As you no doubt heard from your students, we got snow last Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, our intrepid and award-winning photographer, Ken Bennett, ventured out in the snow to take some pictures of campus. They are in a terrific web site, Snow in the Forest, which I recommend to you highly. Ken caught what appears to be some epic snowball fights, some very large snowmen, college students romping and playing with the glee of schoolchildren, and pictures of iconic buildings and places on campus. It’s a beauty. Enjoy.
Speaking of enjoying things, I hope you have been enjoying the Senior Orations as much as I have. Today we hear from Senior Gracie Harrington “15, with The Closet.
When I entered Wake Forest at the age of 17, I in all honesty did not know what to expect. As a senior in college, I decided to apply to Wake Forest because it fit every aspect I was looking for in a college: Wake Forest had small class sizes and a rigorous education, while still holding a traditional “university feel.” During freshman orientation I looked across the sea of students in Wait Chapel while the President of the University spoke, and to my eyes nearly every face looked identical. While I was dressed in old jeans and a t-shirt, designer brands of J Crew, Southern Tide, and Louis Vuitton sprinkled across the audience. Between speakers, I happily introduced myself to those sitting around me, yet received unenthusiastic replies back. This was the start of a new chapter in my life, and I already did not feel part of my class.
Immediately, a deep fear of being excluded was instilled within me. I made a point to study what the girls around me were wearing, and to purchase similar apparel. I realized that both religion and greek life were popular on campus, so I consistently attended fellowship meetings, fraternity parties, and gossiped with girls about which sorority we wanted to join during rush. Within a few months, I felt satisfied that I had properly conformed to the Wake Forest culture.
However, when I went home for holiday breaks, I was reminded of the many parts of me which I was not showing at school. I loved to sing and write music, but I had not been playing the guitar or performing at college. In high school I had been passionate about civil rights, but at university I did not allow myself to be too opinionated on the topics. I even limited myself in the ways of love, for at college I was not out of the closet.
Since the 8th grade I had been questioning my orientation, and since the 8th grade I had been virtually silent about my interest in both men and women. Looking back on my experiences, I see that by not admitting my sexual orientation to myself I was lying to myself, and by lying to myself I was not supporting myself. In a world of high standards and scrutiny, it is easy to be so focused on pleasing those around us, that we forget to accept ourselves.
As the weeks of freshmen year went on, the Gracie I knew in high school wore away. I felt exhausted as I spent energy day in and day out pleasing those around me. Depression grew on me, until I was at a point so low and cared about my own happiness so little, that it became evident to myself that something in my life had to change. Yes, I had finally fit in, but I was disappearing into the crowd. I wanted to be a face people knew and I wanted to make a positive impact on those around me. In order to make a difference, my full self had to come to Wake Forest. For starters, I had to come out.
As I began to process the idea of coming out as bisexual during my sophomore year of college, I started by searching deep inside myself: what was stopping me? What were my fears? I listed in my head the different people I could put off, disappoint, or anger by coming out: my extended family, my friends, the administration, etc.. I felt as though I had everything to lose by coming out, but hiding my identity as a bisexual woman was definitely not working.
I began to prepare. I chose my location: a Shorty’s Open Mic Night. At Shorty’s I could not only come out in an open forum to a group of people for whom I cared and respected, but I could as well perform a song I had written. The song, titled “With a Wife,” was written about my fears in coming out, because many parts of the law and culture did not approve of two women being married. “With a Wife” contained the following lines in its chorus: “Strength is the key to my dreams/ I learned love ain’t as sinful as it seemed./ I’m young but please hear me out/ Love is what this world’s about./ I dreamed of the fairy tale life,/ but why can’t I have it with a wife?”
I marked my calendar; the night would be April 20th. I began inviting nearly everyone I knew: sisters in my sorority, friends from classes, professors, and President Nathan O. Hatch, someone I hardly knew at the time but had always admired.
The days grew closer to April 20th. Knots filled my stomach. I looked around, and wondered what in my life would change after I came out. Would the people with whom I had lunch still eat with me? Would my friends still be in my life? Would my world turn upside down?
The night of April 20th arrived. I went up on stage and looked into the crowd. I could feel my voice quivering as I said the following words: “I am up here today, because I need to tell you something that has been on my mind for years.” As the words came out of my mouth, I was surprised, because in the process of coming out I had only thought about my fears. I had been worried, I had been scared, but what about the countless other people at Wake Forest who were living in a closet? Perhaps by coming out, I could encourage them to do the same. “I am up here, because we need a change in this nation, a change in this state, a change in this community, and a change at Wake Forest” I exclaimed. I played my song “With a Wife,” and was shocked by the most miraculous moment thus far I have experienced in my short life: eyes of tears filled the audience, and these tears were not out of sadness, but joy.
Over the following months, people surprised me. When I came out in my sorority chapter, I received a standing ovation. Professors and students emailed me with words of support and acceptance. Even President Hatch sent me an email, thanking me for sharing my experience to the Wake Forest community. In essence, I felt supported by the majority of the Wake Forest community.
Before I came out, I thought I was a Wake Forest student for superficial reasons. What I later learned was that by doing an act for which I thought would make me an outcast, I had become more of a Demon Deacon than I had ever been before. By giving myself the opportunity to be who I was, I was given the opportunity to give back to my school through positions including a President’s Aide, a Resident Advisor, and the President of the Gay-Straight Student Alliance. I began to view Wake Forest not through its stereotypes, but through the pillars for which it was founded. I began to understand the meaning of “Pro Humanitate.”
We all live in closets. Not everyone is LGBTQ, but everyone holds something about them they are scared for others to see. I challenge you to break down the door of your closet, and show Wake Forest and the world who you really are. Let our closets hold clothes, not us.