Emergence of LGBTQ Issues

By Douglas N. Case and Shane L. Windmeyerteam-flag-pride-gay

Less then 24 hours ago these guys were fighting over me with Delta Tau Delta. Now they pretended not to know my name. Could this be because the brothers thought I was gay? Afraid of the answer, I didn’t ask any questions. I did not want to hear the truth… Things were better being openly gay in high school. Why not college?… Finally someone said what I had expected all along. It was like hearing nails on a chalkboard. As I was talking with a group of guys at a party one night, one of the guys said, ‘I can’t believe Sigma Chi didn’t give you a bid because you’re gay.’ Never did I want to face the ugly truth for what it was… But it was obvious: Gay and Greek don’t mix. 1

This excerpt from the story “Change Takes Time” in the new book Brotherhood: Gay Life in College Fraternities shares the journey of one college student, Travis Shumake, who “rushed” openly gay. Travis was a young man who wanted to join a fraternity even before he arrived on campus. His father was a Sigma Chi and as a legacy Travis had inquired from day one to partake in recruitment activities at Northern Arizona University. Like many men and women today who came out in high school, the prospects of joining a fraternity and sorority already “out” can be a mixed bag of emotions.

Travis tries three times to join a fraternity before the men in the chapter are finally able to come to terms and cope with his homosexuality. On his third attempt to join a fraternity, he actually returns to Sigma Chi, despite his obvious fears, to give them a second chance. Similar to others in the book, his story illustrates the turmoil and the extreme discomfort associated with accepting a brother or sister who is already known to be gay or lesbian.

Eighteen months later, I wholeheartedly signed the bid to join Sigma Chi… I was treated like every other pledge. No exceptions, no special treatment, and no more mention of the past. The legacy lived on, and I was prouder than ever to be a Sigma Chi. I have some pretty deep battle wounds from my first two years in fraternity life. I have rushed three times with two different fraternities. I have had two groups of great pledge brothers who I know are different now because of me. I have had two big brothers who have changed my outlook on life. Through it all I followed my heart and knew where I belonged, but it took time for fraternity guys to get used to homosexuality. 2

Travis’ words as well as the title of his story “Change Takes Time” is a steadfast reminder and a dire call to action for fraternity/sorority professionals. Students are coming out at much earlier ages. Many gay students are already “out” when they arrive on campus, and most non-gay students know someone who is gay. Together in fraternity/sorority life, we must continually educate and discuss openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) issues in order to have a greater impact on destroying stereotypes and fears. Only then can we have the development of an inclusive, valued meaning of brotherhood/sisterhood.

Stories in the book Brotherhood highlight the remarkable progress we have made over the last decade but also delve deeper into the emerging issues and trends that still plague the mission of fraternities and sororities. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview that highlights the progress and acknowledges the work still to be done onLGBTQ issues as practitioners in the fraternity/sorority field.

For many of us, the journey of fraternity and sorority life is a personal one – a lifetime commitment to the ideals of brotherhood/sisterhood. For both of us, the same personal conviction is true. However, because of our personal journey “coming out” in our life – one as a professional in the fraternity/sorority field and the other as an active undergraduate fraternity brother – we have also dedicated our professional career toward educational efforts to ensure that these ideals of brotherhood/sisterhood can hold value for all our members – including LGBTQ brothers/sisters.

The journey began in 1990 when President-Elect of AFA, Douglas Case, on behalf of the AFA Executive Board, proposed passing the “Resolution on Heterosexism” that called on AFA members “to implement sexual orientation awareness, education, and sensitivity programs for the Greek community.” The resolution was met with controversy; however, it passed favorably. As a result, the statement’s declaration laid the preliminary foundation toward greater dialogue of sexual orientation issues within fraternity/sorority life.

Shortly thereafter in 1995, Shane L. Windmeyer and Pamela W. Freeman founded the Lambda 10 Project, a national online clearinghouse for LGBTQ fraternity/sorority issues, at Indiana University. The clearinghouse was created to heighten visibility of LGBTQ issues and to develop educational resources within fraternity/sorority life. The Lambda 10 Project became an associate member of AFA and since the beginning has been in the national forefront of promoting a greater understanding of LGBTQ issues within the fraternity and sorority community. The project developed and maintains a comprehensive Web site with valuable resources (including an impressive “Who’s Out” list of fraternity and sorority members), publishes training manuals and other materials, conducts training sessions for professionals who work with fraternities and sororities and presents innovative educational programs for campuses and fraternal organizations. At the AFA Annual Meeting, the Lambda 10 Project enhanced visibility efforts of sexual orientation issues by hosting an annual welcome reception for LGBTQ and ally professionals. The reception had originally been a small, private gathering; however, since that time, the Lambda 10 Project has developed the event into a well-attended kick off to the conference. The key to the Lambda 10 Project’s success, then and now, has always been developing allies and bringing LGBTQ issues out of the closet in every aspect of fraternity and sorority life.

The ball of progress was indeed rolling; bumping into large divots along the way, but always maintaining forward momentum. To further forge ahead, Douglas Case published in 1996 a national research assessment on gay, lesbian and bisexual fraternity sorority members titled “A Glimpse of the Invisible Membership” in AFAPerspectives. The study gave irrefutable evidence that gay men, lesbians and bisexuals have always been a part of fraternities and sororities, but prior to the 1980s all but a tiny few kept their sexual orientation a well-kept secret from their straight brothers and sisters. The study found that only 12% of gay, lesbian or bisexual fraternity/sorority members who graduated before 1980 ever “came out” as an undergraduate to even a single fellow chapter member. This increased to 39% for those who graduated after 1980. It is predictable that the percentage of today’s students who “come out” as undergraduates to fellow chapter members is significantly higher.3

In addition, the Lambda 10 Project under the leadership of Shane L. Windmeyer, reached a far greater audience by publishing the first-ever book on the topic of sexual orientation and fraternity life. In 1998, Out on Fraternity Row: Personal Accounts of Being Gay in a College Fraternity quickly topped the gay best-seller list with thousands of copies sold. The book, along with its companion anthology published in 2001 titled Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian and Bisexual in a College Sorority, educated and inspired countless men and women to realize that it is indeed possible to be an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual fraternity/sorority member.

The closet door had finally been broken wide open – off the hinges in every sense of the word. No longer could a fraternity or sorority deny that they indeed have gay, lesbian or bisexual brothers and sisters. The inter/national fraternity and sorority community was beginning to take notice as to the visibility of its gay, lesbian and bisexual members. These fraternity and sorority members were leading the way, coming out in larger numbers than ever before.

While as early as 1992, a couple inter/national fraternities added “sexual orientation” to nondiscrimination clauses, the vast majority of such known actions did not occur until after 1998. Even so, these landmark efforts to be inclusive of “sexual orientation” were led and supported, not surprisingly, by the undergraduate men and women of the fraternal organizations. Today there about twenty known inter/national fraternities and sororities that have either the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in non-discrimination clauses or as a core tenet to their statements of value. Each of these are listed in the “Out in Front” section of the Lambda 10 Project Web site (www.lamdbda10.org).

Ironically, Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, which in 2004 enacted a policy prohibiting discrimination in membership on the basis of sexual orientation, was actually instructing members two decades earlier on procedures to legally expel gay members for “status offenses”! A legal issues article in the fraternity’s magazine in 1985 stated: “[T]here are constitutionally valid criminal statutes punishing theft; possession, distribution or manufacture of illegal drugs or related paraphernalia; and the commission of homosexual acts, even between consenting adults. In the Fraternity, a chapter may not lawfully punish a member for the ‘status’ of being a thief, a drug addict, or a homosexual. Nevertheless, the commission of the related criminal acts, on fraternity premises or at any function connected with the Fraternity, is a basis for a lawful penalty, up to and including expulsion.”4 Without a doubt, the tide of acceptance had been shifted dramatically since 1985.

Together the fraternity and sorority world was indeed making positive progress toward greater awareness and visibility. Over a decade, such initiatives sparked a national firestorm of newspaper and magazine articles that highlighted the negative and positive experiences of LGBTQ fraternity and sorority members. Feature articles appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone,TIME, The Advocate, Out and numerous college and university student newspapers and local LGBTQ publications. During this time, more and more educational programs were offered at the AFA Annual Meeting on the subject of LGBTQ issues and fraternity/sorority life. There was also a dramatic shift toward fraternity/sorority professionals “coming out” publicly in the field of higher education and student affairs. Even staff and board members of inter/national fraternities and sororities were making the decision to “come out” within their inter/national organizations. The growing visibility of LGBTQ issues within fraternity and sorority life was dampening the fog of fear that had kept individuals closeted for many years.

Over the past generation, society at-large has also witnessed a sea change in public awareness and attitudes on LGBTQ issues. Fraternities and sororities generally tend to be conservative institutions, and as such tend to follow rather than lead societal change. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that some inter/national fraternities eliminated racial and religious restrictions from their membership qualifications.5 It was only a couple of years ago that the pledging of the first African-American woman by a traditional sorority at the University of Alabama received widespread attention.6

Acceptance of LGBTQ members is particularly challenging for single-sex institutions, including fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, military units and youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has been codified into federal military regulations has long been an unwritten rule for many single-sex groups. Only in recent years have members of such organizations been willing to challenge those expectations.

As student affairs administrators, we need to understand that students are coming out at earlier ages. For example, studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s found that the average age that gay males self-identified as gay was 19 to 23 years old. Recent studies indicate that the average age of self-identification has dropped to 14 to 16 years old.7 In other words; many students are “coming out” in high school instead of in college. These students are unwilling to accept expectations that compel them to keep their sexual orientation secret.

Today’s students have grown up watching television shows such as “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Real World” with openly LGBTQ characters. Many of their high schools had Gay/Straight Alliances or similar organizations, and many were taught by openly LGBTQ teachers. Three decades ago, there was public debate as to whether LGBTQ teachers should be fired. Today the public debate is whether or not same-sex couples are should be allowed to get married, and polls show that college students are far more likely than their parents or grandparents to support marriage equality.8

With such change as a backdrop, professional and volunteer advisors who work with fraternities and sororities today are dealing with a completely different set of issues than only a few years ago. Let’s take a look at some of the emerging issues and trends we face today:

  • Is it acceptable for chapters to enforce expectations that limit LGBTQ member’s ability to be open? Probably not. It is, however, fairly common for chapters to informally impose restrictions against such things as bringing a same-sex date to chapter functions, sleeping overnight with same-sex dates in the chapter house, or displaying same-sex posters or calendars in chapter house bedrooms (especially during recruitment). Sometimes LGBTQ members are discouraged from being visibly “out” on campus by being involved in LGBTQ organizations and programs. In some cases, such unofficial rules may violate policies that require that all members be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation.
  • Is it acceptable for chapter members to date and/or engage in sexual relations with each other? This has become an issue of strong debate. Some believe that such relationships are tantamount to being incestuous and have the potential to undermine the chapter’s brotherhood/sisterhood. Others believe that members have a right to engage in legal, consensual and responsible relationships with fellow chapter members. Regardless of how this particular debate is resolved, it may be prudent for organizations to articulate policies that prevent opportunities for sexual harassment by prohibiting sexual relations between initiates and pre-initiates or between advisors or staff members and undergraduate chapter members.
  • How does having LGBTQ members affect a chapter’s image and status on campus? It has sometimes been the case that if a chapter is known, or even rumored, to have gay or lesbian members, that the chapter has been labeled by other chapters as the “gay fraternity” or “lesbian sorority.” A strongly competitive recruitment environment helps fuel such stigmatization. Advisors need to assist communities in creating an appreciation of diversity that views acceptance of LGBTQ members as an affirmation of brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • How do fraternities and sororities with a LGBTQ focus fit into the campus fraternity/sorority community? Should they be part of the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association or Multicultural Greek Council? Advisors need to become familiar with the needs of such organizations and incorporate in meaningful ways their presence into the community.
  • What constitutes membership discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? Increasingly colleges and universities are adopting policies that prohibit recognized student organizations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. A few also prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Unlike other campus organizations that tend to have membership open to all who qualify, fraternities and sororities are selective in deciding who they wish to invite to become brothers/sisters. Is it a violation of nondiscrimination policies if chapter members rate a member lower in their personal selection rankings because that they feel that a male student doesn’t fit in because he is too effeminate or that a female student is too “butch”? A related legal issue already brewing on some campuses is whether religious-based fraternities and sororities have a First Amendment right to select only members who conform to a religious belief that homosexuality is a forbidden sin.
  • How are culturally-based fraternities and sororities dealing with sexual orientation issues? There are significant cultural barriers that make it more difficult for Latino/a, African-American and students with other cultural backgrounds to “come out.” Educational programs and outreach need to be culturally sensitive in order to be effective for these organizations.
  • How do same-sex membership policies affect transgender members and prospective members? Although sexual orientation and gender identity are separate characteristics, both involve the understanding of gender roles. Transgender people are also becoming more visible and are also “coming out” at earlier ages. If an initiated member undergoes sexual reassignment surgery, is that person’s membership status affected? Are pre-operative transgender students eligible for membership? Delta Lambda Phi, the national social fraternity for “gay, bisexual and progressive men,” recently dealt with these issues, and other organizations will surely have to examine their policies in the future.
So where do we go from here?

As elaborated upon in the conclusion, intervention and resources sections of Brotherhood, we suggest that there are several directions that should be embarked upon by institutions of higher education and inter/national fraternities and sororities and professional associations such as AFA.

At the campus level, in addition to continued educational programming on sexual orientation and other diversity issues, fraternity/sorority professionals should be developing programs to create a more supportive climate for LGBTQ members in their campus community. Some programs to consider include the establishment of a peer support network for LGBTQ and questioning fraternity/sorority members (see the related article in this issue by Grahaeme Hesp on the PILLAR program model), creation of a “Safe Zone” program either specifically for the fraternity/sorority community or incorporating the community into an established campus-wide program, and creating ally programs within the fraternity/sorority community similar to the Gay/Straight Alliances that have been established recently in high schools.

There is much work to be done by the inter/national organizations. Lambda 10 has been able to identify only about twenty inter/national fraternities and sororities with membership policies that specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Another effort that should be undertaken by inter/national organizations is inclusion of sexual orientation issues in articles in their publications. Sigma Chi Fraternity led the way in this regard with their special diversity issue of The Magazine of Sigma Chi in winter 2003-2004 which prominently contained two full-page essays by openly gay Sigma Chis. In addition, inter/national organizations should also include educational sessions on LGBTQ issues at leadership conferences, disseminate guidelines to assist chapters in supporting LGBTQ members who “come out” and offer training on sexual orientation issues to staff and volunteers.

There is also a tremendous need for further research on these issues. Early in 2005, the Lambda 10 Project (www.lambda10.org) will be launching an online Web-based survey that will expand upon the initial research conducted by Douglas Case. There is also a need for research on attitudes of heterosexual members of fraternities and sororities to enable campus professionals and inter/national organizations to implement effective interventions and programs to create more accepting fraternal environments.

As an association and as professionals in the field of fraternity and sorority life, we have made tremendous progress; however, immense challenges still remain if we are to create inclusive, valued meanings of brotherhood/sisterhood for all members. The emerging issues and trends highlighted in this article and expounded upon in the book Brotherhood give us an action plan for necessary education over the next decade.

Not every man or woman who chooses to join a fraternity/sorority is as fortunate as Travis Shumake, who finally was accepted after the third time “rushing” openly gay. On the contrary, one young man mentioned in the book Brotherhood is forcibly asked to take off his pledge jersey and leave a fraternity function after he is “outed.” The justification was that a gay brother would “ruin” the fraternity. As stated by the Rush Chair: “The principle is one of sacrifice—the few, for the good of the many.”9 Not only is such a case abhorrently wrong but also a LGBTQ person should not be expected to try to join three times until the fraternity/sorority comes to terms with their own ignorance, stereotypes and/or prejudice.

Ultimately, the choice to accept a brother or sister who is gay lies in the hands of the undergraduate members of the fraternity/sorority. These men and women rely on staff and volunteer professionals to create the necessary visibility and awareness to better understand and support someone LGBTQ, whether they are a prospective member or an active member of the fraternity/sorority.

A picture does say a thousands words. Last year in 2004, The Advocate, the national gay & lesbian newsmagazine, published an article titled “Rushing to Come Out.” The feature detailed, among others, the story of Travis Shumake “rushing openly gay” along with a prominently displayed photograph. In the forefront of the photo, Travis Shumake smiles proudly wearing his Sigma Chi fraternity T-shirt. Behind him are a dozen of his Sigma Chi brothers looking on with support of their gay brother.10 Ten to fifteen years ago such a photo would never have been possible in a LGBTQ or any mainstream publication. Click here for PDF copy of the feature article.

Travis and his Sigma Chi brothers represent the vision for the future; what we hope for, strive for – a brotherhood/sisterhood inclusive of LGBTQ members. Just like in the picture, LGBTQ individuals cannot stand alone. We need our fraternity/sorority brothers/sisters willing to stand with us as straight allies. Working together, we can help fraternities and sororities fulfill their stated mission of brotherhood/sisterhood.


1 Windmeyer, Shane L. (2005). Brotherhood: Gay life in college fraternities. Los Angeles: Alyson Books. 67.

2 Windmeyer, Shane L. 70-71.

3 Case, Douglas N. (1996). A glimpse of the invisible membership: A national survey of lesbigay Greek members. Perspectives, XXIII (3).

4 Peabody, Bradford C. (1985). Legal pitfalls.Cross & Crescent. Indianapolis: Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, 7.

5 Johnson, Clyde S. (1972). “Membership Restrictions: Their Rise and Fall, Fraternities In Our Colleges. New York: National Interfraternity Foundation. 206-224.

6 Spencer, Thomas (2003, August 19). “White sorority at UA accepts first black,” The Birmingham News.

7 Caitlin Ryan (2003). LGBT youth: Health concerns, services and care. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 20(2): 137-158.

8 Associated Press (2004, March 22). Most U.S. youth unfazed by same-sex marriage. Retrieved January 20, 2005 from: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4580991.

9 Windmeyer, Shane L. 55.

10 Vary, Adam E. (2004, October 12) “Rushing to Come Out,” The Advocate. 47-50.

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