[Ed. Note: Fraternity life for queer students is something rarely addressed in Oasis. A new book, "Out on Fraternity Row" from Alyson Publications sheds light on how gay and bisexual men cope with their sexuality in the seemingly-hetero world of fraternities. While there is currently a gay fraternity, there are still major issues for people who are queer and are fraternity members. Unlike a traditional profile in Oasis, where we would normally interview one of the people who contributed to the book, this month we feature an exclusive excerpt from the book courtesy of Alyson Publications and the book's editor Shane Windmeyer.]
By John H. Lee
The door was broken open. My stereo speakers were kicked in. Someone had defecated on the bed. Records were smashed. Papers and books were shredded. What clothing remained was strewn about the room, some ripped up. And what would the scene be without epithets scrawled on the walls, doors, and mirrors with my own shaving cream? I had been left an unmistakable message by my brothers: "Faggot, go home!"
From the Beginning
All in all, I considered myself lucky. I was at the University of Kentucky, the state's flagship school, together with 27,000 other students. I was diving into rush week and feeling damn good about campus life.
Originally, my first choice of fraternities was Sigma Chi. Not unexpectedly, it was also the house nearest my freshman dorm and the first I visited. The brothers' ability to make rushees feel welcome and their obvious devotion to fun was infectious. Shortly thereafter I stretched my bounds and explored other houses who shared similar qualities, noticing how easily each fraternity earned a stereotype. Kappa Alpha, all Southern, all the time. Phi Tau, jock central. Sig Eps, too weird. Alpha Tau Omegas, what they lacked in brains was offset by brawn. Pikes, a little too businesslike.
Then came the Sigma Nu house. These guys fit my definition of a fraternity: balanced interests, cool house, the highest GPA on campus, and host to some of the most renowned parties each semester. During one of my first visits there, I met a girl named Elizabeth, with whom I would later go out. I also met a guy named Ken, on whom I would later develop a crush.
Toward the end of my last great Sigma Nu rush party ("great" being defined as "alcohol available," given that rush was not yet a dry event), I said my good-byes and began stumbling home. As luck would have it, I stumbled in the direction opposite my goal and ended up in front of the Sigma Pi house. And what a house it was! Here was a modern-looking three-story building, women milling about, a line of impatient rushees out the door and the promise of at least one free toilet. (Recall the alcohol consumed at the Sigma Nu party.)
In due course I found myself in the Sigma Pi basement, shoulder-to-shoulder among the brothers and other revelers. It was dark and humid, and the low ceiling added a definite "eau de Michelob" smell that hung in the air like an apocalyptic fart. This place was wild!
Hanging on to the bar as much to hold my place as to steady myself, I eavesdropped as the brothers spoke with rushees. These Sigma Pi boys lacked something that almost every other fraternity I had encountered found essential: pretentious mimicry. Differences within Sigma Pi, they claimed, were expected, promoted, and protected. It was not a big deal if Doug did not truly appreciate Kyle's soccer skills, or if Kyle found Doug's fascination with "Fourier transforms" inane. What made this house work was its tenet that everyone deserves respect, the right to be different, and a chance to behave like a brother when called upon. (Memorize these.)
Some days later I had forgotten about Sigma Nu and stood in the living room of that grand house, anxious to receive a bid from Sigma Pi and become a member of the Phi pledge class in the Epsilon Beta chapter.
Into the Fray
My pledge semester was unremarkable for the most part. We did experience a hell night (defying our national charter), but most of the 15 men in our pledge class made it through unscathed. My big brother (chosen with extreme care and consideration) steered me clear of any possible pledge mishap. The brothers with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons or accompanied to White Castle for midnight "sliders" after weekly sorority mixers were equally steady influences and seemed genuinely concerned that I have positive experiences during the pledge term.
Thus, it was not until the end of the semester that my first test of faith in Sigma Pi occurred. It was beyond mortal comprehension why most of the brothers in whom I had placed my trust would participate in undermining months of their own good deeds.
Apparently, some of the active brothers felt that the Phi pledge class flowed through the process too easily. We were too perfect, they thought. Too willing, too able. Where was the fun in that? Therefore, it was decided, we should undergo humiliation, mental anguish, and fear. In short, we were to experience a "pledge lineup."
Sure, a lineup is basic hazing and was against the national fraternal bylaws at the time. "But what the hell, brother, they are our pledges and we can do whatever the hell we want. Right? Pass me my bourbon, damn it."
The scene was again the familiar basement, only this time it was no party. The lights were out, and pillow cases covered our heads. I heard Hollywood-the pledge trainer assigned to shepherd us downstairs-whisper, "I'm really sorry about this," and he meant it.
The pillowcases removed, we found nearly the entire chapter seated facing us in the near darkness-including brothers seen only sporadically throughout the semester. It was ominous. A couple of brothers brandished desk lamps like swords, shoving the bright bulbs close to our eyes while yelling obscenities and insulting us. None of the pledges dared move for fear of calling attention to themselves and receiving abuse.
Soon the chapter began shouting questions at us, peppered with taunts and derision, and pledges were called upon to provide the correct answers. A wrong answer was worth time facing the back wall, an earful of vulgarism and profanity, a bucket of water, a splash of stale beer, or exile behind the bar to sit among the puke left over from our most recent party. A correct answer was just as likely to bring punishment as it was praise. No discrimination whatsoever.
It seemed unconscionable that my brothers-to-be could treat good pledges with such disdain and disregard for all decency. It seemed unthinkable that I could participate as an active brother in a future lineup. It seemed unlikely that I would ever step inside the Sigma Pi house again. The sound of the front door slamming added a sense of finality to my decision.
Perhaps a whole week passed, and I began mourning my time at Sigma Pi. How could I have been so deceived? Why did I believe all the bullshit about differences, respect, and brotherhood? How could my own big brother have joined the charade? Why did I consider severing my ties with these guys as a loss?
One evening there came a knock at my apartment front door. There stood about 20 Sigma Pi brothers in my hallway-nearly a quarter of the chapter-looking somewhat apprehensive.
Here's the gist of their message: "We repent, we shall ban lineups and make them against the chapter's bylaws. Please, come home."
Well, what was to be said at this point? I am a softy at heart, I really did miss the guys, and as long as we could agree that humiliation and even feigned intolerance are not part of Sigma Pi, then who was I to turn down an extended hand? It seemed that we had a win-win situation and that the chapter, as well as future pledge classes, would be all the better for it. I returned.
Dark Storm Rising
Fast-forward a few semesters. It was the summer term, and the Sigma Pi house served as home for me and a couple of other brothers. Plenty of the local guys dropped by every week, so it was anything but lonely. I had the same room that my big brother rented during the regular school year, and this somehow made the situation even more enjoyable for me.
That summer was mundane except for one minor item. In May I had come to the mind-boggling realization that I was a gay man. More to the point, I came out to myself, and that suggested I come out to the world. (Ever since, I have done a decent job of telling people one by one. With this story I am targeting thousands of you at once. I must be getting lazy in my old age.)
OK. I will grant you that this did not just "happen." It was not like flicking a light switch, and it did not hit me while shaving one morning. There was a definite process and months of agonizing, piled atop years of worry. During the spring semester, however, everything fell into place and I accepted the facts: John Lee is a gay man. I still had my 3.7 GPA, was still a very active member of Sigma Pi, was still beloved by the pledges for being their collective best friend and advocate, and remained more than mildly interested in Elizabeth. But there was a new facet to my life, one that added new dimension without destroying anything valuable. I was gay.
Well, it did not destroy anything valuable except the bonds of trust, the premise of truth, and life as I knew it. So then came the summer. Hot and sticky Lexington days were generally followed by hot and sticky Lexington nights. During the days I sweated it out in summer school, and during the nights I tended to haunt the Bar, the only gay nightclub in town. Late nights were spent at Leva's, a ritzy restaurant by day transformed into something much more decadent after closing.
Dancing at the Bar proved educational too. Altogether, I ran into seven Sigma Pi brothers there (all closeted, chapter officers among them) and met more than a few gays from other houses. From my perspective, it seemed like gay men were everywhere that summer-we always are, it turns out.
On the night of July 4, I found myself dancing with hundreds of other guys to music that was nearly deafening. In time one of my brothers pulled me aside for an introduction.
His name was "Ron," and he was the elder brother of our chapter's vice president, "Kent." This brought up an interesting situation. Ron's name was listed as a former pledge of Sigma Pi, and Kent maintained that Ron had died some years back. In fact, I suspect that when Ron came out to the family, Kent did not know how to accept the facts. Therefore, Kent lied to us all as well as to himself.
Ron and I enjoyed the next hour of dancing and headed out to the parking lot when the place closed. We leaned against his car, talking and saying good-night to passing friends when someone got out of a nearby car and headed wobbly toward us. It was Kent. He had come to hunt down his errant sibling, who had left the family's Fourth of July reunion to go dancing.
Kent was drunk, from all signs, and was focused so tightly on his brother that he did not notice me immediately. At that moment of recognition, however, it was as if Kent popped into sobriety just long enough to mutter a threatening, "I shoulda known."
Imagine me at that moment, the joy of meeting someone instantly overshadowed by a deep sense of foreboding. Kent's sudden appearance on the scene heralded horrible things. I feared, and I was none too sure that I was ready to face, my own personal lineup.
As soon as Kent was in his car and on his way, Ron said good-night and promised to catch up with me another time. Michael, a friend who had witnessed the whole incident, volunteered to let me crash at his place instead of going back to the Sigma Pi house that night. Thank God for friends, if not for brothers.
When Michael and I headed over to the house the following morning, I felt encouraged that the front door was locked as it should be, the house was quiet, and no lynch mob was gathered to greet me on the balcony. The front yard was free of burning effigies, and my key still fit the lock. So far, so good. Climbing to the third floor and turning down the dim hallway, my mood changed dramatically as it became apparent that my room had been visited the previous night.
The door was broken open. Morning sunshine streamed though the window into the ravaged room. My stereo speakers were kicked in. Someone had defecated on the bed. Records were smashed. Papers and books were shredded. What clothing remained was strewn about the room, some ripped up. The rest was found together with my toothbrush, hairbrush, and other effects stuffed in the toilets, which had then been pissed in. And what would the scene be without epithets scrawled on the walls, doors, and mirrors with my own shaving cream? I had been left an unmistakable message by my brothers: "Faggot, go home!"
Once again, all the big talk about diversity, acceptance, tolerance, balance, and respect was carelessly tossed out by a few vengeful brothers who felt compelled by their own evil spirits of hate, intolerance, and conformity. That morning I left the Epsilon Beta chapter of Sigma Pi for good.
Months passed. The fall semester came, but I did not enroll. The thought of attending school without being part of my fraternity was too painful, so I abstained from both activities. My family did not know what had befallen me that summer. I made up some lame excuse about why I did not want to attend school and how I wanted a job instead, and I basically kept communication to a minimum.
One October afternoon, some of my brothers, all pledges from the previous spring, approached me. They told me who had been involved in the break-in, how some people wanted me to return, and how things would improve. They reassured me that the entire house was not suddenly filled with Neanderthals or Nazis and that only by facing the chapter as a brother could I challenge ignorance. (See? Being the pledges' best friend paid off!)
They did not know that I was not even attending school. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that I would only be a handicap for the chapter and that perhaps people would mistakenly stereotype Sigma Pi as the "queer house" on campus. I quickly imagined all the horrible possibilities and made a hasty excuse to leave.
I dreamed of escaping Lexington altogether, getting away from the mess. I felt guilty, as though I had done something appalling and had dishonored myself, my friends, my brothers, my family. I was willing to heap upon myself the guilt for a thousand uncommitted sins, and I wasn't even Catholic!
The time had come to forge a new path and create a new life. After some finagling and a very lonely Christmas spent apart from my family (I was still paying penance, of course), I accepted a job as a programmer for the Harris Corp. in Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center. Six months later, I was waving farewell to military work and on my way to Berkeley, California.
Fruits and Nuts
One of the first things I remember hearing about California is that this is the "land of fruits and nuts." Well, I joined the fruits, since there were already more than enough nuts when I got there.
In a moment of uncertain lucidity, I arranged to live with the Sigma Pi chapter at University of California, Berkeley, while attending school, and I vowed to not hide behind faux heterosexuality. I threw myself into chapter activities, going so far as to take on the dreaded responsibilities of kitchen steward. Early on I discovered that things were very different with the men of Iota chapter and that this boded very well. In fact, life was so good that some of my new brothers even arranged blind dates for me with gay guys they knew in other fraternities!
The difference was night and day. In Kentucky there was a lot of preaching about tolerance and diversity. At Berkeley there was no preaching but a lot of doing. At Kentucky there were a lot of promises made during times of crisis. The brothers at Berkeley worked to avoid a crisis in the first place.
In fact, the brotherhood at Kentucky was crafted out of handpicked brothers. The same could not be said of UC Berkeley in the early 1980s when fraternity membership was foremost based on the necessity for good housing. It raises the peculiar question, then, of why crafted brotherhood is not as strong a bond as brotherhood by happenstance.
Now, lest you think that I wax poetic about my time at UC Berkeley, history demands that I mention that the Iota chapter had its fair share of flaws and awkward moments. Some brothers were not quite as accepting as others, yet they never lashed out. That never would have been tolerated by the chapter at large. Overall, my experiences at UC Berkeley helped reestablish my faith in the power of fraternity and specifically in the fraternity I claim as my own.
Today, I have just passed my 36th birthday. I live with my "other half" of six years (whom my family not-so-secretly prefers over myself), and we recently purchased an extraordinary Victorian home near Stanford University with plenty of room for the dog to play. We both work in Silicon Valley, have been treated equitably by our employers, and were charter members of Digital Queers (a technology-oriented nonprofit group).
I have learned that this region of the country-so fruitful when it comes to technology products and services-is also rife with homosexuals. You do not necessarily see us; but we are here. Invisible. You cannot turn on any name-brand computer or connect to any big on-line service without using equipment or services designed by some queer. We are everywhere throughout "TechnoLand," thrusting the results of our creative energy onto an unsuspecting world. And it occurs to me, that this is as common in fraternities as in business.
Think about it. It is not a threat. It is a fact. And it has likely always been true.
The experiences you have just read about led me to a stronger belief in myself. That belief provided me the springboard to start businesses, become involved with nascent computer technologies and digital video, give speeches to thousands of people, and generally not accept anything as being impossible. When I was in college, the slogan question authority was common on T-shirts. Today, I would alter it to read, "i question your authority. i question my motivation. and i refuse to doubt myself."
As for my involvement with Sigma Pi, sadly, it has waned. I am, though, still in contact with two of my favorite Sigma Pi brothers from Kentucky, including my big brother. In my mind these two men express the ultimate in fraternal ideals through their refusal to reject me.