December 8, 2019

GUEST ROOM | An Open Letter to Queer Freshmen Considering Rush

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Growing up gay in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, I got used to figuring things out on my own. Though I watched my peers follow all the same well-traveled paths as their friends and mentors, it didn’t occur to me that I deserved guidance as well. In hindsight, the impact of this lack became more clear to me. My immersion in heteronormative cultures meant growing up without many queer role models or friends. Without any frame of reference for my choices and goals, it’s unsurprising that I made so many pivotal decisions blindly.

No decision encapsulates this isolation more than my choice to rush at Cornell. As a freshman, I was intrigued by the idea of joining the Greek community. But I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. Especially as fraternities purport to become more inclusive, it’s important that queer underclassmen don’t go into rush uninformed.

All experiences differ. After years of membership, however, I’ve gathered a fairly clear idea of homophobia’s role in the Greek system. Fundamentally, it’s baked into the structure and culture. Though not all Greeks are bigoted, exclusivity is a premise of the system’s design. As a result, bias often seems to go unchecked.

While setting up a party as my fraternity’s social chair, a brother called me a faggot to my face, over our basement bar. After I asked him not to use that slur, he responded, “Why not?” When I brought the incident to my fraternity’s executive board (of which I was a member), they shrugged.

I assume that most queer freshmen would like to avoid such distressing experiences. Which houses are “safe” and which aren’t? Short answer: It’s hard to tell. The makeup and character of each fraternity vary slightly every year. Generally speaking, though, it appears that queer people are more openly accepted by fraternities in the “lower” and “middle tier” and less openly accepted in the “upper tier.” There are exceptions to this rule; some houses are surprisingly accepting, others are surprisingly bigoted. Still, “prestige” tends to translate into heteronormativity. A simple search will turn up the specifics.

That tendency in itself should tell you something. It’s not a coincidence that more “respected” houses tend to have fewer openly queer brothers. It’s not a coincidence that particularly accepting and diverse houses typically rank lower. Of course, it’s possible to join Greek life and pay no mind to rankings and prestige. Unfortunately, however, the system’s social organization revolves around them. Not everybody buys in, but everybody is affected.

To be fair, if you’re a tall, straight-passing, sociable gay man, it’s unlikely you’ll be categorically excluded from rush and social events. Frats might even love you; you’d probably get along well with girls and make them seem progressive. However, don’t necessarily expect that tolerance to translate into respect.

Though you might find acceptance in a fraternity, many others won’t. Don’t underestimate your capacity to feel guilt for that. Throughout my time at Cornell, I’ve come to believe that respect in many Greek spaces is contingent on the ability to “pass” as cis and straight. It has often occurred to me how deeply this has divided me from other members of my community. Frequently, I’m struck with guilt.

This past summer, for example, I drove to Ithaca from NYC to celebrate the Fourth of July. As I hammocked in my friends’ fraternity house, I felt a familiar discomfort. Wasn’t I betraying the members of my community who’ve been excluded from that space since its conception? If a trans or gender non-conforming person walked up to that house for a party, would they be treated with respect? Would I be okay with what would be said about them, to their face and behind their back?

The structures of Greek events are also essentially heteronormative. Though it’s not unprecedented for queer people to meet or hook up at a fraternity party, that’s not what they’re built for. The premise is often to attract straight women to straight men; be prepared to find yourself feeling a bit left out. Ironically, my tenure as social chair for my fraternity was one of the loneliest times of my life.

Greek chapter houses are built to reflect antiquated ideas about heterosexual relationships. The system is structured to ensure that parties and hook-ups happen in fraternity houses, where rules are few and far between. As you might infer, this structure disadvantages women, empowers men and creates situations ripe for abuse. This is evidenced by the overwhelmingly high rates of reported sexual misconduct on Cornell’s campus. Reported rates of sexual misconduct against LGBTQ+ individuals are disproportionately high, according to the 2019 Cornell Survey of Sexual Assault and Related Misconduct.

My intention is not to completely squash your interest in Greek life. There are valid reasons to want to join. Everybody wants a group of people to hang out with. It goes without saying that parties can be fun. Despite all the caveats, I don’t regret choosing to join a fraternity.

Aside from the social benefits of Greek membership, I found that it also helped me become more comfortable in heteronormative male spaces. Of course, not everybody is willing and able to assimilate. You could probably graduate from Cornell without ever wearing Patagonia or explaining Lizzo to a straight guy. In many ways, that’s desirable. It should be said, however, that the Greek system is a microcosm of the society we live in. I’ve found the value of that comfort to extend beyond Cornell’s campus and into the professional world.

I’m not trying to make your choice for you. I only advise that you think hard about what you’re getting yourself into, ask for help and information when you need it and don’t forget your community.

Julian Kroll is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected].