I have been following the discussion of gay people and fraternities with great interest. One of the great failures of my life has been my inability to reconcile my "fraternity type" personality with being gay. As a result, I am happy but dubious about the optimism being expressed.
Most of my friends from senior year of high school and freshman year of college went on to join fraternities. I went through rush and received some bids, but didn't join my friends because I knew that I couldn't explore my sexuality in a fraternity. I retained all of my friends even though I became involved in the gay community.
When I came to Stanford as a graduate student I found that being openly gay made it virtually impossible to make similar friends. The same kind of people who had been my friends earlier either nervously avoided contact or called me "faggot" to my face. The irony of the turnaround hit me most strongly while I distributed flyers advertising a group for men new to the gay community. I was turned away at a Stanford fraternity that happened to be another chapter of the fraternity I almost joined at my undergraduate school. I felt a chill when I saw the look of hostility in their eyes as they told me, "Nobody here would be interested in that."
Since that time I have had ample opportunity to observe what happens to gay men in fraternities at Stanford. During my nine months as a live-in counselor at the Bridge I talked to at least a dozen gay men living in fraternities. Most were frustrated, some even suicidal, but they chose not to act on their gay feelings because it would jeopardize their position in the house.
At gay socials I met a somewhat larger group of gay men who don't give in to the pressure. They have a kind of split personality of fraternity life and gay life that only comes together with the small group of fraternity friends who are sensitive enough to be told. I found one unusual case of a man whose fraternity knew about and accepted his bisexuality, although nobody outside the house knew about it. I also witnessed the great scandal at one house when the RA announced the names of four gay men in the fraternity (there were, in fact, even more). The situation was resolved by waiting until the end of the year when three of them graduated. The fourth was asked to move out.
Over the years I have heard rumors about all of the houses and I have actually met gay men living in SAE, Sigma Chi, Phi Delts, Theta Delts, KAs, Dekes, and Betas. I have no doubt that there are gay men living in all Stanford fraternities and that none of them feel they can openly share their feelings.
I admired Vinny Frost's honesty two weeks ago in stating what I believe is the prevailing attitude in Stanford fraternities. His followup editorial makes me wonder whether this issue will deteriorate into a battle of political rhetoric between the IFC and SOLGE (the gay/lesbian political activist group).
The real issue here is whether the members of a fraternity can feel comfortable living with a gay man. It would defeat the purpose of the fraternity system to force a house to accept someone who makes them uncomfortable. They have to believe that they can easily shower with him, honestly welcome the male dates he will bring to their socials, proudly talk about their gay brother during rush, and staunchly defend him against criticism from alumni and the national chapter, just as they would for a jew, black, or any other minority member of their house.
I don't believe that these problems are insurmountable. My own experience suggests that ignorance can always be overcome and that anyone can learn to be comfortable with gay people. But my experience with Stanford fraternities convinces me that overcoming ignorance in even a handful of fraternities is a monumental task.
The plan to have gay/lesbian speaking engagements in fraternities is an excellent first step, but an even stronger educational campaign is necessary. Individual fraternities should arrange talks from their gay alumni and from gay faculty and staff. The University should organize some open forum discussions where fraternities can come together with each other and with members of the gay community to share their feelings on these issues.
If true progress is to be made on this front we need significant and uninhibited discussion. My fear is that the fraternities will instead choose to maintain the status quo while spouting all the right words about equality and nondiscrimination. But if the fraternities are, in fact, ready to accept this challenge, they will find the gay community more than willing to work with them.