By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
SPRING LAKE – A small project begun at Duke University to change perceptions about homophobia on campus has spread across the United States and is finding roots in Michigan.
Or, rather, threads.
In 2003, a group of ten friends gathered for dinner and discussed how upset they were that Duke University had just been named the most gay-unfriendly school in America. The T-shirt they created to combat that stereotype has now found its way into schools, churches, and business throughout the country.
“Our group thought that, in reality, most people were not homophobic but didn’t have any way to express that,” said Lucas Schaefer.
So, Schaefer and his friends created shirts which read, “gay? fine by me” and distributed them for free on campus. “We had over 2,000 members of the Duke community wearing ‘fine by me’ shirts” within ten days said Schaefer. And, in 2004, Duke University didn’t appear anywhere on Princeton’s homophobia list.
According to Schaefer, the 2004 election spurred the group who began at Duke to take the success of the project to a wider audience. Schaefer is now the executive director of Fine By Me, Inc., a non-profit organization created to spread the word.
“After the election, the media called ‘moral values’ voters the mainstream and said that if you’re not a far-right extremist you’re outside of the mainstream,” he said. “What we’re trying to do across the country is what we did at Duke, to give voice to the literally millions of people who oppose homophobia and support equal rights, but whose voices really get drowned out in the noise surrounding the issue.”
One ally who is determined not to be drowned out by homophobic noise is fourteen-year-old Chloe Beighley, who has started a “fine by me” shirt campaign in Spring Lake, Michigan.
“I just think that people need to be more out about how they feel and this is one really good way to do that,” said Beighley, whose brother, Nick, came out as gay in January.
Beighley’s mother, Colette, said that her daughter became “hurricane Chloe” when she heard about the shirts.
“She contacted the students services director for permission to wear the shirt, and then she asked if she could sell them on campus” at her high school, said the elder Beighley. But that was just the beginning.
“She got approval from Christ Community Church in Spring Lake,” her mother said. “She can set up a table to sell the shirts and they’ll publicize it.”
Chloe has also gotten permission from her local Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter to sell the shirts at Pride events and PFLAG meetings, and is in the process of applying for a grant so she can afford to give the shirts away for free.
Colette Beighley said that her daughter is a “loyal sister, [an] activist at the cellular level.”
Not bad for someone who will be beginning her freshman year this fall.
Chloe Beighley’s efforts make Spring Lake the third Michigan location to join the “fine by me” movement. Students at Lake Orion High School in Lake Orion participated in a “fine by me” drive during the 2003-04 school year, and students at Ferris State organized a drive during the Spring of 2005.
Allies are key to the success of the effort, said Schaefer, who is gay.
“As a non-profit, our mission is not to preach to the converted, so we don’t see any point in having T-shirt drives with people who are already in the Gay/Straight Alliance or the all-gay church. It’s about involving new people,” he said.
Schaefer, who said his group’s efforts are “obviously not a final step” to ending homophobia, said that, nevertheless, the shirts have several powerful effects on the people who wear them; including encouraging even more people to speak up.
“It’s not overly aggressive – but for many people it’s quite an experience, wearing the shirt for the first time,” he said. “Even people who are not truly homophobic – they do get a little nervous, or have a little trouble with it at first, but ultimately it’s an empowering experience.”
“The other thing that’s cool about this project is that it really has a snowball effect,” he continued. “It may start with people who are already more active, but ultimately the goal is to encourage all of those people out there who really do support their gay friends and neighbors but don’t have an easy way to do that.”