Denim Day Do Over: Lessons Learned 40 Years Later

Virginia Tech held a Denim Day Do Over last week.  The event was a commemoration of a day in 1979 during the week of January 15-19, when the Gay Student Alliance – about 20 students – widely promoted an event known as “Denim Day” on January 17th  during the school’s first Gay Awareness Week. Flyers were shared in almost every dorm room and advertised in the Collegiate Times — the Virginia Tech student newspaper.  Students  were asked to wear the fabric in support of gay and lesbian students.

Not only were jeans, “noticeably absent,” the horror and pain and harassment of those few gay students that wore jeans was “hell.”  Fellow students, who almost always wore jeans, wore khakis and corduroys.

The alliance students were called an embarrassment to the university, and 25,000 letters of dissent were sent to the campus.  The alliance was prevented from having Denim Day again.

40 years later, the campus held a Denim Day Do-over.  #VTDenimDayDoOver

And, a Do Over it was.  The campus and president proudly wore jeans to demonstrate support, commemorate history, and celebrate progress.

President Sands at Denim Day Do Over
Virginia Tech Carilion Medical School Denim Day Do Over
Office for Inclusion and Diversity with Office for Strategic Affairs Denim Day Do Over

As part of Denim Day Do Over, I had the remarkable opportunity to meet with many of the original members of the Gay Student Alliance of 1979.

LGBTQ alumni at Virginia Tech for Denim Day Do Over

I learned several lessons from Denim Day Do Over.

Lesson #1: Sometimes we have to stand alone.

As part of a two hour conversation, I met with an amazing woman, Nancy Kelly – a now “formerly disenfranchised lesbian alum” and the co-chair of the Gay Student Alliance in 1979, and founder of Denim Day.

Nancy Kelly at Duke University

I reflected on how sometimes we have to stand alone as part of this work of social justice.

That day in 1979, many gay students stood alone. As Nancy says, there was “a sea of corduroys … Every class I went into, I was the only one wearing jeans.” That aloneness, for every LGBTQ student that wore jeans, was a common theme. Sometimes, we must stand alone, especially when we stand for something. Many forget that when Ellen DeGeneres came out, she stood alone. America was not ready in 1997 for that conversation.

Lesson #2: There is a cost to social justice work and those who engage in social justice work must be courageous.

The LGBTQ students were chased around campus with bricks thrown at them; their dorm rooms set afire. As Nancy shared, “We were taunted, ridiculed; we were verbally and physically assaulted,” Kelly said. “We knew that we were not embraced. We knew that people did not accept us, but the level of the reaction was so immediate and fierce … It was a pretty decisive blow.” There is a cost. Social justice work requires courage and standing up isn’t for the faint or weak of heart.

Lesson #3: We need community.

While we will often stand alone, sometimes we get to stand with a select few.  Social justice happens in community – often small, often of a few.  It is a lesson in the power of a few to transform society, to strategize to plan, to persuade, to motivate.  The GSA was 20 students.  Today we have an LGBTQ Community Resource Center. It is important to have spaces to form community and coalitions. The students in GSA, even 40 years later, had a tight and inseparable bond.

Lesson #4: Social justice transformation takes time. 

I wonder, could Denim Day Do Over have happened 20 years ago?  15? 10, 5?  For it was only 4 years ago, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5–4 decision that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states. Nancy speaks of the work of “chipping away” at injustice; it is slow, grinding, sometimes barely perceptive work.

Did it really need to take 40 years?  40 years for wounds to heal, 40 years for for Nancy to courageously return, persuaded by students at Duke to share her experience?

Lesson #5: Our stories, our journeys, and our lives matter.  Students and young people, especially, need to see and hear stories of sacrifice, struggle, and success.   It was Nancy’s students at Duke where she works that encouraged her to share her story and to return to Virginia Tech. What a powerful role model, not only for students at Virginia Tech, but those at Duke. We cannot underestimate the power and importance of role models.

As the director of the LGBTQ Center at Virginia Tech, Luis Garay, shared, “A lot of the work student leaders are doing today, they’re standing on the shoulders of those alumni, and so I want them to contextualize their work in a historical sense.” We stand on the shoulders of others and we need to know their stories. History matters.

Lesson #6: Awareness matters.

“We were just kids, we didn’t want to be hated. We were just trying to figure out who we were,” Kelly said. “What we really did was create awareness, and in order for you to have rights and presence, you have to first have awareness.” So much of the work of social justice is awareness — making others aware of the difference that identity matters.

Lesson #7: Identity matters.

As the flyer for the Gay Student Alliance says, “No one, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself (herself), and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

To live authentic lives, we must be able to be authentic. To be who we are at all times, and to be valued and affirmed as ourselves.

Lesson #8: Advocacy is life long

At the age of 60, Nancy returned.

Nancy is still doing the work; still advocating; still fighting; still telling the story. Social justice work is life long.

Lesson #9: History matters.

I often reflect on the journey of Ellen DeGeneres. As an interviewer noted “The place Ellen holds in our hearts and on TV was not guaranteed at the time I interviewed her (in 2001).  I don’t think anyone, including Ellen, would have predicted that she’d host one of the most popular, long-running daytime television shows of all time. And that’s on top of hosting awards shows, doing standup, and winning 30 Emmy Awards and more People’s Choice Awards than anyone. Ever.  Add to that, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Here’s what President Obama had to say at the White House that day in November 2016:

It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost twenty years ago. Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us, to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor or our colleague, or our sister, challenge our own assumptions—remind us that we have more in common than we realize. Push our country in the direction of justice.    

Lesson #10: We have more in common that we realize.

We are all full of kindness and light. We just need to create the environment for everyone’s light to shine. May we all radiate kindness and light towards humanity — and wear red boots, as often as we can!

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