“Is it true that a lot of gays are in frats?”
Not sure when I had become the ambassador for homo bros, I chuckled a bit as I received the message on Grindr, a gay social messaging (read: hook-up) app. Having just returned to Chapel Hill to see my old chapter for Alumni Weekend—which happened to coincide with North Carolina Pride—I knew I wanted to write this week about being gay and greek. Now my muse had come in electronic form, simultaneously naïve and inflammatory, an entrée into a prickly house of pride and prejudices. The short answer: It’s a secret.
The first time I had tried to integrate into a group of guys my age, it didn’t go so well. Rocks in my sleeping bag and a crudely drawn sketch of a naked woman declaring “I love heteros” greeted me one summer afternoon when I returned to my tent at Boy Scout camp. Despite pledging to follow the Scout Law (to be trustworthy, friendly and kind, among other things), no one admitted to that act of pre-teen cowardice. And given the Boy Scouts of America’s old-fashioned attitudes towards gays—not that I realized I was one then—I found no solace from the adult leaders. Subsequently, I dropped out of the retrogressive private organization, despite being just a year away from the Eagle Scout rank. The whole incident built character, I suppose, and, in retrospect, older, stronger and more confident, I decided I would never let anyone dictate how I feel about myself or where I go.
Some years later, while trying to decide where to enroll for college, I happened across the webpage for one particular fraternity and, reading about its values, knew that it was the house I wanted to join. Unfortunately, it didn’t exist at UNC at the time. Casually rushing some of the greek organizations during my first semester, the other houses didn’t feel quite right. Fraternities aren’t necessarily thought to be very gay-friendly, and those not matching the archetypal “bro culture” of sports, chasing girls, beer, pot and prep-school couture (croakies, Oakleys, Rainbow sandals, popped collars and fluorescent short-shorts) may not feel like they “fit in” besides. Nonetheless, my heart was stubbornly set on it, and, given the unique and serendipitous opportunity to help re-found my fraternity’s chapter that Spring, I jumped at the chance.
The night before inducting our first pledges, the Alpha class, I decided I needed to come out. I didn’t want to put on airs or mislead my brothers. I needed to know they would still support me. (I did lose friends from this, but I’m happy to report none of them were from my fraternity.) Perhaps I was the one who made the biggest deal about it, actually. In fact, at the end of my undergraduate tenure, when an openly-gay guy pledged my chapter, I took an instant disliking towards him. I worried that, being more “obvious” in his appearance, his out-outwardness would reflect badly on our house—that we would be viewed as less manly and that gay brothers such as me would be emblazoned with a new stereotype. Eventually, I realized this was a manifestation of my own self-loathing and part of my coming out process.
Over the years, I’ve come to know at least seven other gay greeks. After coming out, these guys seemed either to become key members of their fraternities or to quietly fade into the background. At best, having a house full of brothers made coming out easier, as it was a “built-in” support network. At worst, it rendered the brother an effective castrate: “Once you tell your brothers that you like dudes as opposed to girls, they have no choice but to act fine with it,” one newly out fraternity member told me recently. “That being said, they will never acknowledge it again. They won’t ask you if you think a girl is hot anymore, they won’t ask you if you hooked up with anyone recently, and every time someone substitutes the word gay for stupid, all eyes will be on you.” It’s a step up from outward discrimination, but I would also wager it will be a very long time coming before you see a Pride flag waving from the window of a fraternity house.
Greeks and non-greeks, gays and non-gays, we all have our own stereotypes about one another and elevated views of ourselves. Greeks think their detractors are just jealous. Non-greeks who disparage the exclusivity of fraternities and sororities by calling their members “fraggits” or “sorostitutes” are just betraying their own superiority complex by calling others something they deem to be lesser sexually. In talking with others about this article, one gay non-greek complained to me that gay greeks are “vicious,” driven by sex on the DL (“down low”), and, in counterpoint, a gay greek said the gay community “is filled with a group of gossip-spreading… self-involved pricks.”
Regardless of all this partisanship and divisiveness, I was still filled with enormous pride to return to my alma mater last weekend to see how my chapter had grown since I was an undergrad. I also felt like a bit of a legend: I was one of the fraternity’s re-founding fathers. During pledging, everyone had to learn my name. Guys came up to me that night and said it was an honor to meet me. In truth, it was I who was honored to meet them, my progeny of sorts, and to be invited to participate in the dedication of their new house. So when one brother referred, in passing, to something bad as “gay,” I corrected him, gently and without fear. He was embarrassed and apologized profusely and we moved on. I was the gay relative, the one you hardly knew, but who, like Macklemore’s gay uncle, might provide the impetus for a socially progressive world view. But the next morning, when a recent alumnus referred to someone as a “fag,” both of us remained strangely silent. Clearly we both still have a lot of work to do, with ourselves and with our friends.
Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day, and we have the chance to do just that. I encourage my fellow LGBTQI greeks to stand proud, to take the mystery out of our subculture and hope others will support us, too. Our straight friends can still “come out” as allies. No, I’m not a "faggot." I’m a gay fraternity brother. And we’re all family.
Benjamin Silverberg is a second-year graduate student and practicing physician. His column runs every other Monday. Send Ben a message on Twitter @hobogeneous.