The Daily Pennsylvanian
http://www.dp.upenn.edu/
December 7, 1998
Gay men face challenges within U.'s fraternities
Whether in the closet or out, some homosexual men find only tenuous support in the fraternity system.

By Catherine Lucey
The Daily Pennsylvanian

[Photo by Kathleen Chen, The Daily Pennsylvanian: College senior and Delta Tau Delta brother Michael Hammer discusses issues faced by gay fraternity brothers.] Mike was a brother for almost a semester before he began to question his sexuality.

Once he realized he was gay he faced one of the hardest tasks of his life -- coming out to his fraternity. Mike first came out to one of his brothers, a close friend who Mike said was understanding of him.

"I talked to one of the brothers," said Mike, who asked that his last name and fraternity not be identified. "I said it's not a choice. It's not something you can choose."Telling the rest of the fraternity was far from easy, Mike said. He explained that a few brothers in the house gave him a hard time about being gay. "I think there's a lot less sensitivity in a fraternity," he noted.

Derogatory comments and jokes became frequent. Finally, Mike asked the fraternity's president to help him stop the constant verbal abuse. Overall, Mike said, the guys in the house tried to be supportive. They decided that if Mike wanted to live in the house for a second year, the fraternity would ask the brothers who were making derogatory comments to move out.

But Mike decided it would be better if he was the one to move out. "I think its a lot easier," he explained. "It gives me some peace of mind." But despite that decision, Mike has not abandoned the fraternity altogether. "When I leave [Penn] I don't want to regret anything," he explained, adding that he has stayed active in the fraternity because he does not want to "miss out" on social experiences due to his sexual orientation. The fraternity has provided him with a social center and a group of close
friends, Mike added.

But his sexual orientation has definitely proven to be a barrier between him and the house.


"It was awkward when I had my boyfriend over," Mike noted.

The president of Mike's fraternity stressed that most of the brothers were supportive of Mike, and those that initially weren't learned from the experience.

"Once people began talking out loud and not whispering behind Mike's back, a dialogue was started that brought the house closer together," he said.

"I definitely feel that gay men can be comfortable in a fraternity environment," the fraternity president explained, adding that, "It does take time for people to adjust, but that is to some extent to be expected."

'Gay, Greek and Proud'

The issue of being gay in a fraternity came to the forefront two years ago when former Penn student Ron Jenkins wrote two columns about being a gay fraternity member, one for "34th Street"magazine and one for "The Daily Pennsylvanian".

Initially Jenkins wrote a column entitled "Gay, Greek and proud," saying that his house, Sigma Phi Epsilon, was very accepting of his sexual orientation. But over time, Jenkins began to feel that his brothers displayed homophobic prejudices, and his second column said that the fraternity was not an "acceptable community" to live in as a gay man.

"I read that column when I was in the closet," said College senior Michael Hammer, a gay Delta Tau Delta brother, "and his story made a lot of sense to me."

Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment.

InterFraternity President Josh Belinfante said he does not believe fraternities aren't supportive of their gay members. He explained that, "After going through pledging and becoming a brother, it's my belief that the fraternity would be supportive."

But he conceded that the atmosphere in many fraternities may not be conducive to their happiness.


Acting as a Role Model


Scott Reikofski, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, explained that fraternity life is typically uncomfortable for gay men. "Frats are a very heterosexual environment. There's a lot of talk and pressure about who are you dating and what are you doing with her," said Reikofski, who is gay.

Belinfante, a College senior, acknowledged that when you "get together males from [ages] 18 to 22, similar topics [such as girls] are going to be brought up."

Reikofski added that there are a "couple of handfuls" of individuals who are in fraternities and openly gay. "If you go by the generally accepted 8 to 10 percent [of the population that is gay], there's probably 140 to 160 gay frat men," he said. "But only 20 or so are out."

Reikofski said that he had a positive experience as a member of Lambda Chi Alpha at the University of Northern Colorado -- but he didn't come out of the closet until after he graduated.

"Going to school 12 years ago in rural Colorado, it wasn't really somethingthat I saw as an option," he explained. Reikofski said he tries to act as a role model for gay students on campus, adding that he believes that was one of the University's expectations when he was hired.

He has also devoted time and energy to co-writing a chapter in the second version of the book "Beyond Tolerance Toward Acceptance," which will be published soon. The book examines different issues facing gay and lesbian students on college campuses. His chapter focuses on homosexuality within the Greek system.

Reikofski said gay men and women are hurt by stereotypes that encourage the belief that they join Greek organizations to find sexual partners. "People assume that gay men or lesbian women would join fraternities or sororities to hook up," Reikofski noted, adding that "they join for the camaraderie, not for romance."


Out in the Cold

One of the most harmful situations for gay fraternity members is when someone "outs" them, Reikofski said.

Hammer, the gay DTD brother, said he was "outed" by a closeted brother in the fraternity who exposed Hammer's homosexuality without revealing his own. Hammer said he joined the fraternity to try to end the confusion about his sexuality.

"I wanted to be a boy and do what boys did," he explained, adding that a "fraternity is about boys getting together and doing boy things, drinking beer and having parties."

But Hammer said he could not deny his sexual orientation forever. After being outed he went through a difficult period when he turned to the club scene and drugs for happiness.

Now Hammer said he realizes that isn't the type of life he wants to lead. He said he has now "gained strength in himself." Hammer, unlike Mike, said that being in a fraternity didn't make coming out any harder, because "coming out is the hardest thing that anyone can do" anyway.

But Hammer said if he had known his sexuality beforehand, he may have opted out of Greek life.  "I'm not sure if I had made my decision to come out earlier that I would have joined a fraternity," he said. "It's a hard scene for someone who's in the closet, and it's not the same for someone who is open[ly gay] than for someone who is heterosexual."

Hammer had to face offensive comments when he first came out, but he said the brothers who made them have since left the fraternity. He also considered quitting the fraternity but he decided after a discussion with his parents that "by remaining in the fraternity it sets a good example for other gay men who want to be in a fraternity." Hammer said that the current DTD brotherhood respects him as a friend. He also feels comfortable bringing boyfriends to the house and brought a straight male friend to the fraternity's last formal.

Although Hammer said he enjoys the company of his fraternity brothers, he doesn't know if the system is ready to welcome gay men with open arms.  "I can't say that homosexuals will feel entirely comfortable in any fraternity other than a fraternity full of gay men," he said.


Sexual Interaction

National gay leaders claim that although fraternities often engage in homoerotic activities either as part of pledging or a male bonding ritual, fraternities shun gay members because they pose a challenge to the masculinity of the institution.

Shelby Blanton, the director of the National Collegiate Pride Association, a national gay-rights organization that focuses on campus issues, said fraternity brothers engage in homoerotic behavior such as "masturbating with each other or 'circle jerk'," but do not want members to define themselves as gay.

Belinfante said that he had no knowledge of homoerotic sexual interaction between fraternity brothers at Penn.

He also said that he believes fraternities do not isolate their gay members and in fact can be very supportive. Blanton, a seventh-year senior at Northern Arizona University, said that although a gay brother may be threatening to some fraternities, it's also possible for a gay person to "feel quite comfortable in a heterosexual [fraternity] environment."

But Robert Schoenberg, director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Center, noted that being gay in a predominantly straight fraternity is difficult. "My essential position is that although there certainly are some gay students who are out and accepted, most gay men in fraternities at Penn are not," he explained.


Remaining Active in the House

Another Penn fraternity member, Christopher, said that he feels comfortable within his fraternity -- he lives in the house and is the chapter treasurer -- despite his homosexuality.  "I wanted to join because a lot of my friends were joining," he explained. "But I was concerned that I couldn't be in a frat and be gay."

But Chris, who requested that his last name and fraternity affiliation not be printed, said his brothers were supportive and that he "never got any negative feedback."

Although Chris enjoys the camaraderie in the house and his close friendships, he noted that being a gay fraternity brother does prove difficult at times. "There was a lot of tension in the house [last year]," he said. "I felt like a lot of the brothers were very tense, and they thought that my being gay and their knowledge of that was going to adversely affect the house."

The danger, as Chris explained, is that his house would get a reputation as "the gay frat" and then no one would want to pledge the house.

"I considered [being president] last year and ended up not being president, in part because we thought that might send the wrong signals," he said. Some brothers told Chris they thought he would not be an appropriate president. "I was kind of hurt that people thought that," he said.

But Christopher said he believes his house is more open and accepting than other fraternities.

"I know of gay brothers at a lot of fraternities; I know they're still in the closet," he noted, adding that some brothers may remain in the closet because they fear becoming uncomfortable in the house.

Chris said he believes no one in his fraternity feels threatened by his sexuality, although he said that it often confuses them.  "Every once in a while they'll say 'I don't understand why you don't like girls'," he said laughing, "Well I don't understand why you don't like guys."