Denver Post: Out on Campus - Gay men in fraternities
DENVER POST, January 24, 1999

Out Men On Campus - Gay men have always been involved in fraternities, Now
they're making it official.
By Cate Terwilliger

Steve Kiely knew the routine - how to drink with the Sigma Chi guys, party with them. He never lacked for dates, and in fact was a favorite among the girls: Three sororities at Montana State University "adopted'' him as a little brother. He even drove his fraternity brothers to visit prostitutes in Livingston - they were legal in the mid '70s - for nights of booze and sex. But he didn't go in. He waited in the car. "I'd say I was a good Catholic, so I couldn't do it,'' says Kiely, now a Denver landscape designer. They seemed to take him at his word and, in any case, accepted the explanation better than they would have the truth: Their popular fraternity brother was gay."Back then, especially, you wouldn't dare discuss homosexuality,'' says Kiely, 44. "You would have been thrown out and beat up.''

So Kiely put his sex life on hold, donning a cloak of heterosexuality by dating girls who appreciated his gentlemanly ways. "The women knew they could trust me,'' he recalls. "I was not going to date-rape them or anything.'' Although being closeted was sometimes lonely, Kiely wouldn't trade his fraternity memories. "I just wish I could have been the sweetheart of Sigma Chi,'' he says with a laugh. "But it was still a good time. I had good friends, and it was a wonderful experience being in a fraternity.''


Today, young gay men drawn to Greek life have another option: membership in Delta Lambda Phi, the nation's only fraternity created with gay men in mind.On Thursday, January 28, an officer from the 12-year-old fraternity, which has 1,200 members nationwide, visits Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He'll make a presentation and field questions in response to student interest in forming a chapter there. If the idea flies, the fraternity will be the first of its kind in the state.


"There are a lot of gay men like myself who really wanted to be involved with the Greek system when they came to CSU but maybe didn't feel comfortable getting involved in a traditional fraternity,'' says David Lord, finance director for CSU student government.


"Having this would eliminate the question of whether this organization will accept your sexual orientation. . . . You can spend your time and energy concentrating on the other things the Greek community represents - community and brotherhood - as opposed to worrying about "Is this fraternity going to accept me because I'm gay?'-'' The effort has special significance at CSU, where two Greek chapters - Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and Alpha Chi Omega sorority - lost their charters over an incident that made headlines last October.


The houses co-sponsored a homecoming parade float that briefly displayed a scarecrow carrying anti-gay graffiti. The spray-painted message - "I'm gay' on the scarecrow's face, "Up My A--' on its back - referred to gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who at the time lay dying in a nearby hospital. Shepard's killers, motivated in part by his sexual orientation, had pistol-whipped him, crushing his skull, then hung him on a fence like a scarecrow.


A board of students involved in CSU's Greek system voted unanimously to revoke the charters, and both houses apologized for the float, blaming it on a few individuals acting on their own. Student-body president Dan Stiles called their behavior "deplorable'' and "not representative of the student body and the Greek system at this university.'' "To take the actions of a few students as indicative of a campus climate would be wrong,'' CSU spokesman Tom Milligan said recently. "That's not what we are or what we believe in.'' Still, the incident underlined the hostility fraternities, in particular, have historically shown toward homosexuality. In a 1996 national survey of more than 500 gay former and current Greeks - mostly men - more than 70 percent said they encountered homophobic attitudes within their chapter, often in the form of derogatory jokes or comments. Many also reported that their chapters would not invite a rushee to join, or allow a pledge to continue, if that person was believed to be gay.

In cases in which an initiate's homosexuality later became known - about 40 percent of respondents came out to at least one other chapter member while still in college - tolerance was greater. Shane Windmeyer, editor of the recently released "Out on Fraternity Row: Personal Accounts of Being Gay in a College Fraternity,'' has publicly acknowledged his Phi Delta Theta brothers for their support. One CSU student says he, too, has been pleased with his chapter's response. "The togetherness that we have and the brotherhood I feel we have - I wanted them to know,'' "Jon'' says of his decision to tell other members last spring.

 
While he says most brothers have been supportive, he's careful not to refer to his homosexuality in the company of those it might upset. "Some of the people think I'm pushing my gayness on them, just because I did come out,'' Jon says. He asked that his real name and that of his fraternity not be published. "They're OK with me, but . . . there are members in my chapter who don't want to be considered "the gay house' on campus,'' he explains; they believe being publicly associated with a gay member could hurt recruitment and damage the fraternity's image.


Jon describes the attitude of other CSU fraternities as "pretty anti-gay. . . . I've told some of my fraternity brothers and some of my friends that if I were in any other chapter, I probably would not have come out.'' Most gay Greeks reach the same conclusion; they believe their honesty will wind up costing them too much. "Now that I'm openly gay, a lot of the fraternity guys - they no longer speak to me or anything, even though I was, like, best man at their wedding,'' Kiely says. His longtime partner, who founded a Michigan fraternity 30 years ago, is feted at every-other-year reunions back east by brothers who still don't know he's gay.

"As institutions, they (Greek chapters) tend to really support heterosexuality,'' says Bev Tule, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "Depending on the specific fraternity or sorority, people may have a friend or two that they can talk to about it, but generally, in my experience, it has not been embraced by the whole chapter.''

So most choose to stay secretly gay but openly Greek, following a "don't ask, don't tell'' policy familiar to another community of homosexuals living discreetly with same-sex peers. And, like gay soldiers, many become officers. "Of the gay men that I've known . . . they've been key leaders in their chapter, key leaders on campus and in student government,'' says Sonia ImMasche, assistant director of campus activities and Greek life at CSU. "They're outstanding students, and part of their struggle in coming to grips with their own identity is their need to achieve. They give absolutely 100 percent and then some to what they're trying to achieve. They're some of the best, most dynamic members we have.''


Yet they're also seen as a threat to the fraternal fabric, a core-level challenge to a conventional vision of maleness extended to the point of parody by the Greek system. "When you get a bunch of guys together based around masculinity and brotherhood, you're inviting a certain concept of masculinity,'' Lord says. "The stereotypes of gay men question that concept of masculinity, maybe even threaten it.''


Kiely agrees. "Even in gyms, if anyone suspects you're gay, you get isolated very quickly. For straight men, it's just too threatening. . . . It questions their masculinity and it makes them question it, and you just can't do that.''


Fraternities typically affirm masculinity through what one former Phi Delta Theta brother calls "a stunning and maniacal commitment to the three B's: booze, babes and brotherhood.'' To the degree that a member rejects the booze - and, more pointedly, the babes - the brotherhood may be threatened. Even after coming out, author Windmeyer made a point to visit a strip bar with his fraternity pals because
it was, in his words, "a brotherhood activity.''


"What the public sees and what most people experience is really a lot of piggish jerks,'' says Peter Colohan, Delta Lambda Phi's national vice president for outreach services for the fraternity for gays. "That influence has become part and parcel of the fraternity experience, but it is in no way inherent. . . ."Men want camaraderie with other men, period. There is such a strong needfor them to feel an association with other men that they will literallytolerate anything so they can have that experience.'' That's largely because American society denies men close association and questions their sexuality if they appear too fond of one another, Colohan says. "So they seek out a male-bonding environment, and the fraternity is a classic example of that.''

That may explain why fewer women belong to sororities than men to fraternities, and also why Lambda Delta Lambda, the lesbian counterpart to Delta Lambda Phi, remains small, though it's only two years younger. While DLP has 19 active chapters, LDL has three, two of which are in California. "I think there's just a lot more alternative social events that women go to,'' says Beatrice Sanchez, president of the second chapter, at San Francisco State University. (The first, at the University of California-Los Angeles, folded.) LDL regularly receives inquiries from interested campuses across the country and is working on setting up a national network. Still, Sanchez concedes that many lesbians have trouble understanding the appeal of a
sorority.

Colorado College sociology Professor Margaret Duncombe questions why the Greek system would attract gays of either sex. "I think it's a particular part of the gay and lesbian community that would be interested in a fraternity or sorority, and that part is, I think, politically unaware,'' she says. "Gay and lesbian people are always saying, "We're just like you,' and it seems to me that especially kids who want to join a gay frat . . . are falling into that. They're saying, "Yes, this (being gay) is an important part of me, but the only thing that really makes me different is who I sleep with, and there isn't more to a gay identity than what punches my buttons, what gets me aroused.'-

''But Duncombe also acknowledges how students isolated by their sexuality might find a way to belong through the Greek model.   "The way in which the larger political climate constructs gay and lesbian identity . . . These kids need a place where they can go and feel safe,'' she says. "The fraternity model becomes a way for a group of friends to come together.''


Sanchez and Colohan say that's exactly what their groups provide, though not always in the manner of older, traditional fraternities and sororities. For instance, none of the chapters has a house; typically, they meet at private homes shared by one or more members. Some Delta Lambda Phi chapters, including one in Phoenix, aren't affiliated with a particular campus. Both DLP and LDL draw from a broad demographic and age range, including older students and young professionals, partly because many gays don't acknowledge their sexuality until they're in their 20s. And both welcome bisexual and "progressive'' - essentially, gay-friendly - members. Sanchez's chapter essentially functions as a networking resource for women who want to share information about classes and professors, as well as socialize. "It's not like we aren't (politically) aware - we are,'' Sanchez says. "A lot of members of the sorority are active in other community organizations. It's just that that's what ties our school community together.''

And, while Delta Lambda Phi members are as interested in a good party as the next guy, Colohan says the fraternity is dedicated to rescuing the finer points of brotherhood from beneath the slag heap of the "Animal House'' stereotype. You can have such a thing as a worthy and noble fraternity, and we are definitely striving for that,'' he says. "And because we are predominantly gay, what we have is a long tradition of self-examination . . . Whether enough gay men at CSU feel strongly enough about their own fraternity to successfully launch and maintain a Delta Lambda Phi chapter remains to be seen. The process begins with six members and $250, but that's just the start: Building a chapter from the ground up includes doing community service projects, writing a statement of purpose and bylaws, creating the
necessary programs to recruit and maintain members and meeting other requirements. Getting a charter could take as long as two years.


"Assuming that there are enough interested students to join . . . as long as they register as a recognized student organization on this campus, they should be OK,'' says ImMasche. "I'm more worried at this point that students may be afraid to come forward because they don't want to be in the public eye per se. . . . They deserve the opportunity to be in this organization and not have to identify their sexuality, gay or straight.''

Matthew Shepard, whom some CSU students knew, remains fresh in memory, says Lisa Phelps, director of the university's student services for gays and lesbians. "After the Matthew Shepard incident . . . many of the students who felt really comfortable being out chose to go back in the closet,'' she says. "And after the homecoming float incident, students really felt that it wasn't safe, though they did appreciate the strong support and response from the administration. But many felt, "Gee, that could be me.'-'' CSU student Lord remains confident that the fraternity will become a reality. "There's definitely enough interest there to justify this, and we'll definitely have the numbers to push this forward,'' he says.

More than 20 years after his fraternity experience, Steve Kiely hopes so. "At that time, I would have given anything not to be gay,'' he says. "You just wish you weren't. But you are; you have no choice. "So to be able to relate to other people, to talk about the pain you go through, the struggles and how you're going to continue your life after college. . . . It would be very helpful.''