While my father and I are talking the talk about aggregating willing energy to effect social change, another member of our family has been out there doing it. I’m writing about it here both because it is an excellent example of the kind of project undertaking that would be great for this class (possibly with an amped up cyber-aspect) and because I am proud enough to burst my buttons.
A few years ago my sister Leila and her friend Lucas, both students at Duke University, were discussing the problem of Duke being an unfriendly environment for gay students. In fact, it had been ranked among the most gay-unfriendly colleges in the country by the Princeton Review (“Alternative Lifestyles are not Alternative”). Leila and Lucas felt that the problem was rhetorical, not real: most students at Duke were at least tolerant, if not supportive, of gay students, but the general air of the place was unfriendly and few were motivated to change it. They printed up 500 T-shirts with a simple slogan on them: “Gay? Fine by me.” They handed T-shirts to a seed group of basketball players, professors and other high-profile types on campus. And then one day, they handed out the rest of the T-shirts first-come first-served to people on campus. They ran out so fast they had to print up many more. And soon the T-shirts were fashionable around campus. You can read their own statement of their history and philosophy here.
Since that time, the Fine By Me project has grown. I built a little website for them (which has since been upgraded to a more professional site) where people could order T-shirts and they started teaching student groups at other schools how to start the project. Hundreds of schools, PFLAG groups, and others have bought T-shirts. Over 50,000 T-shirts have been sold. The T-shirts are sold basically at cost and Fine By Me is now incorporated as a non-profit with Lucas and Leila at the helm.
Just today the New York Times ran a front page Education article on the gay-friendliest schools in the country. This time, Duke is in the top 20! And there are pictures of students in Fine By Me T-shirts right in the paper. It is a great concrete example of the difference a few people (and then a few more people joining in) can make with a little effort. Leila and Lucas, you are a wonderful example to our class of a successful, volunteer-based, activist movement that has created real social change. I’m so proud!
My father is interested in having a project from our Law School class to use the Fine By Me idea to promote a change in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that has been the source of much protest on the HLS campus. HLS students took a stand and HLS stood with them against the policy until last year. But ultimately the threat of all of Harvard University losing all of its federal funding was too big a price to pay. Here is a letter from former HLS Dean Clark that explains the history and outcome of the situation. Could we aim higher than stopping the military recruiters from coming on campus? Could we actually change the military policy? It seems possible that this is a rhetorical problem too. The military needs recruits right now and it seems particularly absurb for them to use bigotry as an excuse for turning away people who wish to enlist. (Why they want to enlist is something of a concern to me, but that’s up to them.) But politicians are concerned that they cannot stand up on this issue without losing votes. Is it true that they will lose votes if they come out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Maybe it isn’t true, but they have to be convinced.
— Rebecca Nesson