J. Robby Gregg
Interview conducted and transcribed by Tre Easton (’12) on February 23, 2012. Audio not available.
Transcript of Interview:
I really want this to be more conversational than me just asking you random questions about your life.
Ok. Not a problem.
But I do have to get some specific things. So your full name is J. Robby Gregg?
You’re a junior?
Aweome. And what’s your birthday?
July 29th, 1961.
And your hometown?
I grew up in Rockville, MD.
Ok. And your current residence is DC?
Yes, I live in the District of Columbia.
What were your years at Wake Forest?
Ummm in a graduated in 79…through 83. I graduated in 83.
And what is your current occupation?
I am the Director of Quality and Diversity Partnerships for PFLAG.
And your sexual orientation as you define it?
Ummmm. Gay [Laughter]
Ok thank you [Laughter]
It’s just so funny to hear you say “as you define it”…I’m like hmmmm, okay.
Hmmm. Okay. Yeah. [Laughter]. And your gender identity or your preference for pronouns?
Gender identity. I guess I’m male?
Ok. And you prefer masculine pronouns?
Ok. Awesome. And your racial identity?
That would be African American or Black.
And your religious affiliation if you have one?
Hmmm. I ummm. It’s spiritual. I attend a spiritual church and we don’t really tend to categorize it. It’s a combination of metaphysical and…what word do I want to use? It’s more spiritual I guess.
Ok. That’s good. Alright, so that concludes that awkward section me just asking you random questions. So if you would just talk about your time at Wake. Let me first ask you, were you out at Wake?
Well you know it’s interesting because I kinda was, but wasn’t really. So that’s a loaded question. If I think about how I should phrase it. So I guess when I really started to realize what my orientation was I wasn’t openly out. No I wasn’t out. It was a secret affair. When I was there was this club called [inaudible] on Countryclub Road I think it was. And sometimes I find myself on Fridays or Saturdays getting away from my “fraternity type friends” and going out there. And there’s a story about that…I don’t know how much you want to know.
Anything you are willing to share, I’m willing to hear.
There was a professor, who is unfortunately deceseased now named Mark Reynolds. And he was an English professor while I was there. And I was in his class. I went to the club one Saturday night and this person comes up behind me and taps me on the shoulder and says “Mr. Gregg, nice to see you.”
And I looked and if I had false teeth they would have fallen out. Because it was Mark Reynolds, my English professor—and this was Saturday night, I knew that Monday morning at 8AM I would be in his class.
Oh my God.
And it was one of those times…it was interesting because the people at that time—it was 82 or 83—it just wasn’t really talked about. If there were people you saw at the club..but yet you wouldn’t really acknowledge each other..it was very…it was like you were living on a private island though…and when I ran into Professor Reynolds it was funny because, he said to me “you know, we don’t need to talk about this on class on Monday.”
When I look back on it, and my college friends, who are now close friends that I am out with—they knew it, they just knew that when I was comfortable with it, that I would share with the world. While I was there…you asked me to share with you my perspective…it was hard enough being black at the university.
I was about to ask you, did you find that it was harder being a black person at this university, or was it harder being a black gay person at this university, or what did you find?
Well it was hard being a black person at the university at the time. I think as far as the university at that time…they didn’t know that I was a black gay person…or at least I didn’t think they knew. So I would have been…it would have been harder to be both black and gay. And that was one of the things in particular that when I shared with my parents that I was gay…my dad says to me “when people find out you’re different, they look at you differently.” Being black, you already had one strike against you…and being gay, it’s like it’s another strike. It’s much harder for people to really see you as you and appreciate you for what you are.
So it was an experience. I was closeted. And what’s been interesting, because those same friends are asking me about significant others and people in my life and we’ve all evolved.
Right. Right. So when you were in college you came out to your parents I’m assuming?
I came out to my parents after I graduated.
And what was their response?
Uhhhh…I graduated from Wake Forest and moved back to the Washington area and my dad calls me one day and says “I don’t know you.” And I was like “what do you mean” and he said “there’s some things going on in your life that I don’t need to know about.” So I began questioning myself. [Inaudible]. They were just trying to figure out…they wanted me to let them know…to be honest with them. And so that night, I got in the car, because I lived about 15 minutes away…and I walked into the family room and my dad called my mom. I remember it was me, my dad and my mom, and my parents had a cocker spaniel, and my dad asked me if I wanted a drink. And I said ” no ice.”
And when I said that he was like, I guess this is true. And we started a conversation. I tried to talk about alternative lifestyles and I tried to talk about how people love differently and finally after 10 minutes me completely going around it, my dad looks at me and says “are you telling me you’re a heterosexual, homosexual, or a bisexual?” And I said “well I’m not heterosexual, or bisexual.”
And he looks at my mom and says “do you hear what your son is saying?” She says very calmly “he has a right to make his choices the same way we made ours.” What was interesting in that—and my mom and I had a conversation very shortly thereafter—about how it wasn’t a choice and how the only choice was to be honest. But that was her way of opening the door. As a result of that—I think it’s close to about a year—my dad, when I would call the house he would ask if I was ok, and I would say yes, and then he would say “do you want to talk to your mom.” It was close to a year before he would have real dialogue with me.
Once he did, because at first it was hard, and when my friends would come around he would be like “is this person gay, is that person gay?” You know, it was a challenge. And, it took him a while, but what I think ended up happening—it was a couple of years later when I had to have some surgery—and this was right after my sister got married and he was like “now she’s got somebody to look out for her”…and when I had the surgery, my dad was just amazed at the outpouring—the majority of which was gay. And he said “it’s one thing for someone to think about you…but thoughts and actions are two different things. I can look around this room and tell…they love you.” And I think that really started for him to be able to look at me in a different way.
So it’s been an evolution. And even though he and my mom are unfortunately separating, getting divorced, we have different levels of conversation…I have conversations with both of them. My dad’s dating again. You never know how things are gonna work out.
And what’s interesting is that while I was there, I had a class with Dr. Angelou…and studied with her class on politics and literature. And what’s been interesting is that…I was kinda figuring it out, but she pegged it. She pegged it. And over the years, she’s been one of the greatest supporters. As a matter of fact, the last person I dated for almost 2 years, she introduced me to.
Oh wow. Wow. [Laughter] Well, that’s not something you hear every day.
Wow. That’s awesome.
Yeah. So, but when you have that kind of support. And the other thing I think, coming into something that’s been a challenge within the African American or Black community. My grandmother, my parents kind of knew. My grandmother would say things—she had diabetes…so she had “a little bit of sugar.” Robby had “special friends.”
Yep. Yep. I know the vernacular. Definitely It’s so common to me.
So you know exactly where I’m coming from?
Right, as I said that’s why when I learned of…I was actually introduced to Barbee Oates…about what was going on at Wake Forest, and that they were starting a LGBT center, I was like “wow…things have come a long way.” When I was there, there was still [inaudible]…and they had Old South Weekend…and a bunch of KA’s would ride the horses with the Confederate flag on them. There were conversations between African Americans…[inaudible]. It was just a whole different environment. For me, to feel comfortable…it makes me proud as a black man to see how Wake has evolved especially with the hiring of Miss Oates as the Associate Director for Diversity and inclusion and to see how she is going to build her office around the LGBT community. It’s good to see something come completely around.
Right..but there’s still a great deal of work to be done as far as…
Ohhhh I know…
[Laughter] Wake’s culture does not change that easily as I’m sure you can attest.
Ooooh I know. [Laughter] It’s funny that you mention that. There’s something that happened to me while I was at Wake that was sort of a turning point for me I think while I was there. I was out jogging and I didn’t have any ID or anything and I was stopped by the campus police…because apparently the night before a female had been accosted by an American male who was out jogging on campus or whatever. I remember that night I walked into my suite, and campus police was with me, and my suitemates where like “what’s going on?” I had to tell them, and show my identification to campus police. And I called my parents that night and I was like “I’m outta here. I’m not…I’m not paying to have this experience.”
The next day…I know…it was Dean Mullins who was there then and it was President Scales…and both of them called my parents and both of them called me…
The President of the University called your parents?
I won’t delve into that point…but I was miserable…I was done. And I share that just to say that these are all righteous paths. I had to feel that way…be uncomfortable in that space…or I wasn’t comfortable in that space…to evolve into a different place. I think now that we’re going with the LGBT community it makes me proud to think…and I know it’s not going to be an easy road, ummm, but at least they’re on the course.
And that to me is a huge accomplishment.
Definitely. Definitely. Ummm, you said that you were a part of a Greek organization while you were here?
Yes. Alpha Phi Alpha. I pledged…I wanna say it was my Junior year. Yes
Ok. And being in that type of organization, what was that experience like for you, as you were evolving in accepting the fact that you were a gay man?
Umm.Well. First off, we were a real small chapter…we may have been 7 brothers…so it was kind of different. And to be perfectly honest with you, I did it out of pressure because I was being “rushed” by other fraternities on campus…Kappa Sig, Sigma Chis.
But there was a part of me that felt like, there are only a few black kids on the campus, so I made that decision more so based on the color of my skin, versus what most people try to do…why they might try to join fraternal organizations. I mean…I was not out in any way with the brotherhood.
Ok. So uhh what other organizations were you a part of while you were at Wake…did you…were you active in anything else?
Oh that is a [inaudible] question…what was I active in? I ummm…oh it was Christian fellowship…ummm oh boy. It was a Christian kind of a…I can’t remember the acronym. But it was a young Christian group…
Was it YoungLife?
I think that was it…was it like YoungLife counselors?
Right. YoungLife. It’s still on campus.
Yeah that would be correct. And I have a couple of good friends…I have one buddy who ended up becoming a minister and I was in his wedding in North Carolina…and I remember…so here’s a quick story. I remember I think it was my Junior year and I was taking a class called “cross-cultural communication”…and it was during the time that the opposition between African Americans and KA fraternity…you know because they were still flying the Confederate flag and whether or not the flag should be flown. And this one day in class, this one guy—who looked like he could totally be in a frat—he stood up and he made a comment about the fact that all of us had a fear and—something was done to him—I don’t remember if he had gotten shot or whatever…and he was like “this is ridiculous” And I kinda thought, “thank God I’m seeing this because they’re gonna take him outta here and then they’re gonna come get me.”
He ended up being a real advocate for change and we’ve been friends since that experience. He was a year ahead of me. It’s funny because his wife came to him about 3 years into their marriage and [inaudible]…so you never know. What gave us the opportunity to be friends was the fact that he stood up…and he said that…you know…and he clearly could have been in that room and kept his mouth shut because he looked like the biggest preppy boy, and he’s from the south but he did what he thought was right. So over the years, as I’ve shared my life with him, he’s been a pillar of support…and those were real relationships that were born in a southern school…but yeah.
That’s awesome. That just gives me so much hope for things to come. So why did you pick Wake Forest? Was this your top choice? Did you apply anywhere else? What was that whole process of coming to Wake Forest like for you?
You know that’s very interesting because it was not on my radar. And my dad, whose best friend’s daughter was there…they knew that I was looking at smaller liberal arts schools…but I really had not spent a lot of time in the south. We would vacation in Massachusetts and in the north…so I was looking at schools like Georgetown, Boston College, and Gettysburg College. And my dad said to me, from an economic point of view, that at the time Wake Forest compared to the quality of education was…ummm…affordable.
Yeah I know. It’s amazing, but it was affordable. And he was like “I can save a lot of money if I get this kid to go to Wake Forest.” My initial reaction was “what are there like country roads and country stores and dirt roads?” He literally put me in the car and drove me down to stay with his friend’s daughter and made arrangements for me to stay with her…and I visited some of the classes, and I had an interview. We stayed like 2 or 3 days, and by the time I left that was the only place I wanted to go. And my dad says to me later that on the ride back he was thinking “I hope I didn’t just set my kid up…because god forbid you didn’t get in.” because at that point everything else was taken off of the radar for me. And I applied early decision and I was fortunate enough to get in.
[Laughter] Wow. This is so..I feel like you’re…sort of a pre-cursor to me, because exactly what happened to me before I came here. That’s so weird.
Yeah. It was one of those things where, I just fell in love with the place. I remember my dad saying at one point that he went up to a group of young men to try and find the cafeteria and as opposed to just pointing him in the direction…they took him there and sat down and had lunch with him. And my dad was like “that’s the difference.”
Oh wow. That’s Wake Forest. That is Wake Forest.
So I have no bad feelings whatever about my experience. I think that it was a good one. I mean the guys that were in my first year suite…we’re still like our own little brotherhood.
So you have a lot of contact with the people you graduated with?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. An interesting thing is that a majority of them live in North Carolina. One or 2 in Raleigh…a couple in Charlotte…many of them settled around Raleigh. So I used to go down…I mean I’m in North Carolina at least once a quarter…my relationship with Dr. Angelou has [inaudible]. So that’s why I was trying to work it out where I’d be there last weekend…but if I’m not in Winston seeing her, I’m in Raleigh seeing my other friends. Sometimes both.
It just…you spawn a connection…like you can’t break it. I don’t know what it is. It’s like the mystique of Wake Forest or something.
Exactly…you know, and it’s just real. And I’ve got some great friends…some great relationships.
I didn’t ask you what your major was while you were at Wake. What was your major?
Ok. And you said you visit your friends often…do you come to Homecoming festivities at Wake?
You know it’s interesting, because when I first graduated I would go, but now I don’t as much, and the reason I don’t is because when I come down it’s for one or two people versus a whole group of people…but I haven’t been to Homecoming in at least 10 years.
Is there anything you’d like to share, or is there anything you’d like to ask me while we’re talking to one another?
I don’t think there’s anything else I want to share…but I think that what most excites me about this project is that you now get people who are comfortable in their skin…as more people who are willing to share their stories…and we all have stories…other people, hopefully whether they’re younger folks or older folks or whatever the case may be…that they learn to be comfortable with themselves. I had, as I said, an incredible experience. I have people like Dr. Angelou who saw it in me before I saw it in myself. And encouraged me to be myself…like she says to me many times, she said “baby love is love.” That’s pure and simple.” I’m excited about this project.