The Secret Gay History of an American Fraternity

By Matt Conner, Republished with Permission

CW: strong sexual content, death/homicide, suicide, self-harm/self-injury, violence, bias/hate crime, homophobic slurs

“I’ve heard it said that if you can remember the 1960s, you didn’t really experience them.” I don’t remember the 1960s, but that’s only because they were half over by the time I was born, and completely done by the time I entered kindergarten.

But my 1960s, my period of youth and freedom and love (and beer and pot) were the mid-1980s, when I was a student at Lock Haven University, a small liberal arts college in Central Pennsylvania. For me, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania from 1983 through 1987 was Paris in the 1920s, Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s, Woodstock in ’69 and Studio 54 in the seventies. Those were my years of self-discovery and experimentation and creativity and deep, abiding friendships (and beer and pot).

And, surprisingly enough, I actually do remember a lot about those years, despite all those beer parties and stoner nights. I remember how the sun reflected blindingly on the Susquehanna River on bright spring days. I remember how young college boys looked when they doffed their t-shirts and tossed Frisbees back and forth on the grassy lawns behind the dorms. I remember the way cold slush seeped into my sneakers on rainy winter days as I tramped my way to classes every morning, and the taste of menthol cigarettes and bad coffee at Bentley cafeteria. And peanut butter pie on long cookie sheets and hamburgers with molten cheese ladled on top by the ancient cafeteria workers. And mashed potatoes scooped out of huge stainless steel bins with ice cream scoops and dropped onto waffles and overlaid with chicken gravy.

I remember suppressing the erotic thrill of drawing back the shower curtain in the men’s communal bathroom and seeing endless rows of nude athletes toweling themselves off and standing in front of mirrors with shaving cream on their faces. I remember walking down West Water Street in town, the nicest street in Lock Haven, where millionaire lumber barons built their enormous homes in the 19th Century, and dreaming that someday I might own one of those places myself, if I was successful enough.

I remember staying up till 3 a.m. in the student lounge, watching old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies on the Late Late Show, and of sneaking cases of Old Milwaukee into the dorms in my backpack, and using a bent wire coat hanger to steal cigarettes from the vending machine in the lobby late at night when the front desk receptionist was off duty. Because who had the buck-fifty to actually buy cigarettes then?

I remember my first sexual experience, an unsatisfying little romp I had with an upper classman in his apartment near the center of town, and looking out his window in the morning and seeing the huge obelisk of a monument to Civil War soldiers at the intersection of Bellefonte Ave. and Church Street, and thinking it looked like a big phallus with a hunky soldier perched at the top. And then thinking I was projecting my own Freudian thoughts on an otherwise noble piece of statuary, and was that really so surprising given the night I had just had?

I remember the gamy smell of crowded elevators at the end of a day of classes, and professors who wore corduroy sportcoats with faded blue jeans and scratchy looking turtlenecks and old sneakers with black socks and hearing stories that some of these old guys had affairs with their female students and smoked dope in the upper floors of the fraternities for which they served as advisors.

I remember staggering home from parties with friends, and stopping at Luigis sub shop, and ordering deep fried cheese strombolis and french fries with cheese sauce and thinking this was maybe the best tasting stuff in the whole world, and how on earth did I manage not to gain weight from all that cheese? And Fred Leone, the guy who owned the sub shop, doing bird calls and telling dirty jokes and never taking advantage of the college kids, even though half the time they were too drunk to know how much they were paying him.

But mostly what I remember was unalloyed joy nearly every single day. I hadn’t experienced great loss or disappointment yet, and so there was a purity to my happiness that was unsullied by the bad things that inevitably temper one’s outlook. Could I ever in my life be happier than I was at dingy fraternity parties, surrounded by sweaty heaving masses of young humanity, our shoes black from muddy basement water mixed with spilled beer, our brains fogged by cheap alcohol and marijuana grown in closets with sunlamps, our ears ringing from impossibly loud (and mostly really bad) 1980s music?

This is not a gay coming of age story. Though that story might be interesting, it’s already been told before, and by better writers than I am. No, this is a story about things I saw and heard and experienced, but it doesn’t end with me stepping bravely forward and proudly declaring my homosexuality to the world and finding my place in it. All that would happen mind you. Just much later. For now I was content to be surrounded by friends who made me laugh endlessly and with whom I connected on an emotional level and who truly loved and supported me, and I them, and do still.

Some of these friends did turn out to be gay, though I had no idea at the time, as they, I think, had scarcely any idea about me.

Years later I would run into an old fraternity brother in New York, for instance – let’s say his name is Jason – who would tell me an outlandish story about his brief affair with another fraternity brother that literally had me stopped short on the sidewalk with my mouth hanging open like the village idiot. Here’s the tale, edited slightly for length: After a night of partying in a community that neighbored Lock Haven, Jason was one of several passengers in a car being driven back to campus. The car was literally jammed tight with young college men, and Jason’s body was pressed up against that of the driver of the car – let’s call the driver Anthony – for the duration of the trip.

Not far from town, Jason felt Anthony’s hand stray toward his inner thigh. Jason didn’t mind, so he left Anthony’s hand alone. Anthony’s hand strayed upward until he was aggressively feeling up Jason for the last few minutes of the trip, all under the heedless noses of the other six or seven guys jammed in the front and back seats of the car.

When they arrived in town, Anthony invited Jason to his dorm room, where they engaged in a hotly intense sexual encounter that, at it’s conclusion, had Anthony face down on his bed and Jason hammering away with great abandon. All this took place to such great loud, vocal enjoyment by all that Jason was afraid they would disturb Anthony’s neighbors.

What surprised me most about this story was that I knew both of these men so well when I was in school and hadn’t the slightest notion at the time that either had even a passing interest in men. Jason was slightly older than I, and I confess to feeling a bit of hero worship toward him during my college days. Anthony was broad-shouldered and slim-wasted, and I had gotten stoned with him on numerous occasions. He has now been happily married (to a woman) for over fifteen years.

After their first wild encounter, Anthony invited Jason to his room one more time, where he greeted Jason at his door, in the nude, for what was essentially a repeat performance of the earlier episode. Afterward, my broad-shouldered stoner friend casually told Jason that “What we did was okay, because I heard you have to do it three times with a guy to make you gay.”

Call me hopelessly naïve, but I had no idea such things went on during my college years, or I might have taken greater advantage of the opportunities available to me.

I mean, I was aware that sex was going on all around me, but I was certain it was largely of the hetero variety, despite all those rumors about the women’s hockey and rugby teams being a haven for dykes.

Funny, in the early 1990s, the town installed a dike-levee flood protection barrier along the bank of the Susquehanna, which blocks one’s view of the river from the street. I remember seeing it for the first time and being outraged that my beloved view of the Susquehanna had now been permanently blocked.

“I hate that goddamn dike!” I shouted.

Six enormous women in rugby uniforms spun on their heels and glared at me.

Still, central Pennsylvania in the pre-Will & Grace era was a very conservative place in which to live. I coped by living a largely celibate life and having a mad, passionate affair with my right hand (ably assisted by a tube of KY jelly and the 1983 summer swimsuit edition of GQ magazine with photos by Bruce Weber).

Because so much of my social interaction happened within the boundaries of fraternity life after my first semester at LHU, that is where many of my tales of booze and sex are centered. If I had joined the University Players or the Junior Republicans, my experience might have been far different.

In the fraternity in which I belonged, a small subset of friends began referring to the annual fall visitation of alumni as “Homocoming Weekend.” This was because every couple of years one of the returning fraternity alumni would come out of the closet, usually by taking a series of long walks with their old chums and breaking the news that (gasp!) he was homosexual.

By the time I graduated in 1987, I had been through a few Homocoming Weekends and taken the long walk with several of my older fraternity brothers, who would awkwardly confess to being gay. I wish I could say I always handled these experiences well. I didn’t. I was too uptight about my own sexuality and this sort of thing hit entirely too close to home (homo?) for me. Sometimes I would get drunk and belligerent, only to wake up the next morning extremely embarrassed and apologetic in my hung over state.

When I returned to Lock Haven for a Homecoming visit the year after I graduated, in 1988, I was still deeply closeted and uncomfortable in the presence of those who were queenie or flamboyant. Those individuals, I believed, were in such close touch with their own sexuality that they inevitably had greater powers of observation than my straight friends did. While I believed I could camouflage my sexuality with the heteros, I was sure the superqueens could see right through me. And, oddly enough, I was usually correct in that assumption.

That Homecoming weekend of 1988 I met a young man named Mike Houseknecht. He had been hanging around the fraternity for several months by then, and had made fast friends with a few of the guys. He was very effeminate, but he was a very nice guy and we chatted for a while about college life and all that. But he left no doubt that he was totally gay, and it made me uncomfortable when he looked into my eyes with that perceptive vision of his.

He was small-framed and blonde, with one of those floppy 1980s haircuts that were so popular at the time. I have a videotape that I made from that weekend visit to the fraternity house, and Mike can be seen in several frames, dancing happily in his acid-washed jeans and brightly-colored sweater and smiling for the camera.

The following year I again returned to LHU for Homecoming weekend. By now Mike was a semi-regular presence at the house, though I don’t remember seeing him at the Friday night party that year. What I do remember was being pulled aside by the then-fraternity president, who said he wanted to talk with me privately.

In a rather intoxicated and emotional state, the president informed me that Mike Houseknecht was interested in joining the fraternity, and that the president believed he should get a “bid,” or a written invitation to “pledge” the fraternity. The group’s numbers had fallen dramatically recently, and they couldn’t afford to turn away quality individuals like Mike Houseknecht.

“But the guy’s a homosexual, and there are guys who say they’re going blackball him to prevent him from getting a bid,” I was told.

And what was I supposed to do about this? Well, as a “respected alumni,” I could talk with the guys and convince them to give Mike a chance. I demurred. I was no longer a voting member of the fraternity. And after all, if I took a strong position on the matter, someone might assume I was gay, and I was not going to let that happen!

I’m not proud of any of this. Looking back on the incident, I fear that what I did was even worse than passive silence. I think I probably quietly recommended that fraternity members vote against him. What makes my position even more craven was the history of this issue in the fraternity, a history of which I was only too well aware.

In 1984, when I was just getting to know the guys in the fraternity, a young man we’ll call Marcus had an interest in joining. Marcus was about as openly gay as one could safely be in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. I don’t think his parents knew about him at that time, but certainly he’d made it plain to a lot of his friends, including me. I did not reciprocate by telling him my own story. Much later Marcus would find out I was gay too, despite my self-protective measures, and he would be very supportive, god bless him. But in 1984 I was not ready to be truthful about my sexuality with anyone, even other gay people.

When time came to decide whether Marcus would get a bid to pledge the fraternity, his name was brought up in one of the frat’s regular meetings.

Marcus’s desire to join the fraternity was roundly mocked by the rest of the guys. Given the situation, it’s a good bet words like “fag” and “queer” were tossed about indiscriminately. There was no way, they said, they’d give him a bid to join.

Remarkably, one of the most popular guys in the fraternity then stood up for Marcus. If what people present at that meeting told me is true, he said something to the effect that our particular fraternity was supposed to be about diversity, about bringing all kinds of different types of people together. If we we’re going to blackball a gay guy just because he’s gay, then we’re not really about diversity at all, are we?

Even more surprisingly, this turned the tide. Marcus was given a bid. He got through the pledging program and while his experience wasn’t a purely positive one, he remained a brother in the fraternity for most of his college career.

But Mike Houseknecht didn’t have someone to stand up for him. Mike Houseknecht was blackballed, even though later I was told by one of the active brothers at the time that they had spent several intimate nights with young Mike.

“He was gooooooood,” this man told me. I remembered this comment, which seemed so unseemly at the time, when I later read newspaper articles about Mike, my eyes stinging with shame.

The rampant hypocrisy of all this – and my part in it – has haunted me ever since. For in September 1990, Mike Houseknecht’s dead body was found in his room in Smith Hall dormitory. He had been strangled to death, most likely by his lover of the time, one Mike McGarvey.

Though low-key in life, Mike Houseknecht became a media sensation in death. Stories of the “gay murder” in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania appeared everywhere, and were read by millions in the big city newspapers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Friends that were in school at the time recall seeing TV news helicopters circling the skies above campus on a regular basis. The situation became even hotter when McGarvey attempted suicide by hanging himself in his apartment. Prior to the incident local police, whom later found love letters between the two men, and nude photos, had extensively interviewed him. McGarvey later died from his self-inflicted injuries.

It was all very sad. The papers said a neighbor was twice visited by Houseknecht, who was found on her doorstep bruised and bloodied, tearfully telling her that McGarvey had abused him. McGarvey himself was confused and troubled and had been in and out of therapy for some time. He had also conceived a child with a local woman.

According to the newspapers, McGarvey left a note behind, which referred to “being in love with Mike” and “joining with him.” It also referred to the pain experienced by McGarvey and sorrow for those who suffered because of him.

“It was time to pay the piper,” McGarvey – nicknamed “The Sandman” – allegedly wrote. “ PS: The Sandman will bring perfect silence to the world through eternal sleep!! ENJOY THE SILENCE!”

All this made great fodder for the rumor mill and was the talk of the campus – and Central Pennsylvania – for weeks. Early in the coverage, some in the media even speculated that a killer on campus might be “stalking” students.

But a more obvious truth was that the two Mikes were a couple of scared, troubled kids who might have done a little better if they had had someone compassionate to listen to and try to understand them. If they had role models close to their own age that believed in them, like I had found in the fraternity.

“I feel just terrible about Mike Houseknecht,” one of the members of the fraternity told me later. “Maybe if he had had a supportive group of people around him, some friends who he trusted, this might not have happened.”

A few months later this same guy would drunkenly confess to having had a sexual experience with another man after a party at the fraternity house.

It seemed increasingly clear that the fraternity had been virtually filled with closet cases that could have spoken up for Mike Houseknecht when he was interested in joining. Would any of that have made a difference in Mike’s life? Who knows. Fraternities are not, of course, the most emotionally healthy places. But they are filled with young men charged with looking after each other and providing support for each other. If Mike had gotten through the pledging process and ended up living in the fraternity house, for example, I can say with some certainty that someone would have come to his defense if he had been beaten up by another guy. Fraternity guys take pride in the fact that they look out for each other when in danger, console each other if they’re going through hard times, give advice to those in trouble. This clearly had not happened in Mike Housenecht’s situation. And why? Well, I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s clear that Mike – like most gay people – had been deeply and adversely effected by the closet cases and homophobes that surrounded him.

And I, by word and deed, was only making the problem worse.

At age 27, I finally “came out” to my parents and brothers and sisters. The same year I belatedly discovered that soon after Mike Houseknecht was found dead on campus, a gay and lesbian support group was formed at LHU. Whether one had anything to do with the other is uncertain. It stands to reason, however, that such a high-profile tragedy would galvanize the gay community and lead to the formation of such a group.

If that is the case, I owe Michael Houseknecht a debt of thanks. In 1992, when I found out about LHU’s gay and lesbian group, I told myself that if such a group were located near my home in New Jersey, I would join it right away.

It turned out there was a group not far from my home. It was called the Gay Activists Alliance in Morris County, NJ (GAAMC). The day after I heard about the Mike Houseknecht-inspired gay support group at LHU, I joined GAAMC. A few weeks later, at one of their meetings, I met a tall, handsome blonde named Randall.

We’ve been together ever since.

In the mid-1990s, the fraternity elected its first openly gay president. It seemed times were changing, even at this tiny, conservative, central Pennsylvania liberal arts college.

But memories are notoriously short on American college campuses. Within four short years one group of men and women graduates and another arrives anew, with the newer group knowing almost nothing about the experiences of the group that had come before them.

The group of guys that blackballed Mike Houseknecht probably knew little or nothing about the group of guys that accepted Marcus four or five years earlier. The guys that elected their first openly gay president would have had no idea about the experiences of Mike Houseknecht four or five years before that. And the guys in the fraternity today would probably be surprised to hear that they were once presided over by one of only two openly gay men on campus at that time.

Last year, in 2004, I paid another nostalgic visit to the old fraternity. The guys welcomed me and told me to come back the following week, when, in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, they would be hosting a turkey dinner. Their advisor, they said, would be present. I could meet him if I liked, they said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met him,” I told them when they mentioned his name.

“You can’t miss him,” one of the brothers said with a mischievous grin. “He’s as queer as a three dollar bill.”

I smiled back at the young man and thought, “Son, you have no idea.”

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