by Douglas N. Case
Download PDF of An Exploratory Study of the Experiences of GLBT Fraternity & Sorority Members Revisited
Over the course of the past few years, there has been substantial public attention to the issue of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men (which for simplicity I refer to as “lesbigays”) serving in the military. A great deal of research on the topic has been undertaken, resulting in several published works, including Randy Shilts’ best selling book Conduct Unbecoming. In many ways, the social dynamics of lesbigays in college fraternities and sororities parallels that of lesbigays in the armed forces. In both cases, there are cohesive single-gender units of young adults in which the existence of homosexuality or bisexuality is perceived as threatening. Unlike the flurry of information chronicling the experiences of lesbigay members of the military, however, there has been virtually no published research on the experiences lesbigay members of fraternities and sororities.
A few years ago, I began an informal research project to attempt to shed some light on this unexplored area. Like many gay fraternity men, as an undergraduate I led a very “closeted” life, and it wasn’t until after I had been graduated that I met other gay men with Greek affiliation. With some colleagues, I devised a survey to distribute to gay fraternity undergraduate members and alumni so I could compare their experiences — and perhaps even better understand myself.
Initially the surveys were distributed, with the assistance of some friends and associates, by word of mouth. From the initial responses, a 32-question survey instrument was refined — and at the request of several individuals, expanded to include both men and women with Greek affiliation who currently consider themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Methods for distributing the survey included publishing announcements in various gay and lesbian publications, posting announcements to newsgroups and electronic mail discussion lists on the Internet, and referrals from other respondents. A little over 500 responses were eventually received with a good cross section of ages (ranging from 19 to 59 years old, with a mean age of 31) and regions of the country. Since the respondents were self-selected (in that they learned of the survey and took the initiative to respond), the results may not be completely representative of a true random sample of all lesbigay fraternity and sorority members (if it were possible to devise such).
Approximately 90% of the responses received were from men. There are several reasons for the low proportion of women respondents: (1) The survey was expanded to include women after about 100 responses from men had already been received. (2) Although studies to determine the number of gays and lesbians in the general population have yielded varying results (ranging from 1% to 15%, depending upon research methodology and the definition of what constitutes a homosexual), the studies have fairly consistently found that gay men outnumber lesbians by a factor ranging up to 2-to-1. (3) The survey was more prominently publicized in some publications oriented more toward gay men. (4) As indicated below, women respondents tended to develop their homosexual or bisexual identity later than men. (5) It is also possible that gay/bisexual male students find the lifestyle of the Greek collegiate community more appealing than do lesbian/bisexual women.
The percentage of Greek students who are lesbigay is difficult to accurately determine. Many students are still in the process of developing their sexual identity while in college. For example, of the survey respondents, over a third of the men and 80% of the women self-identified as heterosexual at the time they were initiated, but by graduation only 20% of the men and a little over 40% of the women identified themselves as heterosexual. Many identified themselves as bisexual for a period of time before accepting a self-identity as gay or lesbian. In terms of sexual experience, 45% of the men had their first post-pubescent homosexual experience prior to college, 39% during college, and 15% after college. For women, the corresponding figures are 12% prior to college, 52% during college, and 37% after college.
Of the male survey respondents, the average total number of fellow chapter members who the respondent currently knew with certainty (rather than mere speculation) to be gay or bisexual was 3.5 (a total of 4.5 if the respondent himself is included). Often, the respondents did not discover or confirm a fellow member’s homosexual or bisexual orientation until after they both had been graduated. With an mean reported chapter size of 52, it is probable that the average respondent matriculated with 75 – 90 different brothers over the course of his undergraduate career. Thus, a total of approximately 5 – 6% of the chapter membership was known by the respondents to be gay/bisexual. The women reported knowing with certainty that an average of 2.9 fellow members were lesbian/bisexual, with an average chapter size of 81, meaning that a total of approximately 3 – 4% of the chapter membership was known to be lesbian or bisexual. The actual percentages of lesbigay members would, of course, be higher, to include those others not known with certainty by the respondents to be lesbigay.
The data collected suggests that lesbigay students join fraternities and sororities for reasons similar to those one would expect from a sample of heterosexual students. The top three reasons listed were (1) friendship and camaraderie, (2) social activities, and (3) a support group and sense of belonging. Likewise, the benefits of Greek membership reported by the lesbigay students were similar to those that would likely be reported by other students — the top three being (1) social and interpersonal skills, (2) long-term friendships, and (3) leadership skills. Sexual attraction or the opportunity to meet potential same-gender sexual partners was not a significant reason for joining a fraternity or sorority; only 3% marked “to meet members of the same sex” as one of their top three reasons for joining. A little more than a third, however, reported having at least one sexual encounter with a member of their chapter while in college.
One area where lesbigay fraternity/sorority members appear to differ from their heterosexual peers is in chapter leadership. Over 80% of the men and over 60% of the women had held at least one of the following executive committee positions in their chapter: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, new member educator, rush chair and social chair. Over 20% of the men had served as president of their chapter, although only 6% of the women had served as president. This tendency toward “overachievement” may reflect a desire for validation and acceptance by the group. Another explanation may be that lesbigay members channel their energies into organizational leadership that others apply toward developing heterosexual relationships.
Over 70% of the respondents, indicated that they had encountered homophobic or heterosexist attitudes within their chapter, usually in the form of derogatory jokes or comments. Homophobia was also frequently evidenced in membership selection. If a rushee was rumored or perceived to be gay or lesbian, the chapter was likely to summarily vote against offering the rushee a bid to join. Likewise if a pledge was discovered or believed to be gay or lesbian, the chapter was inclined to dismiss the pledge. More often than not, the initiated lesbigay member(s) would voice no opposition to the discrimination, fearing that to do so might cause other members to question their motivation. One man even wrote, “A rushee was blackballed because of suspected homosexuality. I was one of the three who blackballed him. Five years later I met this individual again at a bar, and we have been lovers for eight years now (and going strong)!”
While chapters seemed generally unwilling to pledge or initiate a student thought to be lesbian or gay, greater tolerance was demonstrated if the homosexual orientation of an initiate became known. About 40% of the respondents “came out” (i.e., revealed their sexual orientation) to at least one other member of their chapter while they were in college. Here there is a sharp generational difference. For example, of those who were graduated before 1980, only 12% “came out” to anyone in their chapter. There are also some regional differences reflected in the responses. Those from the southern region of the country were more reticent to “come out” and reported a higher incidence of negative responses than the other regions.
The responses of fellow members to the revelation that a member was lesbian, gay or bisexual varied widely, from immediate expulsion and physical threats at the one extreme to complete acceptance at the other. In most cases, however, the majority of the chapter had at least a somewhat supportive response, with only a few members responding with rejection. In those instances in which the lesbigay member had control over the circumstances, by voluntarily determining the time, manner and recipients of the disclosure, the response was much more likely to be supportive than in those instances in which the member’s sexual orientation was discovered by others.
There is a noteworthy dichotomy between chapters’ responses to prospective members or pre-initiates who are perceived to be lesbigay and their response to the revelation that an initiated member is lesbigay. With few exceptions, chapters are very reluctant to offer a invitation of membership to a rushee perceived to be lesbigay. On the other hand, while some initiated lesbigay members faced expulsion or ostracism after their sexual orientation became known, more frequently lesbigay members who “came out” did not face the rejection they had feared. This is comparable to the experiences of lesbigays who have “come out” to their families. Far more often than not, siblings strive to be understanding and supportive when they learn that a brother or sister is lesbian or gay, even when the sibling harbors homophobic attitudes and beliefs. It is not unusual for it to take a period of time for siblings to process this cognitive dissonance, but in the long run brotherhood and sisterhood tend to prevail over fear and prejudice.
Slowly, but surely the things are changing for the better in terms of tolerance and acceptance of lesbigays within the Greek community. One chapter president who was recently graduated from a large midwestern university, organized a “coming out” party for himself during his final term, to which the entire chapter was invited and most attended. Another chapter president who also recently graduated from a large midwestern university, reported that he was reelected as president for a second year shortly after “coming out” to the chapter.
Another respondent who was one of two openly gay members of his chapter, submitted a provocative essay detailing some of the dilemmas with which his chapter has had to confront. These included whether or not the gay members should be permitted to invite male dates to the fraternity’s date dances and whether the chapter should make a conscious effort to conceal from others (such as rushees, alumni and parents) the fact that the chapter had openly gay members.
Factors that respondents frequently indicated as detracting from their Greek experience were that social activities were geared for heterosexual couples, that they felt intimidated by homophobic attitudes and remarks, and that they felt it was difficult to get close to other members because they felt a need to hide a significant part of their lives. Nonetheless, about 85% reported that overall they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their Greek experience.
Although the statistical results of the survey are interesting, the most meaningful information can be found in the narratives that many included to elaborate on their responses. Let me share excerpts from two that I believe speak volumes about the gay Greek experience. The first is from a 1963 graduate of Brown University, who served as president of his chapter:
“In considering the questions asked, it occurs to me how very dramatically the world has changed in the 30+ years which separate me from my undergraduate experience.
“In my opinion, the fraternity system in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s merely reflected the predominant social values of the times, it did not create them. Homophobia was just another of the postwar social norms . . . My sexual repression was firmly in place way before I hit the ivy covered walls, and in a sense fraternity membership, not to mention achieving fraternity leadership, was elemental to the expression of this repression. It represented simply another layer of the cloak which was designed to hide my true identity.
“It took tremendous courage to be openly gay in this era. There was little public tolerance for deviant behavior, and certainly in university courses such as Sociology 201 (Nuts and Sluts), my recollection is that homosexuality ran a distant third behind alcoholism and nymphomania in emphasis and treatment.
“The environment didn’t do a whole lot for the self-esteem of your average emerging homosexual, and generations of psychotherapists have grown rich treating the multiple personality disorders which resulted. But fraternity membership was, on balance, a constructive force in my development. Being a member gave me a social identity. It provided a “community” in which to develop leadership and interpersonal skills . . .
“No, I haven’t found it appropriate to publish a newsletter announcing my true sexual orientation to these friends from the past, and as a divorced father of two (pretty neat) kids, I guess the supposition is that I’m straight — to the degree that anyone thinks about such things.
“I’m out to my kids, I’m out to my (current) friends, and even out to a few of the people I went to high school with . . . It has been an interesting journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, and an incredibly enriching one as well. My fraternity experience was simply a stop along the way.”
The second excerpt, is from the survey of a fraternity member was graduated thirty years later, in 1993, from the University of Wyoming. He “came out” to the chapter during rush and thus never had to hide his sexual orientation from his brothers:
“I have really enjoyed my experiences in my fraternity. I have managed to change quite a few of my brother’s ideas about gays. David [name changed], who was our vice president when I was initiated and is now our president, is a redneck from Nebraska. We have spent a lot of time together this semester. David and I drove to our regional convention this past spring and really got to know each other better. David recently admitted that he had quite a few reservations about my joining the fraternity. He said he used to think of gays as being “sub-human.” In high school, David and his friends actually went into Omaha one weekend to “beat up fags.” They didn’t find any gays to beat up, but he acknowledges that he was excited about the prospect. Now when I see David on campus, he comes up and gives me a hug (a fairly butch hug, but a hug nonetheless). We’ve discussed our romantic and sexual problems. We occasionally work out together and we take a shower at the gym afterwards.
“This semester, Robert [name changed], the homophobe [mentioned previously in his survey] rushed a friend who he knows from the College Republicans group. This friend also writes a column for the campus paper. In this column he has attacked gays three times in the past year. As the rush chairman, I have the ultimate say in whether or not we extend a bid to prospective members. I could have kept this guy from joining our fraternity. I expressed my concerns about him to a couple of men in the fraternity. As a result, the president, treasurer, and sergeant-at-arms visited the individual to explain that his homophobic beliefs could not enter into the fraternity. They explained to him that his ideas were his own, but that they had no business in the fraternity. This individual was initiated over a month ago, and I haven’t had a single problem with him. He actually goes out his way to come over and say hello when we see each other on campus.”
These two responses reflect our changing times. Lesbigay students have always been in fraternities and sororities, although their identity has almost always been hidden. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the newly prescribed modus operandi of the military has long been the norm in the Greek community when it comes to homosexuality and bisexuality. In today’s world, though, more lesbigay students on campus, including those in fraternities and sororities, feel compelled to no longer hide their true identities.
By acknowledging the existence of these hidden members and attempting to understand their experiences, Greek affairs professionals will be better equipped to assist fraternities and sororities in dealing with the challenges created when a traditionally heterosexist institution comes face-to-face with its non-heterosexual members.
Doug Case is the Coordinator of Residential Fraternity and Sorority Life at San Diego State University and served as President of Association of Fraternity Advisors in 1991. He is a member of Kappa Sigma and serves on the International Fraternity’s Scholarship Commission. Doug is active in several gay and lesbian organizations and is an honorary member of Delta Lambda Phi, a national fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men. For more information about his research, contact him at Housing and Residential Life Office, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, Mail Code 1802, San Diego, CA 92182-1802; (619) 594-2939; e-mail: [email protected]