Fitting in on frat row: Yale’s gay Greeks

The a cappella T-shirt says gay and the cargo shorts say Greek; the pillar candles and coffee table books say gay, the “College: The Best Seven Years of My Life” calendar and list of consulting job application deadlines say Greek.

Matt Smith ’07 is gay and a frat brother, and since there aren’t many caricatures more propagated and elaborate than those two, everything he wears, drinks, says or displays in his apartment seems to feed one or the other effectively mutually exclusive stereotype.

As cliche would have it, frat brothers and gay men are oil and water: Frat brothers yell “faggot” and gay men cry “heteronormative”; frat brothers build pyramids from empty Keystone cans and gay men know what feng shui is. But for Smith and other students and alums who are both gay and in fraternities, being gay, Greek and glad about both is just another chapter in the classic college story of finding yourself in four years.

No truth in the movies

Three years ago, Smith decided to rush. His sexuality wasn’t an issue — the freshman hadn’t even begun questioning his heterosexuality — and the guys of Sigma Phi Epsilon seemed laid back and diverse. Wary of pledges who wanted to jump headfirst into the fraternity scene from Camp Yale, SigEp tended to hang back and let second-semester freshmen and sophomores find them after exploring other parts of Yale.

“It wasn’t like a chug-your-drink-eat-your-shit kind of rush,” Smith said. “There was no ‘Animal House’ atmosphere.”

Forget Hollywood, alums say: Yale’s fraternity scene is low-key compared even to other real-life schools’ fraternities. At Duke, where alumnus Daniel Nugent ’04 worked for a summer, frats are massive, well-funded and “a social force” on campus. In Texas, where alum Fredo Silva ’04 LAW ’08 grew up, fraternities’ waiting lists include high-school juniors, and those fortunate enough to make it in to the frat are expected to fork over more than $1,000 in dues.

The unique atmosphere of Yale’s Greek life led openly gay Randall Rubinstein ’06 to join efforts to re-found Alpha Epsilon Pi’s Yale chapter. Rubinstein asked the AEPi national representative who was pitching the frat to some interested Yalies about “alternatives” whenever he would mention girls as a reason to start a fraternity.

“He didn’t get it, but he was also not going to be one of the fraternity members,” Rubinstein wrote in an e-mail from Japan. “I thought to myself, ‘Look around, this is Yale, people here are not representative of people across the U.S., and neither will this fraternity.’ ”

Straining the bonds

Two years ago, the ties between Smith and the rest of the fraternity brothers grew tense and eventually began to fray as Smith grew increasingly convinced of his sexual orientation.

“I was uncomfortable with myself, and that came across in my interactions with the guys,” Smith said.

One night at Viva Zapata’s, over rounds of margaritas, the SigEp brothers’ habitual ribbing about Smith’s membership in The Duke’s Men got more boisterous than usual. Smith snapped.

Neon Heineken symbol blinking behind him and “f—king faggot” still ringing in his ears, Smith cursed out the brother who had been teasing him, did an about-face and stormed out onto Park Street.

“I know it didn’t come from a malicious place, but I was so touchy at the time,” Smith said.

The night, Smith said, was an absolute low for his relationship with SigEp. Weary of paying dues to an organization he no longer enjoyed, Smith seriously contemplated quitting the fraternity.

Being gay and in a fraternity means, mostly, tackling the same questions as being gay and living in 21st-century America, Nugent said. There is nobody at Yale who is “categorically unaccepting,” Nugent said, whether about race, religion or sexuality. But whether because of his own conceptualizations or something he sensed in his fraternity brothers, Nugent was muted when he was at Beta Theta Pi.

“It was just a topic that wasn’t broached,” Nugent said.

While his fraternity brothers seemed to start every story with, “My girlfriend and I,” Nugent just did not mention his boyfriend around the frat. The increased importance of his sexuality coincided with a change in Nugent’s level of participation in his fraternity.

“The more transparent I was about being gay, the less I was involved in Beta,” Nugent said.

By the time he was a senior, Nugent was writing a thesis on a gay-studies issue and was involved in Beta only in a token way; now, he is studying at Emory Law School to be a gay-rights lawyer — assuming, he cautions, that his post-loan financial situation permits — and is surprised that anyone even remembers he was once in a frat.

Tim Andreadis ’07 is a senior at Dartmouth College and president of the student body. Openly gay and proud of his experience as part of the Gay-Straight Alliance, Andreadis made headlines all over New England when he was elected at the historically conservative college.

At Dartmouth, where the percentage of the student body in fraternities is higher than the percentage of non-white students, Andreadis pledged a fraternity during his junior year. He deactivated his membership less than a year later.

“It was not because I felt like I was being singled out as being gay,” Andreadis said. “But when you’re in a house of so many straight men, it becomes very, very difficult to relate when they’re always talking about girls. There is no parity there between me feeling like I could have similar discussions about guys.”

Tests of tolerance

One year ago, Smith was ready to come out to his SigEp brothers in the most pointed way he could. With mingled dread and excitement, Smith brought his boyfriend as a date to the SigEp winter formal, sticking close by him both to make a point and to shepherd him out of the dance if things seemed awkward. His worry, it turned out, was unnecessary.

“They all made an effort to talk to him and engage him in conversation,” Smith said. “I was shocked and amazed.”

On a campus where the LGBT Cooperative dance gets more Yalies out of their rooms than all of Lynwood on a good night, the normalization of gay couples can be a mixed blessing. Though it means fraternities are something less than bastions of binge drinking and chest-thumping intolerance, gay frat brothers have to dodge flak from both sides of the social trench, as they struggle to explain to their gay friends why they are taking on the most heteronormative of extracurricular activities.

Smith, at least, perceived his gay friends as being less tolerant of his fraternity brother alter ego than his fraternity brothers were of his homosexuality. Convinced for a long time that it consisted of a “gay mafia” that “promoted one image of what it means to be gay,” Smith admits that he was probably unduly wary of the gay community at first. But being accused of “dressing straight” and told that he doesn’t “need to play the straight-guy facade any more” stings.

Silva, who was a member of Sigma Chi and remains involved with the fraternity at Yale, was tired of having to have the same dialogue with his gay friends about his frat brothers. “Yes, my brothers know,” “No, they don’t care,” and “No, it’s not a gay fraternity” were stock answers Silva became sick of giving.

But Nugent said the pressure exerted by the gay community at Yale is a tribute to how welcoming the campus ultimately is.

“I think that it’s a testament to the beauty of Yale that it’s more of a stigma for you to be in a fraternity, supporting something perceived to be very heteronormative, than for you to be openly gay,” Nugent said.

Attempts at integration

Both sides, it seems, are trying to erase that stigma. Anna Wipfler ’09, coordinator of the LGBT Co-op, said she is interested in sponsoring more events with the Greek organizations on campus, promoting alternative-themed events and parties“

It could do a lot to change some stereotypes and make both the Co-op and the frats [and] sororities more welcoming groups,” Wipfler said.

Adam Clark-Joseph ’07, Beta’s current president, said he “would be disappointed” to find out that anyone had perceived his fraternity or any of its events as anything less than gay-friendly.

“We try to judge people based on their character and not based on their sexuality,” Clark-Joseph said. “I was not under the impression, at least at Yale, that there was the same kind of stereotypes of homophobia in fraternities that you might find at a large public university.”

Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said the University is making more of an effort to incorporate awareness of gay issues into the campus dialogue, incorporating such issues into freshman-counselor training and speeches during the opening days of school, and other schools are taking different

approaches to bridging the perceived Greek-gay divide. At Dartmouth, for instance, fraternity Alpha Delta and the Gay-Straight Alliance organized an event called “Don’t Yell Faggot From Your Front Porch” to encourage dialogue between the gay students and the Greek students, Andreadis said.

The New York University chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, the self-described “only fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive gentlemen,” just inducted its second class, bringing its total membership to 15. Open to students who are “politically minded” and “concerned for the well-being especially of the LGBT community and the NYU community, DLP was born not out of overt homophobia within NYU’s Greek community but to make a statement about how many different things being young and gay can mean, said Matt Maggiacomo ’07, the NYU DLP colony’s founder.

“I think of it as one small molecule of a movement to tell the world that there is a little bit more to a gay college man than what you see on MTV, because those are caricatures,” Maggiacomo said.

‘Support is exactly what I need’

Out or not, being gay and in a fraternity sometimes can still feel like a double identity, Smith said. When sake bombing comes with rounds of accusing each other of “liking the cock,” should Smith call his brothers out on their homophobia? When they ask him about his love life, does making sure the pronoun “he” is worked in get the message across?“

There are some people for whom the word ‘faggot’ just flies out of their mouth,” Smith said. “I don’t want them to have to walk on eggshells around me. I don’t want my sexuality to define my relationships with them.”

Last semester, Smith wrote a short autobiography for John Gaddis’ “Art of Biography” seminar. In five frank and introspective pages, Smith explores the unique experience of being gay and Greek, which turns out to sound like a rather familiar college experience: Starting off uncomfortable, having the guts to tentatively let people in, and having things work out better than you could have ever hoped.

“The fact is that SigEp continuously supports me in subtle ways,” Smith wrote. “It is true that they cannot fully grasp my experience as a gay man and that at times they are insensitive. However, they do not judge my handling of my sexuality, because they ultimately respect me as an individual. At a time when I continue to make sense of my coming-out experience, this unwavering respect and support is exactly what I need.”

Comments

  • Hans

    Sig Ep is not a "frat" it is a fraternity! Don't use that ridiculous stereotype.

  • Josh

    It's stylistic!