yan VanMeter joined Delta Chi fraternity with every red-blooded American college freshman's dream. "I was going to go to college and live in a fraternity and marry a sorority girl and be a businessman in Kansas City," he says. "That's what I thought my life was going to be like."
And then he came out.
VanMeter comes from a small, midwestern town, and although he says he always knew he liked boys, the first time he ever said out loud that he was gay was the summer before his freshman year at the U. of Kansas. But trying to tell his fraternity brothers was a different story.
VanMeter tried to come out two different times to two different men in the house. One "was very cool about it" because he had a gay uncle, VanMeter says, "but I kind of beat around the bush and never really talked to him about it." The second time, VanMeter tried to come out to a deeply religious member of Delta Chi who tried to save him. So VanMeter lied, saying he was only joking.
By the end of his freshman year, VanMeter decided he couldn't live in the house anymore. "I knew that I wanted to be openly gay so I made the decision [to move out]. In my head I assumed that the guys wouldn't accept it."
VanMeter moved out of the house as a sophomore and deactivated from the fraternity his junior year. And while he doesn't regret joining as a freshman, he now says being gay and Greek don't mix.
"So many of our activities are heterosexually based. How would [my fraternity brothers] react if I were to bring guys to parties? When they're kissing their girlfriends on the dance floor, how would they react if I started kissing a guy friend? I don't think that there's a place for gays in the Greek community."
Delta Lambda Phi, the only national gay fraternity (see box), argues that it provides a safe haven for gays who want to be a part of the Greek system. But DLP is only active on 19 campuses throughout the U.S., and there are some 2,000 colleges and universities in the nation. That leaves the majority of gays with two choices: join a traditional Greek house or join the ranks of the GDI (goddamn independents).
But joining a traditional house poses some serious challenges for gay students. Just think of the old "Animal House" stereotype of fraternities houses lined with empty beer bottles and men touting their masculinity through heterosexual conquests and gay jokes. Not really a welcoming environment for gays.
Nonetheless, the numbers suggest that gay Greeks are more common than you might think. Most studies say that the 10 percent statistic as in 10 percent of the population is gay holds true for the Greek system as well. In fact, gays may be the minority group most fully integrated into the Greek system and the most alienated.
The fear of losing friendships or being kicked out of their house if they come out looms large for gays in the Greek system. And acts of gay-bashing give homosexual members even more reason to stay closeted. In fact, several students U. interviewed for this article asked that their real names not be used, citing recent incidents such as the Greek-sponsored anti-gay homecoming float at Colorado State U. and the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the U. of Wyoming, as reasons to fear for their own safety.
While gay Greeks remain invisible to their straight brothers and sisters, straight Greeks continue to believe gay Greeks are nonexistent. Not so, according to Shane L. Windmeyer, co-editor of Out on Fraternity Row (see box), which explores the experiences of gay men in fraternities.
"Gay men have always been and always will be positive members of fraternities," Windmeyer says. "I hope the book can offer some support to a closeted gay member of the Greek system in that he is not alone in his coming out. When I came out it would have been wonderful to have a resource that showed me that gay people join fraternities you're not the only one out there."
For some students, coming out has been a positive experience. Take Sara Sperling, for example. She came out to her sorority when she was a senior at the U. of California, Irvine, during a chapter meeting.
"I stood in front of 140 women and told them I was a lesbian," says Sperling who is now the Inter-Greek Council advisor at Santa Clara U. and a member of Alpha Phi sorority, as well as a national speaker on gays in the Greek community. Slowly the members started raising hands, and asking questions. "They were totally supportive. And right after I came out, I did a forum called Speak Your Mind where I brought the whole Greek community and the GLB [gay, lesbian and bisexual] community together in one room for an interactive forum which was educational for both groups. The next year, Alpha Phi took an openly bisexual woman into the chapter."
THE FEAR FACTOR
Not all students expect that kind of support from their Greek brothers and sisters. "If someone is gay and Greek on a campus where it's not a problem, more power to them," says Amy Miller, a bisexual grad student at Texas A & M U., who didn't think her sorority sisters would be accepting of her orientation.
Miller was a closeted Kappa Delta for three years at Drury College in Springfield, Mo., before deactivating her senior year. "If I came out to the sorority, I risked wrecking it. I was convinced that if I came out we would earn the reputation as a lesbian sorority and the chapter would fail."
For many Greeks, it's the fear of tarnishing the house's rep that results in deactivation or spending four years in the closet. Cory Oakley, an Ohio State U. senior and openly gay member of Acacia fraternity, explains that a house's ultimate success boils down to attracting new members.
"The Greek system is inherently homophobic," Oakley says. "The biggest fear of a Greek fraternity or sorority is to be labeled a queer house because fraternities and sororities exist by recruiting new members. If a house gets some kind of stigma and the general public doesn't want to be a part of it anymore, the house is going to fold."
THE TIME IS NOW
So, what are the national headquarters of fraternities and sororities doing to address the issue? Good question.
Even though many national chapters provide educational programs on highly publicized topics, such as hazing and alcohol abuse, few provide material on homosexuality. Most do not even mention sexual orientation in their ethical codes. And there are currently no national policies on homophobia in the Greek system.
Steve Zizzo, associate executive vice president for the National Interfraternity Conference, says the lack of a national policy doesn't mean that individual chapters aren't facing up to the problem. "Autonomy is very important for the member fraternities, so those statements are left up to the individual organizations themselves," he says. "Alcohol abuse issues are where our focus has been lately."
Some Greeks blame their national offices for skirting the issue. "There should be education on diversity in the greater community, and promoting not only tolerance, but acceptance for minorities, racial as well as those with different sexual orientation," says Christa, who asked that neither her real name nor sorority be used.
Others say it's just a matter of time. "I think people are just starting to get comfortable discussing gay issues," says Michael Hammer, a senior at the U. of Pennsylvania. "I think that in 20 years there won't be a problem if there's a homosexual in a fraternity."
Hammer, one of two openly gay members of Penn's Delta Tau Delta, is living proof that some Greek houses are making progress.
"I brought a straight [male] friend to a formal last year because I wanted a guy to go with me and everybody loved it," he says. "We were the hit. My fraternity brothers met my ex-boyfriend, and they welcomed him in as someone dating a brother. It was a nice image to see the boyfriend of a fraternity brother speaking with the girlfriends of fraternity brothers it was so cute."
Cute? Yes, but still rare. Most Greek houses still have their share of closets. But the doors are starting to open.
OUT ON FRATERNITY ROW
In Out on Fraternity Row ($12.95, Alyson Publications) gay men reveal the good, the bad and the ugly that goes along with being gay and Greek. All of the first-person stories deal with gays in traditional fraternities, not Delta Lambda Phi, the national gay fraternity. (See box for story on DLP.) These accounts illustrate experiences of acceptance as well as betrayal and violence. Several of the essays in the collection are written by gay members who held offices in their fraternities, and some contributors went on to become Greek advisors after graduating.
"The goal is to heighten visibility and provide support for fraternities on the issue of being gay," says co-editor Shane L. Windmeyer, a gay man who joined Phi Delta Theta in 1992 while attending Emporia State U. "Gay brothers and sisters have always been a part of Greek organizations probably the most integrated in the system simply because they've been closeted. By breaking the cycle of invisibility, you provide education and you start to create stronger Greek communities."
Windmeyer is also the director of the Lambda 10 Project, a resource center at Indiana U. for gay, lesbian and bisexual members of fraternities and sororities. The Lambda 10 Project is currently working on a second anthology focusing on the experiences of lesbian or bisexual women in college sororities.
The Lambda 10 Project is currently looking for lesbian and bisexual women to contribute to the second anthology. If interested, e-mail contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org. All information will be kept confidential. Check out writing details on the Lambda 10 Project Web site at www.indiana.edu/~lambda10 under "Call for Writers."
DELTA LAMBDA PHI
As an openly gay male, Joseph Criswell, a junior at Eastern Michigan U., never really considered himself to be a good candidate for Greek life. But he had always been curious about what it would be like to join a fraternity. After he saw fliers posted for an informational meeting about Delta Lambda Phi a national fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men he decided to give it a shot.
"I don't have a lot of gay male friends, and I'm not really into the bar scene, which seems to be the dominant scene for the gay male community," says Criswell, a junior and treasurer of the Alpha Mu chapter. "Joining Delta Lambda Phi has given me a chance to really bond with gay men and be part of the Greek community."
Founded in 1986, Delta Lambda Phi is currently active on 19 campuses across the U.S. and boasts a membership of 1,200 both active and alumni.
"We're not just a house for gay men, we're a place for any progressive, open-minded men," says Peter Colohan, Delta Lambda Phi's national vice president for outreach services. "We are the only nationwide fraternity that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
If you're interested in learning more about Delta Lambda Phi, or starting a colony or chapter on your campus, call 1-800-587-FRAT, or check out www.dlp.org.
By Jessica Lyons, Assistant Editor