Interview conducted and transcribed by Cameran Llewelly (’16) on October 24, 2015 in ZSR Library.
Transcript of Interview:
Q: Your name?
A: Justin Lee
Q: When is your birthday?
A: September 7th, 1977
Q: And your current residence?
A: I’m currently in Raleigh.
Q: And years at Wake including your class year?
A: I was here from ’96 to 2000.
Q: OK. And your current occupation?
A: I’m the executive director of the Gay Christian Network.
Q: What’s your sexual orientation?
Q: The gender identity or pronouns that you prefer to be used?
A: Male. He, him, his.
Q: Racial identity?
Q: And religious identity?
A: Christian. In fact, probably Evangelical if you want to be more specific.
Q: Great. Ok, now for the fun stuff. We know that you were probably having some questions coming up in your mind or like particular things that you remembered from when you were in school during the history panel right before this; so are there any particular anecdotes that you would like to share about your time at Wake?
A: Sure. Oh my gosh. So many things I can tell you. So there was one reference during the panel to fact that the well, so the whole thing with the union in Wait controversy which got me into a documentary. Ryan Butler did a documentary in 2001 called The Union in Wait. There’s a reference to the meeting that happened with President Hearn, so that meeting was Jeremy Bishop who was on the panel, Martin Price who isn’t here this weekend, and me. The three of us met with President Hearn and we had been pushing to try to get a meeting with President Hearn because we were really frustrated. I mean we knew early on that all of this stuff was happening where the university, particularly the trustees were putting these two womens’ ceremony, private religious ceremony on hold, and we were frustrated, ya know? And for me as a Christian, well I was frustrated both because I was gay and because I was Christian, I was frustrated with this because Wake Forest, although it has Baptist roots was not at the time that I was here and is not still a religious institution. I mean it’s a secular university. And there were many different religious students here from many different backgrounds, religious groups that weren’t Christian and so for the trustees to interfere with a relation, with the practices of an independent Baptist church which happened to be meeting on university property was really frustrating, as frustrating as being you know, both as a member of the LGBT community and as a member of the faith community. Because I’m like I don’t want people interfering with my own personal interfaith practices in a university setting, so we tried and tried to get that meeting with President Hearn, when we finally did, President Hearn sat there and listened to us as we explained why we were frustrated with the way the university was treating this situation. And I remember I in particular spent some time explaining, look, you know, this is not good for religious freedom on this campus and the university is not, by allowing Wake Forest Baptist Church to have this ceremony it wants to have, the university is not participating, the university is not taking a stand. All the university is doing is allowing for free religious expression on its property which is the right stance for a university to take regardless of your position on same sex marriage, or in this case it wasn’t even a wedding, it was a commitment ceremony that they wanted to have. And President Hearn sat there and listened to us and gave the impression that he was taking our thoughts into consideration, and then that same day went out and made the announcement that the decision had already been reached. And we all knew the decision had not been reached in the few minutes between when he met with us and when he read the statement. So we all really felt kind of lied to, ya know, we all felt like we, I think through the whole process it had been frustrating to feel like we as LGBT students were not being heard. But there was nothing quite as poignant as that moment of sitting with the president of the university in his office and having him act like he was caring and then walk out and read a statement that a decision had been made and he clearly knew it had been made before he met with us. That just felt like we didn’t matter at all. That was really frustrating. So yeah that was one of the moments that I was thinking about during the panel.
I was also thinking about…there was a reference to intervarsity and the ex-gay speaker. Intervarsity at the time that I was a student, intervarsity Christian Fellowship was kind of the preeminent interdenominational Christian group on campus, though they were certainly not the only Christian group on campus. I think after I graduated, I know Campus Crusade came on campus and then became Crew, I don’t even know what groups are on campus now but at the time that I was here intervarsity was a very influential group. And intervarsity was routinely bringing, so called “ex-gay” speakers to campus to say that being gay was something that could be changed. And so, I was a member of intervarsity and I actually wrote about this in my book. I wrote a book called Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays VS Christian Debate, and I tell a few stories from Wake Forest in my book and I don’t name intervarsity as intervarsity because I didn’t want to like embarrass them as an organization. I just referred to them as Campus Christian Fellowship, but I knew it was intervarsity. And they did, they brought this ex-gay speaker to campus, having brought one to campus a couple of years earlier, and I found out he was coming and I tried to get them to change their minds; they wouldn’t change their minds. And so I had some conversations with the folks at what I think was still then GALBA, we changed to GSSA during my time here, and said intervarsity is bringing this ex-gay speaker to campus. We had this big conversation about what do we do, how do we wanna respond to this? And eventually a bunch of GALBA folks, or GSSA folks, ended up going to hear the speaker and it was clearly not what intervarsity had intended. I think they had interned this as some kind of like message of hope, that gay people could be healed, and instead here were all of these lesbian and gay and bisexual folks…I actually don’t know thinking back whether we had anyone who openly identified as transgender at the time. Certainly we had LGB folks and I’m sure there were trans folks on campus. I don’t remember anyone being out about being trans, but anyway here were all these folks who the group was talking about, in the room and it kind of turned into a shouting match and the speaker didn’t really know how to handle it, the GALBA students were angry and by the end of it, I don’t think anybody on either side felt good about the event, but at least the conversation had not happened without us. And I talked to some of the intervarsity students afterwards and they were like this is a disaster, and I said yes it was a disaster, but after that point there was more interest on behalf of some of the students in intervarsity in having some conversations. And so I actually got a group together with a couple of us from GALBA and a couple of students from intervarsity and we started meeting on a regular basis privately talking about how we could improve the campus environment between the Christian community and the LGBTQ community.
And that continued through the rest of my time here, so there were a lot of things that happened; we went to, we’d do Wake TV stuff together, we did meetings. Folks from GALBA would do Wake TV stuff and talk about, particularly those of us who identified as Christians would talk about our faith and orientation, we would do…we did an event…I spoke to intervarsity as part of a panel but also I think we were GSSA by then, we put on an event to talk about religion and we just tried to keep that dialogue going because we realized that was a big thing. And the change from GALBA to GSSA was, Jeremy talked about it some on the panel, but it was…the organization had been founded as GALA but in the charter it said gay and lesbian issues group. The reason that I know that is that when I was a freshman, the organization was like pretty much nobody; it was like basically the president, his name was Davis Julian Ford Jr., he went by Jules. It was basically Jules, the largest meeting we had my freshman year was Jules, Perry Patterson the faculty adviser, me and I think a grad student and that was it. And so the group was just nothing, so we tried to like revitalize it by sophomore year, this was the 97-98 year, and I was on the board, Jeremy Bishop was on the board and we would write things for the Old Gold and Black and stuff. And the name of the organization was GALBA at that time and it…everytime I wrote GALBA like in a letter to the editor or something like that the OG&B editorial staff would change it to say Gay and Lesbian Bisexual Awareness, which is I guess they had decided that the acronym stood for. But I was like that doesn’t sound like the name of a group, Gay and Lesbian Bisexual Awareness, that doesn’t make any sense. What in the world is Gay and Lesbian Bisexual Awareness? And so I started digging through the archives to find out what exactly is GALBA supposed to stand for cause we couldn’t figure out, what is that first A? Like the G and the L and the B we got, A we thought, the last A could be alliance or association or something. We weren’t sure what the first A was for. And so I went back and looked at the charter and it was like Gay and Lesbian Issues Awareness Group and I was like well that spells GALAIG; I don’t understand. So then somewhere along the line, I don’t know who, but before my time, someone had put the B in there for bisexuals. Which is great but it didn’t make any sense the way the acronym was done. We were just so frustrated with nobody understanding the acronym that I said we really need to change the group and Jeremy I think he was the one who really championed it. And I think, I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think it was Jeremy Bishop’s idea to do Gay-Straight Alliance. I might be wrong but I think it was his idea. But Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, you know, around the country were a big thing at the time, but then we got push back because the acronym was too much, the same as the Graduate Student Association. So they didn’t want it to be GSA, so we’re like ok we’ll make it the Gay-Straight Student Alliance. And that’s why it’s been GSSA ever since until now, Spectrum so yeah, anyway. Those are a few things.
Those are great anecdotes. That you were part of all that.
Yeah. And then the…we pushed, during the whole controversy about Susan and Wendy’s union in Wait Chapel and all of the stuff and it was so great to hear some of the details from who was inside during the panel. But during all of that, we the students organized like crazy to bring as much attention to it as possible because we found out that this was happening, we found out that early that this private ceremony they were wanting to have was being put on hold indefinitely by the university and we’re like that’s not right. We felt like most students, whatever their feelings were, well I don’t know if we felt most students, but a lot of students would agree with us that this was like, you know, overstepping. But there wasn’t a whole lot of support for LGBTQ students at Wake at the time so we were kind of doing this, you know, on our own really. And Martin Price was really great at organizing people and he helped to organize a lot of folks. But what we did, and this may have been Martin’s idea, was to protest the university’s actions, we formed a separate group called SAFE, which was the Student Alliance For Equality or something, Student Association For Equality or something. S. A. F. E. And the idea was that if GSSA or GALBA, whatever we were at the time, if GSSA were protesting this, that was one thing. But if it was like a separate organization, you know just students who came together around this one question then that was something else. And so in order to gain credibility, there was this organizing of students under a different name. Because a lot of them were the same students from GSSA. But also I think it gave straight, cis-gender allies a way to get involved without feeling like they had to be involved with GSSA, which you know, despite straight being in the name …you know threw suspicion on their sexuality.
And so a lot of the stuff was organized under SAFE that was really GSSA working behind the scenes to make it happen. So if you go back and look at stuff that was in the papers at the time or whatever happened under the name SAFE, it was really the same students. Anne Colbert [?] I think was the name of the woman who was heading up SAFE officially and we at some point, and I’m not sure who did this but I bet Martin was involved somehow, not sure. I wasn’t directly involved in this, but one thing I remember is that some of the students got a little bit mischievous in the best of ways and in the midst of all the frustration that the trustees were controlling things as the shadowy board that no one knew who they were. Nobody knew who were the trustees that were making this decision about these two women’s personal lives but they’re not…they were like “we’re going to form a committee to decide when you can have a ceremony if you can have a ceremony but we’re not going to tell you when we’re going to reach a decision, whose going to be making the decision, how they’re going to make the decision. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” You know, so in the midst of the frustration around that, someone got their hands on the trustees’ names and addresses. Personal home addresses. And photocopied, like made this thick stack, like photo copy stack of all of the negative press that the university was getting for interfering with Wake Forest Baptist Church’s ability to do its own same-sex union ceremony. And they sent copies of this out to every trustee at their home addresses with a letter, and I think this is actually the letter, I was actually asked to write it, because it had to be from SAFE and not from GSSA. I remember I wrote something and I think that was the one that I wrote, but we sent out this thing to all the trustees and I have no idea what the reaction was to that but it was definitely…I think it gave a lot of the students the sense of like “we have power. Like we can make change. We can do stuff, we can make things happen and if people aren’t gonna let us have our voice then we’re going to claim our voice anyway.” And for me, as a religious kid who was not a troublemaker it was sort of my first taste of like, sometimes you have to push the boundaries a bit to get things done…cause I was always a work within the system kind of guy. So yeah, there were lots of interesting things; I’m sure I could tell you about some more.
Q: That’s great. Thank you. So I know you mentioned a little bit about how people viewed the LGBTQ community at Wake but can you talk a little bit more about people’s feelings in general towards the LGBTQ community while you were here?
A: I mean…I think, ya know, it’s like anything. At any time in any community it’s hard to say because everybody is different. But I think there was…I think the four years when I was here a lot was changing in the culture, so I think there was shift and I think a lot of people were kind of in the middle of that shift. Not very many students were out when I was a freshman and meeting other gay people was scary for a lot of folks. It was scary for me. I heard from other students that there were a lot…and at the time we weren’t really talking a lot about gender identity. Most of the conversation we had was around sexual orientation, as you might suspect from the name of the organization being GALBA and then becoming GSSA. Nowadays I think most people would say there’s a huge oversight there and rightly so. It just really wasn’t a part of the conversation, ya know, in the late 90’s. But just being out as gay or bi was like, there just weren’t many other people. So I heard from students, “oh yeah, there are people hooking up, but everyone’s in the closet. And everybody’s afraid to come out”. Because a lot of people were coming from conservative religious backgrounds the sense on campus was, you know, that it was still really conservative, even though not everyone was religious, but a lot of people were religious. And there was a real concern that people would look down on you. So the Christian…there’s so many Christian organizations, and including intervarsity and they were huge. And they would put on big events and like everybody would go and then GALBA would have a meeting and four people were there. And so there was…I never felt unsafe on campus so I don’t want to overemphasize the negatives parts. I didn’t ever worry that I was going to be beat up or something like that, but I felt really alone. I felt like there wasn’t a lot of support and I felt like there were people who didn’t care if I was gay and there were people who did. And there weren’t many people who were openly supportive. So kind of indifference plus negativity with very little support didn’t make it easy.
But also, I mean, my freshman year started in ‘96. Ellen Degeneres came out in ’97. So, ya know, it was like during the time that I was here, ya know, Will and Grace was becoming a thing, Ellen, other folks were coming out, and so attitudes were starting to shift. But I remember, this isn’t about the campus but it’s about Winston Salem, in ’97 when Ellen came out it was a really big deal. It was a national news story, she was on 20/20, a popular news-magazine show at the time. And it was all, you know, “oh you’re coming out of the closet as a lesbian. What does this mean?” The Winston Salem like local network affiliate for, I think it was ABC that her show was on, I might be wrong, I think it was ABC…but I know this because I this…I still have this video tape of this that I recorded. ‘Cause I recorded the episode of the show where her character came out—it happened right after she as a comedian came out. And so the local network affiliate, when they aired this episode where her character came out, they had this like warning at the beginning, and it was like the station manager I think it was, on camera doing a personal warning like, you know, “this content may not be appropriate for all families. And you may not want your children to watch this, and you know, blah blah blah blah…” It was like there was going to be some really horrible content being shown and all it was, was like Ellen being like, “I’m gay” and people laughing. There was nothing sexual about it; there was nothing that should have been controversial about it, but it was still so controversial for someone to come out and it was in that environment that I came out on campus. Ya know, I mean, the people in my dorm were like, “It’s alright, no big deal” but then it was also like I knew that people were probably talking about me behind my back some and there were people who were kind of [skeptical noise]…the leaders of intervarsity were telling me, ya know, I should go to therapy to become straight. So I think as a Christian it was particularly hard because there was very little support for me in my faith and I had grown up really steeped in church tradition and so I was coming here with my whole identity wrapped up in my faith. And the few people I felt like I got support from here for being gay were very much not part of my faith community—so it was like I had to choose. So yeah…
Q: Were there any openly supportive faculty or staff at Wake that you knew of, or especially any that were supportive for you since you didn’t find that within your own faith community?
A: I didn’t really have a whole lot of conversations that I remember specifically with faculty or staff, although…certainly the folks who were already mentioned on the panel who were involved with then GALBA/GSSA, were all of course supportive. I had a few professors during my time here—I remember there was a psychology professor, Mark Pezzo [?] who was really supportive…there was [were] several faculty in the religion department. I was a religion minor—I was a psych major, religion minor. Ya know, and during my four years I came out more and more and I never…with vaguely one exception, I never really felt like any of the faculty were openly antagonistic at all. When we talked about it, they were supportive. But I didn’t really spend a lot of time going to faculty asking for support.
Q: What would you say was your biggest support system?
A: That’s a hard question because I don’t know that I had…I don’t know that I had a big support system. I mean I think the closest that I had was fellow students in GALBA/GSSA. But I was a little out of that in that as GALBA and GSSA grew, I…even though I was on the board and even though I was going on Wake TV and talking about being gay, and ya know, was kind of becoming…was starting my role as a professional gay at Wake Forest, I didn’t really [sigh] my relationships with a lot of the GALBA folks were strained at times because I was still so religious. I mean, I’d grown up southern Baptist and that really showed in the way that I interacted with everything. They would go out to the club, which was Odyssey, sometimes they’d go to a club in Greensboro, and I had grown up in a church that, ya know, you weren’t allowed to drink alcohol—going to a club was just not okay and so it wasn’t my world. These days I’m a lot more progressive and stuff and I’m a lot more like…I look back on my college self and I’m like “oh my gosh…really?” But at the time, I was really, really conservative so I didn’t feel like I really fit in even within the LGBTQ community. And so honestly I spent most of my four years at Wake feeling like I was kind of all alone in the world. I was really depressed; I was suicidal when I was a sophomore. I was a Reynolds scholar…and I lost my Reynolds scholarship when I was here because I got depressed and my grades went down. I think I might have been the first Reynolds scholar to do that? I’m like the first or second?
Probably not the first.
I do know that I made some history [laugh] in terms of like…they try, I know, with the Reynolds scholars not to let that happen, they try to like…but yeah. I did. I lost my scholarship while I was here, which was hard but it was also kind of a relief because I felt like I was under so much pressure to try to do really, really well in my studies and then also deal with all this stuff and I was just…ya know. So I really didn’t have a lot of support. But there were little bits of support here and there. But just nothing that I felt really connected to.
Q: Did you date while you were on campus? [amused sound by Lee] Or if you didn’t date, what were your kind of relationships or experiences like? Were they more casual or…?
A: Yeah…I had a few experiences with relationships. For a little while I dated a guy long distance and then I met another guy online after that relationship ended. But the guy that I met online, I kind of had this year long relationship with…that went south really quickly when it turned out that a lot of the stuff he’d told me about wasn’t true. So I guess nowadays you’d say I got catfished. That sounds really…That contributed to my depression, certainly. But I didn’t ever have like a…there was a local guy I went out with for a little while, but he wasn’t a student. But I didn’t really have a like, really a significant local boyfriend on campus or anything like that when I was here.
Q: OK. And what about Greek life on campus when you were here? ‘Cause it’s a pretty big deal now. For you as a gay, Christian male, did that have any effect on your life on campus, your social life…?
A: Well yeah, I wasn’t part of the Greek system. I think I always had this idea that fraternities were very straight and so I don’t think I would have felt comfortable, even if a fraternity had said it was LGBT friendly, I don’t think I would have felt comfortable joining one. Certainly the fact that there was so much emphasis on Greek life at Wake was a little intimidating, but it just was not…I mean it was kind of like one more thing that I was like “well, I’m not part of that either…I’m kind of on my own.” Yeah, so that was tough.
Q: And how did those experiences you had at Wake shape what you wanted to do after college? Did that have any effect on that?
A: Yeah…I mean, so because I felt really alone while I was at Wake, particularly as a gay Christian, particularly as a gay Evangelical. It was while I was at Wake that I started writing my story, my whole kind of coming to terms with myself story. And I put this version of my story out on the internet, partly because I kept running into all these well-meaning Christian students at Wake who would like, wanna convert me, or be like “how can you call yourself gay if you’re Christian?” And so I finally got so tired of telling my story over and over that I would just be like, “here I wrote it. I put it on my website; here’s a link.” You know, ‘cause these were the days before Facebook so you would just like create your own website, and so I made my own website. I was like “here’s the link to my website. It explains my story. Read that and then we’ll talk.” But because I did that, I started hearing from people all over the world who were going through similar things and that was the first time I started feeling like I could connect with other people on this and realizing I have the ability to be a spokesperson for other people and help other people. And so that…I ended up reserving the domain “gaychristian.net” to create a…originally as a link for this personal homepage I had set up, and then I thought, “no I could turn this into something else.” So I created a little website about being gay and Christian. And then after I graduated, so that all happened while I was a student at Wake, so then I graduated in 2000, and in 2001 I’d actually started dating somebody and he and I were talking about this and I was like “what if we had like a forum?” Because all these people are emailing me asking me for help just because I’m, I built this website so everyone thinks I’ve got all the answers and I don’t. So I’m like, “what if I created a little forum where people could like talk to each other”, so I did, thinking I’m going to have a couple dozen gay men talking to each other basically gay Christian men. And it very quickly turned into not just gay Christian men, but LGBTQ and allied Christian men and women from all over the place and not just a couple dozen, but now like over 30,000 people are registered on the site, and that was what birthed the Gay Christian Network—the organization that I run now. And now we’re putting on the world’s largest annual LGBT Christian conference and stuff. And all of that grew out of just me writing stuff at Wake and having to kind of…being put on the defensive a lot with the Christian students at Wake. So it wasn’t a great way to get there, but it did, it very much shaped my future. When I graduated from Wake, my senior year I kept thinking, “Everyone knows what they wanna do and I have no idea.” I was a psych major, religion minor. “What am I going to do with this? Am I going to go to seminary? Am I going to like, go do grad work in psychology?” And I graduated and took a year off because I was like “I’m so exhausted. I just need a break.” And then this thing started and all of a sudden I’m running this organization and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last fourteen years. So it’s crazy…it’s crazy.
Q: Looking back a little bit now, you mentioned that you lived in a dormitory…was that experience different for you, you think at all, than other people because of your identity as a gay man? What was that like for you?
A: I was always nervous. I…so I lived in Johnson for two years, which at that time was mostly freshman, but at that time was also the substance free dorm or something. And then I lived in Davis and then Huffman which at the time was like the scholar’s dorm. And Huffman was interesting because my senior year I was in Huffman, and Jeremy mentioned this on the panel, there were a whole bunch of LGBT students living in Huffman at that time and most of them were on the third floor. I wasn’t, I was on the first [?] floor. So like another way that I wasn’t connected…I was like kind of connected but not really…but…so Huffman was really fun because there were lots of other LGBT students and it was like we had a way to connect and kind of have our own little community. So by my senior year I was like, I was doing really well. My freshman year, I remember my freshman year roommate—we were chatting online before I moved on campus, you know, before the year started. And somehow I brought up something about gay people and I was like, “so…yeah, what do you think about gay people?” And he’s like, “well you know, I come from a conservative area, so like, I don’t actually know any gay people, so I don’t know quite how I would react if I met a gay person. I mean I’d like to think that—” He was a lot more progressive than I was ‘cause he wasn’t from a really religious background like I was but he’s lilke, “I’d like to think that I’d be cool with it, but I don’t really know ‘cause I’ve never met one.” So I was like [groaning sound] “Ugh I don’t know what to do.” He actually was great. He was great to have as a roommate. And then my sophomore year, I was thinking now who am I going to have as a roommate, then it turned out that a friend of mine, female friend of mine from intervarsity—who was actually super supportive of me—her boyfriend was looking for a roommate and was happy to be my roommate. He was really great as well.
But then I remember there was a period when I was doing some summer stuff where I ended up with a roommate over the summer and…[sigh]. He didn’t…I don’t remember him saying anything that was explicitly homophobic to me, but it was during that time that I was like dating this like local guy for a little while, so I remember the guy came like to my dorm and we were hanging out. And I heard through the grapevine that my roommate was talking to other people about the fact that I had this guy in my room. And it’s like…we weren’t like having sex or anything, we were just hanging out in the room. We might have kissed, you know? But not even, lilke, in his presence. But apparently he was really weirded out by this. I don’t know what he imagined we were doing in the room, but it shouldn’t have mattered anyway. He was talking about this stuff and how weird and gross it was apparently…that you know, like how weird it was that his roommate had a guy in the room and all this stuff. And so it was these little things that I was like [skeptical sound]. So I tried hard to get a single room as soon as I could s that I wouldn’t have to deal with roommates because I was always a little nervous about that. Nervous about…nervous about having to share a bathroom on the hall with these other guys and all this stuff, like worried about, you know, if the other guys find out that I’m gay, are they going to be worried that I’m like, looking at them, you know what I mean? Because all this stuff, like [anguished croak sound]. I remember there was a guy on my hall [laughs] I probably shouldn’t tell this story for the record but I’m telling you…I remember there was a guy on my hall who was very…free with his body in the bathroom, like most of the guys on my hall were like really, like my freshman and sophomore years were very modest and, you know, they would have like a robe or towel or something and they would like get it in the shower and you would see the towel or shorts or something go flying over the side. And this one guy, he was just like happy just being all in front of everybody. And I was always…I would…he was very attractive and I would walk in and see him and it would be like [groan] “where do I look? Where do I turn? I don’t want to act weird about this, but I don’t want him to think I’m looking at him. Does he know I’m gay?” [panicked sound] So I mean stuff like that, it’s weird. It just makes you feel like, you know…so yeah, those were the weird dorm things.
Q: [laughs] Weird dorm things…did you know if there was any sex education programs, did you participate in any that were directed towards LGBTQ people?
A: That’s a good question. I…don’t remember. I feel like there might have been something at some point, like later in my time here, but I honestly don’t have any clear memory of it. I’m not sure. I do know by the time I was like a senior that it seemed like there was a move with, you know, some of the faculty and administration and the counseling staff and stuff to recognize that there was a need for more support for LGBTQ students. So I do remember stuff like that happening and I remember GSSA was growing and there were more, you know…so there was more support stuff happening. So it wouldn’t surprise me if there were things like that happening but like, a lot of my memories are from being here as a freshman and sophomore and feeling, just very isolated.
Q: Were there any other aspects of your identity, I know you mentioned a lot about being gay and being very Christian, were there other aspects of you identity that you feel like shaped your time at Wake?
A: Hm. Those were the two that were primarily in my mind, just dealing with being gay and Christian from a conservative Evangelical background was a lot. I’m very aware now looking back, that being white certainly shaped my perspective on things in a way that I didn’t recognize at the time, but I think that’s privilege. When you’re part of the majority, that shapes your perspective, but you’re not as aware that it shapes your perspective. But like talking to a good friend of mine, who was here when I was, who is gay and Christian and black, I recognize that his experience was in some ways different from mine because of race. And you know, other things as well, but you know, that’s a factor. But in terms of what I was aware of at the time, I think being gay and being a conservative Christian were the big things.
Q: Did the disaffiliation of Wake from the Baptist church have any influence on your experience here? Was it talked about or anything while you were a student here?
A: It didn’t feel like it was a big thing because, I mean, there had been this formal separation, but then when the Wait Chapel controversy happened and the statement from the trustees was like, all about Christian tradition and that Wake Forest is a part of Christian tradition and you can’t, you know, depart from that Christion tradition, kind of language…and so yeah. There had officially been this formal separation but what does that really mean if the school is still so religious that, you know, the university’s going to actually interfere in a private religious ceremony because it doesn’t want to stray too far from conservative religious tradition, then what does that really mean? So I didn’t feel like it was as much of an issue as it probably should have been.
Q: Did you ever feel like your race or specifically your affiliation with Christianity ever prevented you from dating certain people—like you only felt like you could date certain people that were from your race or your affiliation religiously? Did that ever affect anything for you?
A: Well not race. I never felt like race was a factor for who I could date, but definitely, you know, as a conservative Evangelical, it was just like, you know, dating a non-Christian was not allowed. And in fact, the local guy who I was dating for a while was not Christian and it was one of the reasons that I think our relationship didn’t really progress beyond casual dating. But because I still had, you know, these messages in my head, that like, as a Christian I probably shouldn’t be dating him anyway because he wasn’t a Christian—and certainly we couldn’t get serious. But at the same time it was like I didn’t have a lot of options, like I didn’t know a lot of gay people. I mean even with GALBA, there were just not that many out gay people on campus, at least who were out to me and the ones who were out to me, none of them seemed…they were all people who either I wasn’t interested in or they didn’t seem interested in me, so I’m sure religion was a factor there. ‘Cause I was so conservative. So yeah, it was sort of like, ” I probably shouldn’t be dating you, but you know, there’s not a lot of other options here. I’m really lonely so…” So that was definitely a factor…yeah.
Q: Are there any other final anecdotes you’d like to give?
Oh my gosh.
Any other thoughts?
A: Let me think…during the panel I wrote something down that I was thinking about but I might have already said it. Let’s see. Eh, I’ve probably said the important stuff.
Q: Did you come out to your parents at all while you were at college? How was that experience if you did?
A: Oh! Yeah so this is another story that’s actually in my book too. I came out to my parents right before starting Wake. Literally a week before my freshman year started. Because I wanted to give them like a week to ask any questions they wanted to ask and then get out of the house. Ya know, my conservative Southern Baptist parents, I just, you know…and they had a hard time with it. There was a period where we were arguing a lot—they would call and I wouldn’t answer the phone because I just didn’t want another argument. My dad wrote a letter that was really hurtful; he didn’t intend it to be hurtful, I know he intended it to be loving, but I found it really hurtful. And so that was a real struggle and my parents were of the opinion that I should not come out to anybody because I think that they still believed that at some point I would realize, “this is a big mistake, I’m really straight after all” and they didn’t want my reputation to be ruined. Which of course it would be if I was gay.
So I went on Wake TV, one of several times I was one Wake TV. There was a politics show called “Politics Unplugged” and there was another show called “The Advocates”. There were interesting shows that, you know, were talking about issues and of the times that I went on the show and talked about being gay and Christian I promoted Pride Week which was something that my friend Ty Howard and I came up with that we wanted to do…So, you know, we’d go on the show and sometimes get crank calls from students who would ask obscene questions of us because we were gay and stuff. But this one time, I was on Wake TV, may have been the first time I was on Wake TV and I was talking about being gay—someone looked up my home phone number in the student directory, called my parents…and this show aired at midnight so this was after midnight. Somebody called my parents in the middle of the night and my mom answered and this unknown student asked, “Do you have a son named Justin?” and my mom’s first thought was something horrible has happened, he’s been in an accident or something and she’s like, “Yes, what’s wrong?” And the person said, “Do you know he’s a homosexual?” My mom told me about this the next day, and she was so…by the time she recovered from the shock of this, she had not known I was going to be on tv; she had told me not to come out on campus, you know? So clearly, this was not something she was happy with because this person’s like, “I’m watching him on campus television right now talking about being a homosexual.” Despite that, her first response was to defend me and to tell this person, “You don’t know my son. You don’t know anything about his character. How dare you? Who do you think you are?” Because this person was saying all kinds of bad things about me and she was like, “How dare you? I love my son and I’m proud of him.” And so that was actually this really powerful moment for me—that my mom stood up for me, even amidst all the disagreement that we had, my mom stood up for me. And I think it was a moment that crystalized for her that, hey no matter what, we are…we’re family. And my mom passed away two years ago, but that’s one thing that I’ve always remembered, is that that happened and also that during graduation exercises there was a thing where they ask students to write essays about what they learned during their four years at Wake Forest, and I was one of three students selected to read our essays in front of everybody during graduation weekend. I don’t know if they still do that, but it’s a thing. And so my essay was about coming to terms with being gay and Christian at Wake Forest I saw…my parents were there—I got up and I read my essay in front of them and when I came down people were clapping and my mom stood up and gave me a big hug in front of everybody. And it was like, again, this acknowledgment that “this is my son and I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my gay son,” you know—and these are the things that I still hold onto even now that my mom’s passed away and everything. So that was really powerful for me.