be even stronger and more driven people. When I finally let the walls [down], giving my sexual orientation to those two friends, I feel like that made all the difference in the world in those relationships and I don’t regret that for a minute.
Ally: That’s great. So, you said that you were talking a lot with the Baptist Student Union person around that time, that’s how you were finding these things out? You want to talk a little bit about that?
Dustin: Sure. I love that you made that jump, I actually didn’t identity them. (Laughs)
Ally: Oh, well, I mean, you said earlier that you had…
Dustin: It was similar to Baptist. So, yeah, I actually sat down with the campus minister at that time and said, “here’s the deal. I’m gay and my parents are going to have a heart attack and I don’t know what to do. I want to do this research because I feel like, personally, it’s fine, but at the same time, that’s not going to be okay to tell them. I’m going to need to say: this book and this passage sort of fits together in this way to write this research paper for my parents to say, ‘here it is!'” And so, the campus minister was very helpful in pointing me to some resources and saying, “okay, read this and this and go through this and here are these people we can talk to and we can connect here with these people and facilitate conversations that will hopefully help you to be able to develop the conversations with your parents.” Just really opened things up and made the struggle less—personal? It made it less daunting of a task to think that I had to do all those things myself. And to think that, okay, so I know that campus traditionally is more—conservative, at least given students’ aspects and outlooks on issues and things of that nature. But despite all of that, there is a social network for me and there is a social network for the broader picture for more forward thinking, more liberal thinking. It was just really great to be able to just find a place like that. And at that time, it was before the LGBTQ Center was established, and so, I feel like people were probably like, just navigating that in the same way. Like, picking out someone that they thought looked approachable or thought might be safe or that they had heard in conversation might be safe. And approaching conversations to try and get help and to get resources in that manner.
Ally: So, after you came out, how did that change your Wake experience?
Dustin: How did it change my Wake experience? Well, in a lot of senses, I didn’t—like, my coming out was really kind of quiet. So I came out to the two female friends at the end of my freshman year. Came out to a couple more of the friends that were in that tight knight group when we came back in the fall. And then just really, it was on a need-to-know basis. It wasn’t, umm, it just—I didn’t want it to be something that defined me. We always talk about—when I’m talking in conversations with people—about being introduced as, “My gay friend, Dustin” or “Dustin, oh yeah he’s gay, but whatever”. I didn’t want to be “the gay friend” or “the token gay”, because, I mean at that time the GS[S]A was on campus and established, but I still feel like people perpetuated stereotypes maybe more than they do today, in that “Oh, I know this athlete”, “Oh, I know this Asian student”, or “Oh, I know the gay kid!” And so, I didn’t want my identity to be based on that and I felt like I had done a fairly good job of establishing myself as just a person during my freshman so that when it came up later on in conversations or people would ask or it would just feel needed in a conversation to disclose that, I felt safe to do that and felt like that was something that I could do. It really—I never came out to my freshman roommate, I don’t recall coming out to my roommate my sophomore year, I don’t—I think it was just kind of understood. So it was just never really a big issue and I never tried to make it an issue. The other thing was, I didn’t want to force it on people. Cause I feel like, personally, a lot of times when someone’s not questioning it or someone’s not asking you questions about it, if you’re just putting information out there it might make them feel uncomfortable, and so I didn’t—like, if they wanted to approach me and ask, I would talk about it, but at the same time, I didn’t want to—you dealing with all of your classes and everything that you have going on personally, “I’m gay”, so now, deal with that too, and no, I don’t watch you when you change clothes, and so, it just kind of happened—just was kind of small; minute conversations just as they came up. And then, big picture wise, I never joined the GSSA on campus. I was never really terribly active in things that were going on on campus related to LGBTQ issues or anything like that. The very first thing–and I still remember exactly what it was—there was a candle light vigil that was held on the Mag Quad. There had been an incident (pause) that could kind of maybe by today’s standards be considered by today’s definitions a hate crime. There had been a male student on campus who had gone to a fraternity party, and it was a toga party, and his toga was apparently “gay” and identified as “gay”, and so he got made fun of quite a bit at the party from what I understand and then got physically assaulted on his walk back from the party. And so they held this candle light vigil. It was after I had come out to my parents, so it was what would have been my junior year. And I was dating my first boyfriend at the time and he came to campus with me and together, he and I and my campus minister, walked the walk around the main quad and came down for the event on the Mag Quad and I still—really impacted me. Just as thinking, “okay, the campus still has a ways to go, if things like this are happening and not being addressed, but at the same time, there are people here that are walking here that are holding candles here”. And so, once again, just reiterating the fact of, there are supportive people here, campus is not all against this population, things will get better and continue to get better.
Ally: So you were still a student though, when the LGBTQ Center opened up?
Dustin: I was, I was. And I was actually very fortunate. I was here during the summer when it was determined that they were going to be able to afford to have an LGBTQ Center established. And so I was on a student panel that was interviewing several of the candidates that were chosen to be the final candidates for the position. I was just so excited, number one, that they were going to have a center, number two, to think that maybe my input might impact the change that might be able to come to campus. Just to be able to see that established and then, during my first semester here, to actually be able to work with the Center’s director, as a student intern and kind of see things take off and see people—alumni and people around campus—just come out of the woodwork, once again to say, “We’re so glad you’re here. We’ve needed this. And however we can help, however we can support.” Or alumni coming back and saying, “Gosh, I wish this would have been here—how much more pleasant my experience would have been if I would’ve known where to find resources or known that something existed to help us.” I think it’s so important that the Center’s here.
Ally: Now that the Center is here, how do you think—compared now to what campus [is like toward] towards the LGBTQ community—versus when you first came to Wake?
Dustin: So I feel like—with any sort of major change, it’s going to take time. And, through the last semester, I especially look toward the graffiti event that happened last semester on the fraternity doors involving the homophobic and racial epitaphs that were written. I know it was a blow to all of us that were working here to think, “Gosh, we just came here. Do they not know? Is campus completely unaware?” I don’t know that that’s necessarily it. I think any population, even a population that you would identity as being “safe”, or the majority of it being “safe”, I still think you’re going to have people that just don’t get it, and that don’t understand the importance of why the Center’s here or why it’s needed. They don’t understand the work that’s being done. They don’t understand how that long-term, they can benefit from the Center being here and the Center making campus more friendly and more inclusive for all diversity. So I think it just takes time. But I think a lot of programming things have been put into place that are really effective and really beneficial for the campus. I think turnouts in numbers are increasing for those events. Like I said, just faculty and staff that have gotten behind supporting through taking the new safe places programming training or coming out to the lecture talks or just coming by and saying, “I heard you were doing ‘x’ event, how can we help?” I see the change coming. I think it’s going to be slow and I think—I kind of feel like administration and staff and faculty have always been more friendly and more accepting of diversity, especially of the LGBTQ population. So I guess it’s not terribly shocking that they were the first to jump on board and say, “Hey, awesome, you’re here. How can we use you? How can you help us? Let’s work together.” So I’m excited that that happened, as I expected it might. But then just to see students coming forward and saying, “Hey, I’m working on a project in a class, and the Center’s here, how can I use your resources? Can you point me in a direction?” Or organizations saying, “Hey, we need community service hours, what can we do to help you get up and running or do something?” There’s been a lot of work done recently around the Amendment I that’s coming up in May. And so I think the support for that and what campus organizations and individuals are willing to do and willing to help with has been surprising to some of us here at the Center. Just getting established as a place that people know about and that people can say, “Oh, hey, you’re talking about that! And you need an ally or a resource. Go talk to the Center!” Even if they can’t help you, she’ll know who to send you to talk to. And so just kind of adding in another level of support, I think is really crucial. Especially in a time where we’re looking back on things like the Tyler Clementi incident up at Rutgers—tragedy really, not incident—and all of the teen suicides, and you look at the It Gets Better campaign and the emphasis on the Trevor Project and just all that sort of stuff, and just to think, this is what—this is the direction that society’s moving. One of the things that even the mission statement of the Center talks about is preparing fully well rounded students to enter the workplace. Wake places so much emphasis on giving students the strong academic background and experience to all these cultural things like the Secrest Series events or speakers that they bring on to campus just for different things and they really want us to be well-versed in everything that’s going on so that when we get jobs out in the community, we can say, “Okay, I’ve seen this before. I know how to deal with this. I can be a good for this organization, I can be a good fit for volunteering in this group.” Just so we don’t have to step back and say, “Oh, I don’t really know what to do with that, sorry.” And so I feel like the Center is really going to hopefully change that, so that when people get out into the community, they’ll say, “Okay. I know why this issue’s important. I know why in ‘x’ state we’re fighting for marriage equality. I know why in this business it’s really important that I use non-gendered pronouns when I’m talking about things because it’s important to this organization, it’s important to culture or this society or whatever.” Just increasing awareness, because I feel like a lot of times—my tendency was and what I saw in my friends was—you kind of focused on what your major was or what your interests were and so, when you were reading CNN or the Huffington Post or whatever news outlet you got your information from, you would just focus on pulling out the stuff that was interesting to you. I feel like it’s important for Wake generally–and the Center fits into this—to bring issues that people aren’t aware of to the forefront and to their minds to say, “Hey, this is here. Hey, this crisis happened in Haiti, we’re going have a benefit. You don’t know what it is? Come out and learn about it.” You know? So, I think that’s really important.
Ally: Is there anything you think still, specifically, needs to be changed at Wake that you are not thinking is getting addressed in any way?
Dustin: Umm, like I kind of said, I feel like change is starting at the top and filtering its way down through administration and faculty and staff and that sort of thing. I just think it will take time for it to really click and to become integrated into students’ everyday lives. That this presence is here. I feel like—I actually have insider knowledge through work through projects here at Wake, to know that there are still students here on campus that don’t feel completely safe and that don’t feel like they have support. And…
Ally: Gay students specifically?
Dustin: Yes. Specifically gay students and even students of other diversity. I mentioned being Native American and so the Office of Multicultural Affairs—I keep up with a lot of the stuff that they’re doing even though I’m not as involved in their activities. And conversations about diversity in general, but specifically towards the gay population. It’s just not really acceptable yet. Like, treatment by peers on campus. I don’t feel like it’s—and it would be hard for me to say where that’s going to change, how that’s going to be solved. But even things just as simple as like going into the Pit and saying, “Oh, I can’t sit at this table because the athletes will be here in an hour and they sit here.” I don’t feel like our campus should be—like as small as we are, I don’t feel like we should be as cliquish as we are. And so, I feel like, people have found their niche where they fit in and that they’ve found kind of their safe place, but at the same time—especially when you’re working with social issues—finding a safe place isn’t how you make change. Being in your comfortable place with your friends that you know have the same beliefs and values as you, it’s not changing other people’s beliefs, it’s not educating people, it’s not helping to make things better. So I feel like integration somehow needs to be executed better, if that’s possible.
Ally: Sort of going along with that—and it can deal with that issue of integration or on a different level—what kind of advice would you give to students who are here now that identity as LGBTQ or also identity as strong allies of that community, what would you say to them, in terms of that change, but also just in terms of personal things?
Dustin: There’s a lot of—gosh—a lot of what is offensive to people of diversity, I feel like, is not necessarily—like, it’s very subtle. Stuff is subtle. It might not be blatantly hearing an offensive, derogatory term or it might not be seeing people dress up in a certain way or behave in a certain way. It might be even smaller things, like sitting in a study cubicle in the library and your mind is just absolutely fried from reading for three hours and so you look up and your reading the things that people have scribbled on the walls before you. And…it’s non-becoming of Wake students, a lot of it. Or you go into the bathroom in between classes and something’s written on the stall wall that’s offensive. Maybe not to you, maybe to somebody else. Or even just in conversations. People are talking about something and poking light about something or just not being accepting or just in general—just being less than they can be as individuals. And I feel like that’s where the mentality changes. I feel like the Center could have a table in front of the Pit everyday to tell people they’re there. To tell people to come out and get involved and find where they fit and find how they can be active or they can be allies. Or they can find the place—like, the events that will really energize them into becoming involved in the community or something. Especially like dealing with attitudes of peers on campus, like among students. I feel like a lot of it is going to take students stepping up and saying, “Hey, you at this Pit table that I don’t know, that’s not really something you should be talking about. Or, that’s really not acceptable.” Or going to building maintenance and saying, “Hey, can we paint these stalls again? Sorry we have to do this over and over again, but I really would hate for one of those people to come in here and that to be offensive.” Because, I mean, coming from a background of a lot ridicule and a lot taunting and bullying, back when I was growing up, I feel like, to a certain extent, people of diversity develop a threshold of what they can take and certain things can roll off our backs or not affect us. But especially in a climate like Wake Forest, where you maybe pulled an all-nighter that you didn’t expect to, or you just bombed a class again and you were supposed to be the stellar, stand out student in high school. There are just certain points where it might just be the small things written on the stall wall or the small thing that you heard someone say that was not directed at you, was not really directed at anyone, but still, that was just enough on that day to be what—what did it, you know? And not necessarily like, “what cause you to jump off the cliff?” but just like, “what sent you back to your room instead of going out and socializing with your friends and really partaking in Wake life and being able to have your fullest and best experience here?” And so you went back to your room and just sat there and you didn’t know what to do and you felt excluded, or whatever. Because I don’t—it’s just really unfair to rob someone of that experience. A lot of times people just aren’t really thoughtful of what their actions are doing. You know, you tell a funny joke or [are] engaging in banter between people that know you aren’t racist or you really aren’t homophobic or whatever, but, I mean, on a campus like this or anywhere really, you never know whose paying attention, whose listening, who accidently heard. So just something to be mindful of and it really just takes a conscious effort to make it a lifestyle change.
Ally: Do you think that being here on Wake’s campus has really helped you as an individual? Coming into that identity versus being at a big state school or staying at home in Kansas and going to school there? I mean how do you think that affected you? I mean, I know that’s such a huge leap because you didn’t go to school in Kansas, but…
Dustin: So I feel like, in a lot of ways, it really has probably helped me to become the individual I am and I’m thankful for it. Like I said, when I was first coming out, finding the support network that I needed and being able to have conversations with people that I could look up to and use as mentor figures to help me navigate. Just the changes in life that were inevitable, that I just wouldn’t have been able to find the resources to navigate myself. And then being able to become more confident in who I am as a gay individual. Like my position at the Center last semester, I would have never dreamed that I would actually willingly accept a position where I was directly affiliated with a gay organization. And one of the things that I worried and worried about was when our website went live. And all of the interns had a biography page, and I remember walking in the morning that our boss said it went live and she said, “Oh, the site went live, come in and look, it’s so exciting!” And my heart fell through the floor. And I thought, “Oh my. This is the worst news I could ever get. This is horrible.” Like, my Facebook doesn’t say anything about my orientation, I don’t post pictures that might lead people to think or believe. And so, as soon as I could get back to my computer, I got back and googled my name and Wake Forest, and sure enough, the first link was to the Center’s site, and I thought, “All right, if this is it, then this is it.” Kind of just in being at Wake forever and changing my major and changing what I wanted to do with my life, it’s really been a great experience to get pushed out of my comfort zone and to be tested and to be questioned. Because I feel like, some of the experiences I’ve had here at Wake, I wouldn’t have been able to have in other places. I feel like, just in establishing friendships and networks and that sort of stuff, I feel like people are more comfortable with challenging you to say, “Hey, I know you’re getting ready to have that conversation with your parents. How did that go?” Where maybe at a state school, nobody really knows you well enough to be able to keep you accountable for things like that. And just walking around campus and seeing people that I haven’t seen in maybe a month or two months and them saying, “Oh, hey! How’s it going? How’s this going? I remember you were working on this or that. You had a project you were doing, or something wasn’t going well in your relationship.” And just feeling comfortable, which has been nice. But back to your question, I think just being able to challenge myself and feeling that I’m in a comfortable environment, I’m in a safe environment where I can do that, where I can say, “Okay, my picture and my biography are on this website. It pretty much says that I’m gay right there and whatever backlash comes out of this, I feel like here on campus, I know where to go to say, ‘Today is just too hard. I got sent this email or I got sent this message and it just, it broke me. How do I bounce back? How do I recover?'” And just finding the role models here at Wake the people that have already forged a path. I think that’s so important, is finding people that we can look up to and not say, “Oh gosh. Yeah, but Wake’s twenty years past that, surely we’re not still there!” I think everybody’s story’s important and I think in listening and talking to people, I feel like we have so much to learn about, not only where we’ve been, but about where we’re going, and how to get there. Kind of coming together in this tight-knit community that we like to imagine we are here at Wake in the bubble, I feel like that’s allowed me to do that and I feel like maybe I’m seeing that in other people. I hope that’s true. I hope I’m not just imagining that. But I think other people are able to find a way to fit and a way to connect and really blossom as their own individual.
Ally: Well, taking all of that, where do you see yourself going? I know that you said you are sort of in this in-between period, but where do you see yourself going?
Dustin: So after I came back to Wake after taking some time off and considering a major change a doing a lot of interesting life things that I never thought I would find myself doing, I came back to Wake and changed my major from Health and Exercise Science to Sociology. Through a lot of my life experience and the way I’ve found that I interact with people and relate to people, I felt that counseling would be a good fit. And so I changed my major to Sociology and hopefully I’ll go on and do a graduate program in social work or counseling, and then later go on and be able to do clinical work, maybe someday teach. Even more as I take experiences like working at the LGBTQ Center, I’m able to reflect on my life and where I’ve been and the ups and the downs and all of the different things. The way that I think I’ll best be able to make my story have the greatest impact is to be able to give back specifically to LGBTQ individuals. And so, I want to focus and tailor my counseling to that demographic. It’s what hopefully I’ll be able to find a program for in grad school soon.
Ally: I guess what I want to conclude with is, is there anything that you wished I’d asked you that I didn’t ask you? Any personal anecdotes that you want to share? Anything that you’d wished I’d approached from a different angle that you wanted to talk about?
Dustin: Yes, that would be a question that a Wake student would ask, I feel like.
Dustin: (Pause) Not really. I really feel like everything was addressed. (Long pause) That’s a really tough question. I feel like I would need a night to think about that.
Ally: Well, you mentioned that experience when you did the lighting on the Quad. Is there anything else like that that really sticks out in your mind as a specific experience at Wake that really helped you with that gay identity?
Dustin: (Long pause) One thing that I do maybe wish for people: I understand that coming to college is a big experience and finding yourself and finding your identity is separate from your parents watching over you and all of those things. That just goes along with growing up. But, I just wish people would be more willing, especially in the gay community, to make their mistakes big. A lot of times we’re very concerned with keeping face and maintaining our competitive edge and that sort of thing. And maybe a lot of times that leads us to doing things—more testing the waters than really having an experience. So maybe, for me, like at the candle lighting event, I’m pretty sure the campus minister stood between my boyfriend and I. Which is fine, and that’s what I needed at the time, but thinking back and thinking, “Gosh, if that event were to happen today, how I do I think I could make the biggest influence and make the biggest statement appropriate for that situation?” I think, oh gosh, I would take my boyfriend and we would hold hands and we would very clearly be identified together. Just living big. Just like trying out for a sports team. You’re not going to go and just give half of what you practiced the night before or going and trying out for a singing group, you’re not going to go a sing in a mezzo piano the entire time. Your going to go and belt it out and just do it big. And especially at college, half the time we’re probably not going to get it right and something’s going to go wrong and you’re probably going to offend somebody, or somebody’s going to make fun of you…who knows? Maybe you face planted in front of the Pit, but you made your own shoes and so that’s really cool, and power to you. Just don’t be so cautious. Now is the time when we’re finding ourselves; when we’re doing all these sorts of things. And the other thing is, don’t assume the worst. People surprise you. I found that a lot, especially in the last year or two years here at Wake. People will surprise you. When they say, “Oh, you look down, what’s wrong?” I don’t have to feel like saying, “Oh, it’s just really tough with school right now.” I can say, “My boyfriend and I are having a fight.” And just being real. And if they can’t handle it, then okay. Maybe that conversation will end there, or maybe they’ll say, “Oh gosh, I really wasn’t ready for that, but my other friend might be,” or “Gosh, I don’t have time for that, but let’s talk later,” and that sort of thing. Just don’t assume that people aren’t necessarily going to have the opposite point of view or that people aren’t going to think similarly or that they won’t be able to stop and really consider you viewpoint as legitimate. Cause that’s how we all grow, having the challenging conversations about anything, about Amendment I or about abortion or about whether or not ‘x’ class is just too difficult for an undergraduate student. That’s how we all grow and change and learn to navigate the bigger world that awaits us.