April 29 - Fine by Blog

My sister Leila is a graduate student at Duke in American history. But never one to focus entirely on one project, she's found all kinds of other things to do when she's not in the library. Her most recent project impressed me particularly and made me proud of her. I want to use this blog in the way traditional blogs are used to draw attention to something interesting/cool/different that is happening (on or offline).

With a group of friends, Leila convinced the gay-bi-straight alliance at Duke to spend its money producing t-shirts for a free t-shirt giveaway on campus. Looking for a good project, they were happy to find one presented to them and with someone offering to make it happen. Leila designed t-shirts with the simple slogan "Gay? Fine by me." on them. On Duke's relatively conservative campus they've been snapped up as fast as they can be produced and everyone is wearing them around. (If you've ever been to Duke, you might have noticed that there almost seems to be a uniform. The uniformity of dress--which, for girls, usually includes some kind of tank top, sandals, and a Kate Spade tote bag--is evidence of the power that a trend in clothing holds there. Today, the trend is "Gay? Fine by me." t-shirts.) You can find out more about the project, see pictures, and read local news coverage on the new fine by me website at http://www.finebyme.org.

The slogan on the t-shirts is far from radical in my opinion. It is sad, in a way, that such a statement should even have to be made. In these times, one could hardly imagine a t-shirt saying "Black? Fine by me." It could easily be considered offensive. Racism is no less a problem than discrimination against gay people, but the strength of public opinion and a prolonged civil rights movement have pushed it underground. Even wearing a t-shirt proclaiming oneself not to be racist seems presumptious. Not so with homophobia. US senators are opposing Bush's AIDS aid package because they feel that it endorses homosexuality, which they consider akin to incest. People make biased comments about gay people without giving it a second thought and with very little chance of reprisal (social or otherwise) for their behavior. It seems to me to be the most clearly unjustifiable, socially-acceptable prejudice.

Some students at Duke seem (from news articles) to be making the argument that the slogan is offensive (who is someone wearing the t-shirt to be authorizing someone elses sexuality?). But using the comparison to discount the value of the t-shirts is misguided. It is not an authorization. It is a statement of personal belief that many might not have felt the confidence to embrace or to say out loud before these t-shirts came along. In an environment where homophobia is widely accepted, it is a worthwhile statement just to proclaim your own willingness to be tolerant of it. To have so many students proclaiming tolerance, in fact, to raise tolerance to the level of becoming the latest fashion statement, is quite an achievement.

I want a t-shirt for myself. I'd like to try to wear it here in Jamaica. I think I might try just wearing it to the gym. With Wayne with me. Even that could be risky and would certainly be an interesting experience. I am not sure I'd have the guts to actually try it. Discrimination against gay people and general condemnation of them is the norm here in Jamaica. Even worse, it is frequently backed up by religious justification. Even the "conscious" DJs--the ones who don't rap about guns, etc.--all throw in a "bun batty bwai" (basically, burn gay people) in just about every song. A loud, discriminatory statement against gay people is the easiest way to get the whole crowd cheering for you. I've encouraged Wayne to write a song about it, basically making fun of it and showing it to be narrow-minded. He's done it. "Fine by me" even makes it into the chorus. (And, amazingly, it is over the best beat that I have produced.) But I am not sure there is any place he'll feel comfortable performing it here. It's that bad. So I think one day of a fine by me t-shirt may be as much activism as we'll be able to try.

Big ups to the fine by me project and all the little bits of activism that help move us in the right direction!