By “Paul Maierle”
Western Michigan University,
CW: discussion of sexism
“I hope you’ll be happy here,” said my mother, tears streaming down her face.
My father, calm and collected as always, wiped the sweat off his brow and sighed ready for the 600-mile return trip back to the Upper Peninsula. Pondering I wondered if my father knew. Did my Mom tell him? Did he know that his son was gay? Of course she had; she must have. Always the cool-headed one, he acted no differently than he had the previous two years upon moving me into my dorm room. But my secret was out or at least my Mom knew.
“I’ll see you soon,” he said as he gave me a hug in the crowded parking lot outside of Zimmerman Hall at Western Michigan University. Having spent the last couple of hours moving into my dorm in the scorching August heat, I am sure he was looking forward to a ride in the air-conditioned suburban. I hugged my mother quickly and said goodbye. I was never very good at this sort of thing, and the inescapable awkwardness and tension in the air did not make it any easier.“They know,” I thought to myself in utter disbelief as the now empty truck pulled out of the parking lot and began the long journey up north. The trip had just begun, but they were already miles away.Walking up the steps to my room, I pulled my sweat-soaked t-shirt over my head and tossed it in the corner. I hastily opened the bottle of water that my mother must have left for me, took two swigs, and dumped the remaining contents over my head. My roommate, who I would be meeting for the first time, would not arrive for a few more hours. Staring out of the window down at the bustling courtyard below, I realized that I was finally alone, completely alone.
In my first two years of college I was never out in the sense that my sexuality was common knowledge to everyone. As one of my friends so eloquently put it, I was the best-kept secret in Upper Michigan. That was until my mother discovered that I was gay by finding a letter in my room I’d written while I was away at work for the summer. She did not bring it up until just days before I left to start school at Western Michigan, and despite her tears, church pamphlets, and pleas for me to turn away from this doomed lifestyle, I made it very clear that the topic was not open for discussion. Still she loved me.
I anxiously awaited the start of my first year in the “big city” of Kalamazoo. I was new to campus as a transfer student and I had high hopes for Western Michigan and Kalamazoo. Comparatively to my rural Upper Peninsula hometown of 700, Kalamazoo was quite large. Deep down I know that I was not quite ready to be completely open about being gay, but I hoped that things would be better on this campus. They had to be.
A stroke of luck, maybe, but I am not really sure what led me to the idea of joining a college fraternity. During the first week in September, I chose to go to the fraternity rush information night. Having made more enemies than friends as a music student at my previous university, I had decided to stay as far away from music school personalities in my new surroundings as possible. Fraternity men were the polar opposite of the band geek. A fraternity man was what I wanted to be.
All of the fraternities were represented in a crowded conference room at the student center. Each had a table piled high with informational brochures, chapter awards, and composite pictures.
“We have the best parties on campus,” a representative from Tau Kappa Epsilon boasted.
“We do socials with only the hottest sororities,” said a fraternity guy at the Sig Ep table.
“We win the most intramural championships of any house,” said a proud Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother, his huge pecs taut under the fabric of his black t-shirt. He was definitely the all-state linebacker type of guy.
Looking at the giant gleaming silver trophies that were on display, I could see my reflection. At 6 foot 3 inches, 170 pounds, I was definitely not an impressive build like this guy, but I was athletic and could definitely hold my own on the basketball court. Suddenly, I felt the need to sell myself as somebody that would appeal to a fraternity. Off I went to try to learn more, all the while keeping my sexuality a safe secret.
Rush week my phone rang off the hook with so many invites to fraternity events. I could scarcely keep all the Greek letters straight. Several evenings I spent at social events and parties around fraternity village and then finally wandered to a few chapters outside of fraternity village. The whole experience was overwhelming. What I thought fraternities had to offer was brotherhood; however, I was not having much success finding that perfect match.
Finally, one afternoon I found myself having a beer with a few of the guys on the front porch of the Alpha Tau Omega house. The fraternity was a mid-size chapter with about 35 members. Surprisingly, this was the only fraternity I had encountered where the brothers were not all carbon copies of one another; everybody had their own thing going on, and I liked that. On the Thursday night of rush I was brought to a candlelit room and was offered a bid to join Alpha Tau Omega. I signed on the spot.
My signature on the dotted line started my journey into fraternity life. However, joining a fraternity simultaneously brought a dead standstill to my process of self-acceptance and coming out for the next two years of my life, If I had known this ahead of time, I may have thought twice.
My pledge semester was an emotional rollercoaster. None of that had anything to do with the fact that I was gay. My secret was tightly concealed. Fraternity life was a very high-drama existence, with many triumphs and tragedies that occurred on almost a daily basis. Low points saw fights among brothers, almost losing our fraternity house because of financial problems, and the removal of one of my closest friends and pledge brothers on the eve of fraternity initiation. The ups and downs of the brotherhood kept me occupied for months. Never did I realize that I had been pushed farther into the closet than ever before.
Reality did not hit me until one night a few weeks after initiation when I found myself deleting my profile from an online dating site, fearing discovery by the brothers. ”So, this is it, I must keep my gay life secret,” I thought to myself. I would not be dating anybody. I would never set foot in any of the local gay bars. I would not be involved in the student gay & lesbian organization. Nothing gay would be allowed. Instead, I had joined a fraternity.
Constantly, I lived in fear that I would be found out. My secret would be shattered and I would lose my fraternity brotherhood, the first group of guys who had ever befriended me unconditionally. The way that some of the brother’s spoke about gay people further proved my point. Homophobic remarks and anti-gay jokes were always prevalent among the fraternity. The fear of discovery eventually drove me to counseling. The growing conflict over my sexuality ensured that I would forever be relying on the anti-depressants that had become a part of my life. My secret taunted me with fear and despair.
That fall I reluctantly moved into the fraternity house. The fraternity was in such a poor financial state that my decision to move in was not really an option. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to be sharing a room with Fidel, a.k.a. “The Big Mexican.” At the time, he was the fraternity president and the brother in the house with whom I was the closest. Still I had successfully managed to keep my secret among the brothers. Fidel did not know that I was gay and I was terrified to even think to tell him.
Sharing a room with Fidel quickly became an unhappy existence for me. Three years of my life I had spent an enormous amount of energy keeping my brothers and past roommates in the dark. The weight of my secret was a heavy burden. Not helping matters, Leslie, Fidel’s girlfriend, had in the past year grown to be one of my dearest friends. I did not have to tell Leslie that I was gay. She had figured that out on her own. But, I did make her swear to never tell Fidel. Carrying this secret between her boyfriend and myself was an awful position for her. The secret had to end.
After a fraternity chapter meeting one night, Fidel found me sitting in our room alone. The look on my face right away told Fidel something was wrong. He immediately closed the door and sat down across from me. The immense pressure I felt lying to those around me had wore me down. Part of me wished that Fidel had figured it out. I was not so lucky. Tears pouring down my face, I finally revealed my secret.
“Fidel,” I choked, “I’ve got something to tell you and I’m not sure how you’re going to react. I don’t want you to hate me, but I have to tell you this now or I won’t be able to continue in the fraternity.”
“Listen, Maierle,” Fidel said, a knowing expression breaking across his face, “Whatever you have to tell me, it’s not the end of the world. Whatever it is, I can handle it, and I will not think any less of you, I promise.”
My eyes fixated on the floor, I could barely look up at him. Fidel was studying to be a cop and he oozed masculinity, very much a guy’s guy. Pulling off his glasses, his brown eyes reflected my obvious pain. All bottled up inside the hurt had grown unmanageable and no longer could I keep my secret.
“Fidel,” I said, “I’m gay.” The words echoed slightly above a whisper.
Fidel’s expression was blank. Then, after a moment, he sat back in his chair and took a deep breath, a smile coming over his face. His response puzzled me.
“Thank God!” he said jovially.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, wiping away my tears.
“I thought you were going to tell me that you slept with Leslie.”
From that day forward, Fidel and I became even more closer as brothers. Surprisingly, coming out to a fraternity brother was not nearly as big a deal as I had expected. In fact, we joked often. There was not a day that went by that I did not remind him that his girlfriend was “a demon in the sack.” He even attempted to demonstrate the joy of “straight sex” once when I accidentally walked in on him and Leslie.
“Fidel,” I told him later that evening, traumatized, “If there was ever any doubt in my mind about whether I’m gay or not, there isn’t anymore. Seeing your naked Mexican ass went the last lingering threat of my heterosexuality.”
Thanks to Fidel I slowly began finding acceptance for being gay. His response made a huge difference. There was, however, awkwardness around the other brothers. Nevertheless, I decided I would start dating discreetly other men. That October I met Mike, my first serious boyfriend. We had met at a bar in Chicago where he lived and I got a kick out of the fact that he was a Sigma Nu, my fraternity’s historical rival fraternity. Mike even came to visit me at Kalamazoo. Not considering fully the consequences, I decided that he should stay over that night in my room at the fraternity house.
“Are you sure my car is going to be okay here for the night?” Mike asked as we climbed out of his brand new Acura in the back parking lot, looking as handsome as ever in his leather jacket.
“It’ll be fine,” I said, staring nervously up at the fraternity house in front of me. An unofficial party seemed to have broken out at the fraternity. Suddenly, I was terrified. The idea of escorting Mike, whom the brothers had never met, through the crowded house up to my bedroom and disappearing for the night was a daunting task.
“The fire escape,” I said, motioning toward the rickety, snow-covered staircase on the side of the house. Mike thought I was kidding at first as we managed slowly up the metal ladder and onto the staircase. We got up to my bedroom unnoticed.
“Come here,” Mike said, pulling me toward him once we were safely inside the dark bedroom. I began to kiss him passionately. Then I noticed that we were in front of the window, in plain view of the parking lot below.
“Shit!” I yelled, quickly pushing him away and collapsing on the couch. Maybe this was not a great idea after all.
“We’ll be fine,” Mike said, taking a seat next to me and firmly clasping my hand in his. “Let’s just go to bed.”
Mike and I had been up in my loft fooling around for about twenty minutes when suddenly there came a thunderous pounding on the door.
“Maierle! Get your ass out here!” a voice screamed.
Startled badly, I jumped up, nailed my head on the ceiling, and fell out of the loft onto the floor below. The couch barely broke my fall. I was panicked.
“Maierle!” the voice yelled again. “There’s a party going on and there are some girls that you have to meet! Wake up!”
I recognized the voice as Tom, one of the brothers who many referred to not-so-affectionately as “Big & Stupid.” Tom actually was a pretty big guy who worked as a bouncer. He never had a shortage of workout tips to give me. Nonetheless, his presence at this moment was not exactly welcome. Shaken, I sat on the floor in silence pretending not to be there. Eventually, Tom gave up and went away.
“Next time,” I whispered to Mike, still in the loft looking down at me with a mixture of concern and amusement, “You’re getting a hotel.”
We survived that night together in the fraternity house. If anything, the experience allowed both of us to share openly our feelings as fraternity men. We discussed the difficulty of coming out and the fears behind telling a fraternity brother. Mike and I really understood one another and shared a lot that night.
Little did I know, I was not the only Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brother with a secret. One Sunday evening in the early spring, the brothers were discussing possible themes for an upcoming sorority social function. That’s when the past history of the “Secret Tau” came out.
“A few years ago we did a casino night and had a blast,” Rick mentioned. “It’s not that hard to do. Steve Anderson was president then and he took charge of the whole thing. He even made up paper currency to use that had his face on it,” he snickered. “Of course, now the money is only good in ‘Boystown.’”
All the fraternity erupted in laughter while I looked at my fellow pledge brothers in confusion. How did they know about “Boystown” and who was this Steve Anderson? I wanted to know more.
After the meeting, I asked my pledge brother Adam. “What was with that whole Boystown thing that Rick said?”
“You never heard about that?” he asked. “The guy they were talking about, he used to be chapter president a few years ago. I guess he’s openly gay now and lives in the gay area of Chicago, ‘Boystown.’”
“Wow,” I said, hoping not to sound too intrigued and pretending that I had no clue about “Boystown.” Of course, that was a lie. Since I had turned 21 years old, I had spent every other weekend parading around “Boystown” like it was my job.
“I know,” said Adam. “The rumor is that while he was active he supposedly hooked up with one of the fellow Tau brothers in the house, but he was sworn to secrecy. Nobody ever knew who the other guy was. They’d always just referred to him as ‘Secret Tau.’”
Now, I had heard the “Secret Tau” reference before; however, I never understood what it meant actually. Instead, I just figured the phrase had to do with a secret fraternity ritual. Apparently the term had become a code for anybody in the fraternity who was under “homo suspicion.” The concept of “Secret Tau” scared the crap out of me, especially since the brothers seemed so desperate to know who was gay. They even created this special covert code phrase.
Living in the fraternity house became more than I could handle during the winter semester of my second year in the fraternity. That is when I got up the courage to email Steve Anderson. Finding another gay fraternity brother, I figured might help alleviate some of my fears coming out to the brothers. Steve and I had never met and only spoke via email now and then. Never did I expect our conversation to go past email.
During an evening before Christmas break, Steve was coming into town for the wedding of another fraternity alum brother. He decided to drop by unexpectedly into my room at the fraternity house after a night of heavy drinking at the bars. Being seen with Steve, the guy who was a well-known homosexual brother and notorious for the “Secret Tau” reference, instantly made me feel vulnerable. While I did not mind the emails, his presence was devastating to my fragile secret.
My door was open. To my dismay, he walked right in.
“What’s up?” he asked, nonchalantly.
“Nothing much,” I replied somewhat awkwardly. “I was just about to head off to bed, actually.” I stared hard into my computer screen, knowing that his eyes were fixated on me.
“Paul,” he said. “Look at me.”
Confused by his tone of voice and not really in the mood for a heart-to-heart, I turned around in my seat to face him.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying my best to keep my composure.
“You’re lying to yourself and everyone else. You don’t need to keep doing this.”
I kicked the door shut with my foot, hoping that nobody had seen Steve walk into my room and had interpreted the “wrong” idea.
“I’m doing fine, Steve,” I said, lowering my voice. “I just don’t think that my sexuality is everyone’s business. You of all people should know how hard this can be.”
Becoming more agitated with each passing second, I struggled to stay cool.
He laughed drunkenly. “Everybody knows that you’re gay, Paul, you haven’t done a very good job keeping it a secret.”
I didn’t know what to say. Flabbergasted. I sat there speechless.
“I’ve only told Fidel,” I finally stammered. “Other people might suspect, but I’ve only told him, and I know that I can trust him.”
Rising from my chair at my desk, I began pacing the room. I opened a window in a vain attempt to rid my room of the bar smell that Steve had dragged in. Upset and angry that he had felt comfortable parading into my room, the fact it was below zero degrees Fahrenheit never occurred to me.
“Paul, I’m going to be honest with you,” he said. “The minute I got that first email from you I picked up the phone and called a few other brothers. It did not take the brothers long to figure out who you were. I talked about you being gay with a lot of the guys, and it’s not a big deal to them. You have nothing to worry about.”
I almost fell backward in disbelief. Anger and rage boiled inside.
“So what you’re saying is that you told everyone about me, after I trusted you, after you promised that you wouldn’t say anything,” I hissed.
For the first time the smirk dropped from his face.
“Well don’t look at it like that,” he said. “I did you a favor by telling everyone.”
He walked toward me.
“Listen, Paul, I know where you’re coming from. I’ve gone through this before. Sure, there were some hard times, but I got through this and you can too. But why haven’t you emailed or talked to me lately? I know you’re in Chicago every other weekend, so why haven’t you called?”
Steve slowly approached me and put a hand on my shoulder. I squirmed in discomfort. There was a hint of sexual innuendo in his voice that made me sick to my stomach. I glared at him, remembering how extensively Steve had complimented the picture I had sent him online a few weeks earlier. I slowly began to realize the real motivation behind this late night visit.
Immediately, I threw Steve out of my room, but not before listening to him scream about how I was a terrible brother who was not worthy to wear the letters. He said that he would do everything in his power to see that I was removed from the fraternity. As my bedroom door slammed shut, I never saw or heard from him again.
Being supposedly “outed” by Steve did not seem as dramatic, or as far reaching as he seemed to indicate. I never had any idea as to what brothers knew about my sexuality or who was talking about me. Paranoia could have easily been my bedfellow. Instead, I did the best thing that I could have done for myself—absolutely nothing.
Now more than ever I felt I should relax, be myself, and not change anything about the way I acted around the brothers. While I may have lied about my sexuality, I was still the same person as I was before.
Most of the brothers, I figured at some point heard the news that I was gay. I guess I could have chose to come out to all of them and take the risk sharing my secret openly. But the timing seemed all wrong. Morale continually dipped lower and lower. The fraternity’s financial problems were getting worse and recruitment was more difficult with each passing semester. The last thing I wanted to be was the “scapegoat” as the “Secret Tau” who brought the fraternity down. I could no longer justify putting the time, money, and energy into being active in the fraternity. Never disclosing my secret, I decided to seek early fraternity alumni status and take the easy way out.
Nearly ending my third year at Western Michigan, my life has been reduced to an episode of “Will & Grace.” I live in an apartment with one female roommate, as quiet, clean, and low-drama as it can be. Somehow such a lifestyle does not compare to the filth, drama, and madness of the fraternity house. And just like the lead gay character “Will,” my relationship with my boyfriend ended after one short rated PG episode. My social life could not be more mundane, dwindling to almost nothing. Weekends have become watching “Dateline” on Friday night and “Court TV” on Saturday nights. And here I was at 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, ready for bed, after “South Park.”
“Are you going out with us tonight?” my roommate asked as she walked into the living room, modeling her bar outfit.
“Tonight?” I laughed, “It’s Wednesday. I have to be up for class at 6:30 AM tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. “I just thought that you might go out for Drew’s 21st birthday tonight. Everyone’s going to be there, all of the brothers. You haven’t seen them in awhile, you should go.”
Drew along with Fidel and a few others had been very close and supportive of me. I had missed many of the brothers. She was right and she knew I missed them too. It would be fun to see some of the brothers again.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, trailing off in a yawn.
So this is what I had become. I was 22 years old and an old man before my time. I had moved 600 miles from home for an opportunity to make the most out of my college years, and here I was ready to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m., appalled at my roommate for having the nerve to suggest that I go out on a Wednesday night.
“Well,” I said, “I’m really tired, but I want to wish Drew a happy birthday so maybe I’ll just head over and say hi before they all go out at midnight. Maybe I’ll go out with you guys this weekend or something.”
I jumped in my car and drove to the fraternity house on the other side of campus. It was only my third trip to the fraternity house since I had moved out. I felt uneasy as always. Opening the front door, I was greeted by strangers, most likely newer fraternity members. The brothers that remembered me nodded in recognition while others just looked at me, puzzled. I greeted Drew and wished him a happy birthday. He was glad to see me and appreciated my coming over.
When I arrived, all of the new pledges and the brothers including Drew were heading down to campus to paint the rocks, a longstanding Western Michigan fraternity tradition. I said that I would follow along and take my video camera. I arrived at the rocks and sheepishly took some video. I tried my best to remember names of the younger, newer brothers, only coming up with a few.
“It’s good to see you, Maierle. Where have you been all year?” one of the newer brothers asked me. I was embarrassed not to remember his name.
“You know how it goes,” I shrugged, “I just needed a break from everything to clear my head and do my own thing for awhile.” He appeared to know what I was talking about.
“I hear you,” he replied. Another pledge tossed him a football from the far side of the rocks, barely visible in the orange glow of the streetlights. A group of sorority girls who had also come to paint the rocks giggled and snapped pictures of each other.
“How is Mark doing?” I asked, referring to the newly elected president who I barely knew.
“He’s doing great. You know about the new house, right?”
“New house?” I asked. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. I guess I’m even more out of the loop than I’d thought.”
“It’s right in the middle of fraternity village,” he said. “Everyone is really excited—it’ll be a new start for everyone. Rush is gonna be big next year, we just know it.”
A new start, those words rung a familiar bell from when I first set foot on campus. All I wanted as a transfer student was to start over and be myself. My Mom had recently discovered my secret and just like what had happened with my fraternity brothers I was unsure if my Dad had any clue. Too afraid to come out, I kept my secret and the cycle of invisibility began all over again. A new start would be refreshing. I pondered a second chance with the fraternity.
The housing corporation had finally made good on it’s promise and the fraternity was moving to a newly acquired fraternity house. Right away, I was taken aback by the passion that the new brothers exhibited toward the fraternity. Despite all of the problems, they were still dedicated to making things better. There was a time not too long ago, when I had felt the same way.
“So how are you guys doing as far as filling up the new house next year?” I asked.
“It doesn’t look good, We need a couple more guys to live in next year just to break even with rent,” one of the other new members said, tossing the football back over toward the rocks and looking up at me.
“Why, are you looking at coming back? That would kick ass if you did, it’s going to be a great time,” he said.
I thought in silence for a couple of seconds. I owed this to myself. To destroy the myth of the “Secret Tau,” I owed it to the fraternity to be myself, to shatter stereotypes and to reveal my secret.
“Yeah,” I finally replied, a smile breaking over my face. “I guess I am.”