“But then when you meet guys like Carter that are just socially comfortable, trustworthy, compassionate, empathetic, it just helps those guys open up.”
People turn to Gregory for anything, Mitzell said.
A bit of liquid courage
In his junior year at UNC, it was Gregory who needed someone to turn to.
“I guess I was the first straight guy he came out to,” Hill said, recalling a night at He’s Not Here last year when Gregory pointed out a male student he liked as more than a friend.
“He was expecting me to say ‘Oh, what the heck,’ or something and I was just like, ‘Oh, so you like tall guys?’ And he was just like ‘Yes!’ and started smiling and he was just so happy that it went over well,” Hill said.
“That was a really big moment for him... for the one time in his life, I think the roles were switched, where he had someone supporting him.”
Gregory had been wanting to tell Hill, his best friend, for a while.
“I definitely had a little bit of liquid courage,” Gregory said.
“And when he gave me that response it was just confirmation for me being like, there is nothing to be scared about. I have no reason to feel trapped anymore at all.”
Gregory credits the other members of the Clef Hangers with helping him accept his identity as a gay man.
“Just having that support system along with sharing something like music that you share so deeply with people, it creates this unexplainable bond,” he said.
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That bond was something Gregory knew he wanted to be a part of from a young age.
“I always wanted to go to UNC — that was my dream ever since I was in 8th grade,” he said.
“Because that was the first time I had ever heard the Clef Hangers.”
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’
Gregory attended the University of South Carolina on a music scholarship for one year before transferring to UNC.
At South Carolina, he was a member of the a cappella group The Carolina Gentlemen.
But he still wanted to be a Clef Hanger.
“(The Carolina Gentlemen) were good,” said Tammi Williams, Gregory’s mother.
“But he kept on saying, ‘They’re just not the Clef Hangers, they’re just not the Clef Hangers.”
Three years later, Gregory is 24 hours away from his last performance as a Clef. The group will host its last official concert of the year Saturday as a farewell to this year’s four graduating seniors.
In addition to being honored with speeches by fellow Clef Hangers, the seniors will have the opportunity to perform senior solos in a song of their choice.
Gregory will be singing African-American singer Sam Cooke’s 1963 song, “A Change is Gonna Come.”
He said the song represents the transformation he was able to undergo through the support of the Clef Hangers and the UNC community.
“I feel like I always knew that I was gay, but I never knew when I was going to be able to have the courage to actually be who I am and speak out about it and just be myself,” he said.
“And so I feel like that change finally came for me, and I couldn’t have done without being here and UNC and without being in the Clefs. Because both UNC and the Clefs were my support system, and they gave me the courage to establish that change.”
An intimate moment
Though the senior solos will likely be the highlight of Saturday’s performance for the audience, Mitzell said the most important moment for the members of the group will occur offstage.
Before the curtains go up, the group huddles arm in arm, and the underclassmen Clef Hangers take turns telling the seniors how much they have meant to the group. Mitzell said this huddle is the same one the Clefs hold when new members join when senior members of the group tell them how much the experience will mean to them.
“The moments before we go on stage, when the curtain goes up, we get in a circle, we put our arms around each other, and everybody just kind of goes around and we speak to the seniors,” he said.
“And that moment is so intimate, and it’s surreal.”
Though new members will fill the void of the seniors next semester, Hill said the seniors’ impact will continue to shape and define the group for a long time.
“Just the way that student organizations work, in four years it’s a completely different group,” he said.
“But at the same time, that group is affected by the legacy of the guys who leave. And these four guys are leaving an incredible footprint on this group.”
Gregory’s footprint on the group though, is especially large.
“He’s definitely been able to help others, inspire others, lead others,” Mitzell said.
“We’ve had guys who, because of circumstances beyond their control, are not able to be publicly open about who they are, but through Carter — he’s definitely taken the lead on being that person who can provide that moral voice of reason and who can provide that support foundation that’s needed to keep going.”
For Gregory to keep going, he remembers a phrase he coined while studying abroad in London, which is now tattooed on the right side of his torso.
“I always say the phrase, ‘Don’t forget to live,’” he said.
“There are speed bumps and there are setbacks but I always believe that a change is going to come because it came in my life, so it can come to others.”
For Williams, who has watched her son’s journey, the Clef Hangers help remind Gregory to live.
“I am in awe of how they stick together,” she said.
“They don’t judge anyone. Every member of that group is really seen as a brother and they accept you as you are, so I absolutely respect them for having that attitude and for supporting Carter.”
According to Mitzell, that support comes just as easily to the group as the music they sing.
“Our music is based off of our harmonies — we have to blend with each other in order to sound good. Our voices are all different, but we have to find a way to make them complement each other,” he said.
“Similarly, we have to find harmony within ourselves and with each other to become a group, and not just acquaintances. Carter’s story definitely symbolizes that harmony.”