Editor’s Note: At the request of a source, one false name was used in this article.
When Tim O’Hara ’01 signed his bid to a medium-sized fraternity three years ago, the fact that he was gay was something that “just didn’t come up.”
“If someone had asked me, I would have said yes,” he said. “Sexual orientation is just one facet of your personality, so it’s not something I would announce to someone right away — just like a straight person wouldn’t announce they’re straight.”
For other gay fraternity men, keeping quiet about their homosexuality while rushing and pledging is a calculated decision.
“It’s one thing if a brother comes out after he’s a brother, it’s another to be gay as a pledge,” Adam ’02 said, a brother in a small house. “The year I pledged, the house decided to not actively rush a freshman because he was gay and out.”
Others did not come to terms with their homosexuality until after completing the pledge process; some are still silently questioning their sexual orientation.
According to the Lambda 10 Project, the national clearinghouse for gay, lesbian and bisexual Greek issues, based out of Indiana University, some fraternity men remain in the closet years after leaving college, even to the point of getting married and having children.
“There are instances where gay men join fraternities because they subconsciously hope that being in such a heterosexual environment will make them straight,” said Shane Windmeyer, coordinator of the Lambda 10 Project.
This tendency to remain closeted while in the fraternity makes it difficult to measure gay Greek membership, but Lambda 10 studies estimate that gay and bisexual brothers make up 10 percent of a house.
“If you have about 40 members in your chapter, you probably have four who are gay or bisexual,” Windmeyer said. “I think the percentage may be even higher.”
This estimate would put over 150 fraternity men at Cornell in this category. Yet Cornell fraternity leaders find this number impossible to believe.
“Homosexuality hasn’t been an issue that I’ve dealt with in my fraternity or in IFC [Interfraternity Council],” said Chris Koza ’01, IFC president. “I can’t think of anyone I’ve known in my years in the Greek system and IFC who was gay, so I would say those numbers must be pretty low.”
“I’m sure there are some people who are gay, but you just don’t hear about it,” said Sean Mackay ’02, IFC vice president of judicial affairs. “You would hope the guys in your house are your brothers and would be willing to accept anything, but I can see people having a problem with it and reacting negatively. And admitting it from the beginning as a rushee might negatively affect your chances of getting a bid.”
Regardless of whether Cornell’s fraternities meet this national 10 percent estimate, the issue was prevalent enough to warrant the formation of Greeks United Against Homophobia in 1995, a support group for gay, bisexual or questioning fraternity and sorority members.
“Greeks United was the initiative of a couple of students who wanted to have a target program recognizing that fraternities and sororities present a unique situation for gay students that other LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning] organizations couldn’t necessarily speak to,” explained Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services.
“Because of the membership selection process, living together and new member orientation, they believed there needed to be a focused effort on this environment,” she added. “We considered it to be a worthwhile venture.”
Greeks United holds weekly hour-long meetings that focus on personal support, sharing information and discussing Greek life, according to Sarah Simpkins, the staff advisor for the group and other LGBTQ organizations.
“Homophobia has been an issue in the Greek system for a long time,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from this group because their experience is so different from coming out on any other place on campus. In a house, where these are theoretically your brothers, the people you live with, shower with and are your main base of social support, it’s very similar to coming out to your family. The impact of rejection makes you extremely vulnerable.”
The group, however, has been held back by the absence of a male co-facilitator this semester.
“Fraternities and sororities are very different, and guys end up not coming if there’s only a female facilitator,” Simpkins explained. “Finding ‘out’ people who have the time and drive to lead these kind of efforts is difficult.”
Simpkins is working with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs to invite a gay Greek expert to speak at Greek events this spring, such as the Delta educational series and the A.D. White Leadership conference.
Administrators from the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs contacted by The Sun chose not to comment on their work with LGBTQ members of the Greek system.
Despite the University’s backing, only a handful of people have attended Greeks United meetings this semester. Gay fraternity members told The Sun they avoid the organization because they are either already comfortable with their sexuality or are simply not comfortable enough to get involved.
“I’m not an ‘obvious’ gay person, and I think as long as I stay ‘not obvious’ my brothers won’t really care one way or another,” said Matt ’02, a brother in a medium-sized house. “I still act similar to straight people because I hook up and date women and attend formals and date nights with women.”
Regardless of the level of their involvement with the LGBTQ community, gay fraternity members all share one experience: a nerve-wracking coming out process.
“I reached a breaking point and couldn’t handle it anymore — I guess I ‘fell’ out of the closet,” Adam said. “I came out to a close friend in the house first; I was upset and it just slipped out.”
Following his friend’s supportive, if surprised, reaction, Adam told his other brothers. “I was scared to death, but I got through it,” he said. “The only opposition I faced was one of my close friends, who says he’s fine with it, but deep down I know he’s not.”
Others preferred to reveal their sexual orientation to a few close brothers, and then allow the word to spread.
“I didn’t have an official ‘coming out;’ I wanted to avoid conflict,” Matt explained. “As people found out, I think they realized it didn’t concern them. I’m sure people have an idea about me being gay, but I only talk about, for example, my boyfriend, to a select few brothers.”
“I only told a few of my closest friends in the house,” said Josh ’01, who is no longer an active member of his large fraternity. “Other people found out by word of mouth or just assumed. Nothing was said to me personally, and I never experienced homophobia, but I know rumors went around because my roommate would tell me what people would say.”
“It’s not real important if you come out to three or four or 20 people, but definitely do it on your own terms,” Windmeyer advised, based on his own experience and research conducted by the Lambda 10 Project. “The worst thing is to be outed by a brother or not be in control of your own coming out process.
He also suggested taking some precautions and time to prepare for the process. “Really think about if you’re comfortable and have a support network in place,” he added. “Approach brothers individually; by coming out to the whole house at a chapter meeting, you may run the risk of not getting to talk individually with every brother about it.”
Overall, the gay brothers interviewed by The Sun are relieved to be open about their sexual orientations, despite the inevitable rumors and possibly negative reactions.
“It spurned a lot of conversation between brothers, and
I didn’t like the idea of people talking behind my back,” Tim said. “But if there were any negative feelings, it was an overall positive experience, because people got to talk things out.”
Coming out to the brotherhood is only the beginning of life as a gay brother. Actively pursuing a homosexual lifestyle, especially while living in the house and holding an office, can be an even bigger concern. The gay fraternity members varied on their perceptions of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable homosexual behavior.
“Of course it sucks that I can’t take my boy to the formal, can’t dance with guys at crush parties, can’t mix with other frats,” Matt said. “But I’m used to a heterosexual world, so it really doesn’t bother me.”
“I know my limits and I have to be reserved,” Adam said. “I know I can’t do certain things, such as kiss my boyfriend in a public area; it is not appropriate and I would never do it.”
Tim, on the other hand, objects to this double standard.
“If a guy brought a girl to a formal, I don’t think that’s stressing his heterosexuality, so I don’t think me bringing a guy to a formal is stressing my homosexuality,” he said.
In fact, Tim said he faces more obstacles as a Greek man in the gay community than as a gay man in a fraternity.
“I feel like I always have to defend myself for being Greek!” Tim said. “I get a reputation for being ‘straight-acting.’ There’s nothing I can say that will convince them. I take the same attitude as being gay — I don’t bring up being in the Greek system unless I’m asked.”
The other brothers agreed that they often find it much harder to identify with the LGBTQ community than with the Greek system.
“I am not a part of the gay community whatsoever,” Matt said. “It’s not something that readily comes up in day-to-day activities of being a brother.”
Even in the most supportive fraternity, negative stereotypes of homosexuality inevitably make their presence known.
“Some people are O.K. with my sexual orientation, others aren’t,” Matt said. “But it’s not like people hear me at house meetings and think, ‘Oh, he’s a fag.’ And I don’t have to be friends with everyone in my house. “
“Whenever you have all men in a situation, it’s just a macho competitive environment, and one thing that guys do in general when they tease each other is throw around a lot of homophobic language,” Tim said, who admitted he sometimes worries that his openness may cause his house to be negatively stereotyped. “I can’t help but think that it crosses some people’s minds, that my sexual orientation might somehow affect rush.”
Fraternities have a reason to fear such stereotyping. The Seal and Serpent society, a house which was primarily gay in the 1980s but now has just two gay brothers out of 16, has had some difficulty overcoming “the gay” label during rush.
“It has been a problem for us in terms of rush, though; friends tell rushees not to join,” admitted Oscar Ramirez ’02, president of the house. “But we just present ourselves for who we are and hope that rushees get to know our brotherhood, and that as times are changing, people will be more accepting of these issues. We’ve also been a football house, a band house and an ROTC house; we embrace diversity, and everybody learns from each other.”
“At some campuses, the fear of hurting rush is true, but at liberal campuses, that fear doesn’t have as much weight,” Windmeyer said. “I would be wrong to tell you that a chapter on some campuses that has an openly gay brother wouldn’t be considered a ‘gay’ fraternity. But if that means they have an open and diverse brotherhood, it can be a positive thing.”
“I know for a fact that there are houses with more gay brothers than us, so it’s just kind of odd that we are labeled the ‘gay’ house,” Ramirez said. “But it’s nothing that we are ashamed of; we’ve always been a very progressive, accepting house.”
Despite these fears, the gay brothers manage to pursue same-sex relationships, although they still disagree on the amount of discretion necessary.
“I’ve had boyfriends ever since I’ve been in the house,” Tim said. “I’ve even been set up by a couple of brothers with other guys.”
Matt recently broke up with a long-term boyfriend, who is also in a fraternity but lives off-campus.
“People in the house either know he’s my ex-boyfriend or don’t know who he is,” he said. “He rarely visits; I like hanging at his place because I don’t feel as awkward. Some homophobic brothers tend to give me looks when he’s around.”
Josh, on the other hand, did not feel comfortable bringing a boyfriend over while he was living in his house.
“I had a roommate and it would have been too weird, for me and whoever I brought home,” he said, explaining that his homosexuality was a main reason for his decision to deactivate. “Even though most in the house would probably have been O.K. with it, I was still too scared to actively pursue a gay lifestyle. Being in the frat was holding me back from being who I really was.”
Just as they have each experienced varying levels of support from their houses, the gay brothers have different perspectives to offer gay or questioning rushees.
“Go for it — if it’s something you want to do, it shouldn’t even be an issue,” Tim advised. “Bring it up during rush and if the house has a problem with it, that isn’t the house for you.”
“Definitely rush; it’s a lot of fun, and who cares if you’re gay?” Matt said. “You’ll probably get a vibe from the people in the house whether or not being gay will be O.K.”
“Be honest with who you are — don’t go in and say, ‘Hi, I’m gay — rush me’ but have a conversation with the chapter president about it,” Windmeyer advised. “There may not always be positive results, but there are fraternities who would be very supportive of having an openly gay brother.”
Josh, Adam, and Matt, however, did not think the Greek system would accept an “obviously” gay rushee.
“I wish it didn’t matter, but it does — it goes against the basis of most frats, for example, the communal showers, close quarters, etc.,” Adam said. “If we think someone could be gay, he would probably get a bid if he’s a good kid. However, if someone totally flaming comes to the house, or someone who is openly gay, that’s another story.”
“If a person is a flaming homosexual, my house would certainly NOT bid him,” Matt agreed. “It’s not that my house is necessarily homophobic, but they probably can’t tolerate ‘gay-acting’ gays as opposed to ‘straight-acting’ gays like myself.”
Josh gave strong advice against entering the rush process. “DON’T rush if you are gay or questioning, especially if you are not out,” he said. “My house had to debate whether to extend a bid to a bisexual rushee. People are stupid and ignorant. He did get the bid, but ended up not accepting … a smart decision, if you ask me. It turns out, he is really 100 percent gay, and just told the brothers he was bisexual because he thought that was more acceptable.”
Despite these misgivings, the gay brothers have no regrets about joining their houses, although they acknowledged that their stories do not necessarily reflect the majority experience.
“I’ve had an extremely positive experience,” Tim said. “Whether or not you’re successful in the Greek system or in life in general has little to do with your sexual orientation.”
“I think being gay or bisexual in the Greek system is hard,” Adam said. “My house is very liberal so things are fairly good for me. However, if I were out freshman year, I probably never would have rushed.”
“If you have strong brotherhood in your chapter and you really know the meaning of what it means to be a brother, then someone coming out in your chapter should not matter, because they’re still a brother,” Windmeyer said. “And that’s really the bottom line.”
Archived article by Nicole Neroulias