Tragic Eyes

by David M. Katzin

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

CW: strong sexual content

Nick was one of the brothers who I knew was hiding in a closet. He was not alone. Each fraternity brother glistened like brilliantly sad stars, especially Nick. He could not have been taller than 5 foot 4 inches and had very typical Greco-Italian features. Beautiful, though I doubt he realized. His features were not delicate, but there was something in his eyes that gave his secret away.

A week before classes let out for Christmas break, Nick and I went to the campus pool one evening, just the two of us. I could tell he was uncomfortable going to the pool with me, but he always made a concerted effort to be polite.

At the pool, Nick was busy doing butterfly laps while I was content to have some time to relax in the water. Then, we had one of those awkward moments. He looked at me with those sad, tragic eyes, and I could feel the despair in his voice when he asked me, “What did you think was going to happen here?”

Nick was direct and derisive at the same time. I tried to look down at my feet, but they were underwater and I did not have a clear view. I played dumb.

“I dunno,” I replied. “I just came for a swim.”

Nick emanated this gay vibe. This secretive, unleashed energy he kept in check behind his sheepish veneer. But I did not want to force him out. I wish Nick had told me then that he was not ready and I was a threat to his secret.

To be honest, the thought had crossed my mind that Nick might tell me at the pool. We would bond and understand each other better, and neither of us would have felt alone.

But Nick did not tell me. Instead I watched him push me away to preserve his façade. And we kept feeling isolated; him in hiding, me in the public eye. I kept trying to reach out for Nick. Maybe not as directly as I would have wished, but I wanted him to know that he was not alone. We never got the chance to connect as brothers.

I was a student at Duquesne University. A small, Catholic University located atop a bluff overlooking the Monongahala River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city was a far cry from my beloved Philadelphia, let alone New York. But it was a pleasant city filled with Gothic architecture.

Duquesne University itself was stifling and dehumanizing. Even on a small campus, I felt alone. Perhaps that is what drew me to fraternity life. When it was all happening, I thought it was a curious little twist of fate .

Though I had received an e-mail invite to a fraternity party, one morning in mid-September, I was not sure whether I should take it seriously. The word “fraternity” brought several buzz words to mind: Jocks. Beer-crazed. Letterman jackets. Keg stands. Girl-crazed. Assholes. Elitists. Homophobes.

After all, I defined myself as gay and I was a bit of a nerd specializing in comic books. Not what I had imagined would be acceptable “fratboy material.” So what would possess me to even consider rushing a fraternity?

Two days later, the twist of fate occurred as I was caught in a torrential downpour on my way from the student union to my dorm at the edge of campus. I settled for getting inside Duquesne Towers, one of the closer dorms that held generally upper-classmen and the fraternity and sorority wings.

Hank and Tully were sitting there, waiting in their black and gold fraternity letters. I had known Hank from class and was really blown away by the fact that he was a frat boy. He was not athletic, nor did he fit the macho and arrogant stereotype. In fact, he was a bit of a brain and somewhat obese. Tully, on the other hand, struck me as a basket case. He was this tall, gaunt guy. He had the facial expression of a constant worrier suffering from extreme sexual frustration. Neither of these guys were what I would call typical “fratboys.” I was intrigued, so on a whim, I went to their fraternity pledge event.

Red House did not have a “house” so much as it had its own wing in Duquesne Towers. The brothers had made the dorm wing their own—with a carpeted corridor, a common area personalized with a large television, splashes of Asian pop culture, floor lamps, and bean bag chairs. For the pledge event, we ended up just ordering pizza and watching Spaceballs in the Red House fraternity wing.

I felt an instant connection. The brothers of Red House were a collection of eclectics. The world at large would probably have written them off as weirdoes or geeks, or even nerds. But I felt like for the first time in a long while I was amidst other free thinkers. There was Seth, a suave, charismatic ladies man, fluent in Japanese. Jim, this little Italian boy, probably the nicest guy I have ever known. He was always smiling and doing something nice for someone. And then there was Andy, most unique of all the brothers. I initially thought he was a high-functioning autistic savant. Either way, he was always interesting.

Still, Red House was a Catholic fraternity, Irish Catholic. In the back of my mind, I heard this little voice, low and lethargic, saying, “I don’t know, Davey.” But I ignored it. The brothers of Red House gave me a bit of hope because of our quirky interests and commonalities. The concept of brotherhood that I saw in action that night had me blown away. The brothers empirically had a unity and yet each was so different from the other. These were men who had found a bond and cared about what happened to each other. I could be one of these fraternity brothers. The fraternity could allow me to be an insider for once, instead of being on the outside looking in. The rhetoric of fraternity life captured my interest and Red House seemed to defy the “frat boy” stereotype.

Red House was not yet an actual fraternity chapter recognized on campus at that point. They were not even a colony. Red House was a special interest group of men who hoped to start a fraternity. The fact that they were new on campus meant that I could be a part of something bigger, not only as a brother, but also potentially as a founding father. The fraternity could become my legacy. And there was this part of me that liked the idea of a sense of brotherhood—a sense of family. My parents, siblings and friends were all on the other side of the State. Whether I realized it at the time, I was looking for a sense of family.

Carl, one of the brothers of Red House, whom I had known from marching band, told me he was bisexual a few days after I had come over to his fraternity. Carl had been outed by a brother and it was a sore subject. Days later, I decided to come out to Carl to see what he would say about the fraternity. He still encouraged me to pledge and offered to “give me lessons.”

One night Carl invited me to his room in the fraternity wing. He showed me a book titled “The Joys of Gay Sex.” I was busy reading the book when suddenly, Carl unzipped the fly of his pants and asked, “Do you wanna get some practice giving head?” Apparently a “lesson” is a euphemism for a “blowjob.” Carl was this tall, unattractive pear-shaped guy, so in all shallowness, I had not considered wanting to do anything with him. This was an unexpected surprise and it would be my first time. There I was looking at his dick and I thought, “Well, I’m here, and I’m gonna have to do this eventually. Might as well.” The opportunity was available to me, so I did it. Sadly, I wanted an emotional connection and found none. Within a minute of getting off, Carl started purposefully getting dressed again, not even looking up at me. And then to signal his departure, he said, “Oh! It’s karaoke night at the union!” I stood there, not knowing how to feel–emotionally manipulated perhaps. In retrospect, I knew it was not the right thing to do, especially with a potential fraternity brother.

Soon after that, I was inducted as a neophyte, the colonial version of a pledge. Solemn music played in the background as I stood, a lone neophyte surrounded by the brothers. Each one then orated the scripted speeches about what it means to be a brother of Red House. I was awe-inspired by the spectacle. All I could think about was the sense of belonging, the brotherhood, I so wanted to fell accepted being a brother in Red House. “Why shouldn’t I?,” I thought, “Would they have inducted me if they didn’t want me around?” Never did I guess that recently outed Carl may have once thought the same thing.

After the ritual, the brothers retired to the common area of the Red House wing. We watched a movie.Boondock Saints. And I really felt a sense of camaraderie, clicking with the brotherhood. All was fine until the movie scene where Wilhem Dafoe’s character is in bed, cuddling with a cute, Asiatic twink male. All the brothers responded with a collective groan of “Oooooohhh! Eeeeewwww!” I looked around the room and I thought to myself, “I’m just gonna have to do something about that. They’d think differently if they knew someone they’d accepted as one of their own brothers was gay. I’m sure of it.”

Over Thanksgiving break from classes, I spent my four-day visit home to my family questioning the decision to pledge Red House. I was at a crux. When I returned in December, I was determined to come out to my brothers and also signal an end to my dire liaison with Carl. He was now my brother. The fond ideal of brotherhood was a new concept that I did not take lightly. I was completely enamored with the idea that these men treat each other as a brother for good or bad. Placing faith and loyalty in another brother had me all dreamy-eyed. I wanted to be a part of that sense of unity—the brotherhood. While I knew coming out would challenge that notion, I could not truly bond with these young men as long as I was keeping my true life a secret.

My first brother I chose to tell was Hank.

“So my friend has a Lord of the Rings spoof on his website,” I said, “And my character’s name is Gaydalf.”

His eyes shifted carefully as I tried to see his face contort from a jovial grin to a deer in headlights. “Why’s that?,” Hank responded.

I swallowed a bit and looked down at the proverbial precipice below me. With a silent prayer, I closed my eyes and dived. “’Cause I’m gay.”

Then all I remember is that he numbly said, “Oh. Okay.”

The world did not stop. The sun still rose in the east and set in the west. Angry villagers were not amassed outside the building with torches and pitchforks waiting to slaughter me. In short, the world had not changed all that much from when I was closeted thirty seconds prior. After Hank, I continued to tell them all, one by one. For the most part, I was well received. At one point, I was even lauded by some fraternity brothers for my candor.

Frankly, I was shocked. Over the years, I had the dreadful gay scenario playing in my head so many times. Coming out usually ended with me being chased away by friends and neighbors throwing rocks or sharp objects. But now with these guys I had only known a few months, I managed to tell the lot of the fraternity without any immediate problems. To my surprise, by coming out to my fraternity brothers I had seemingly come out on top—conquering my biggest fear in life. Well, there is that clown thing, but that’s another story.

Later after I had come out to the entire fraternity, Carl invited me to his room to “talk” as he put it. Once we were both inside, he locked the door. Carl asked me to sit on his bed. Then he proceeded to denude himself in front of me. Now aside from the fact that I had no intention of pursuing an affair with Carl, I had never actually seen him naked before. I was put off guard by this bold display and realized Carl was apparently frisky.

“Go on—touch it.” Carl instructed, “Touch it!”

Honestly, I was appalled. Did Carl encourage me to pledge the fraternity because he wanted easy sex? Well, I would not be his whore.

“Goodnight, Carl.” I said rather annoyed, walking immediately past him, unlocking his door and storming out.. That night I left Carl standing there naked, horny and alone. Thus, I put an end to that sordid relationship. I left with confidence, but over the course of the next month, I watched Carl distance himself further and further from the brothers. He lived with the fraternity still, but he did not speak to anyone, including me. I could tell that he felt betrayed by all the fraternity. After that last bedroom encounter, I had no reason to want to speak to Carl and decided that he was the one who had betrayed the brotherhood.

The fraternity allowed me the opportunity to be honest about myself, but only if I was humorous about my sexuality. Around the brothers, I felt compelled into the role of the wise-ass; an easy mind-frame to assume, but difficult to get out of one’s system. To be funny and gay was the goal as to avoid any conflict. When the class brain turns into the class clown, he is a force to be reckoned. The balance between being a gay man and a fraternity man was tough. I tried to do more “manly” things like playing billiards and the gruesome video game Grand Theft Auto Three. I even took on sparring and feebly pretended to enjoy watching football. All of this was in the name of the fraternity. I wanted desperately the feeling of brotherhood acceptance.

Meanwhile, I had forsaken my personal passions for writing and theater. Both had been a large part of my life up until my involvement in the fraternity. The brothers had actually made me believe that being Greek would somehow fill other voids in my personal life. I lost that part of myself for a long time afterwards. Instead, I began assuming a character more jocular than I really was in order to maintain their respect and brotherhood. Despite my best attempts, I was not connecting with the fraternity. The real me was being pushed out into the cold with every passing day.

When the subject matter turned to sex, the brothers never considered me allowed to speak on the topic. The sharing of explicit sexual encounters with women was a frequent pastime among the brothers. My sexuality and frankness would be all too much putting them off. At that point, I had never been with a guy anyway or at least one I would admit to. Either way, the brothers made it clear they would not exactly be keen on hearing of such homosexual tales. Nevertheless, in an effort to earn their respect, I fabricated an account of being with a girl. I painted a verbal picture of how the experience left me feeling absolutely nothing. The brothers were instantly interested since my story resonated heterosexuality. After sharing that false story, they tried to convince me that I should try again; give heterosexuality a second shot. “College women are so much better.” one brother said.

Similarly, I was not comfortable with the routine of drinking alcohol in the fraternity. My convictions were in line with the standard D.A.R.E. rhetoric and my family history of substance abuse always made me aware of my alcoholic intake. Still, the environment of booze did not allow me to bond with the brotherhood ritual of getting drunk. Plus, not only was I afraid of my alcoholic consumption, but what might I say, or worse, what might I do without any inhibition among the brothers. Drinking seemed like a downward spiral for me no matter the choice. The worse drunken situation would be me hitting on another brother, getting gay-bashed and kicked out of the fraternity. The drunk-fest of fraternity life was not appealing.

The fraternity, in general, could only be unified by two things: women and drinking alcohol, or as I like to refer to as “babes” and “booze.” My motivation for fraternity life did not seem to fit with the “two ‘b’ philosophy” and trying to earn their respect was having a toll. Often, I found myself compromising what it meant to be me: my interests and my values for the sake of fraternity life. My sarcastic jibes about the fraternity and the brothers were only growing more dominant as the spring semester waged on. Such antics were the only way I really expressed how I really felt inside. I could also sense that many of my brothers had their own secrets and a set of internal demons not necessarily unlike mine. The “two ‘b’ philosophy” allowed them to hide perfectly in the shadows and perpetuate a myth of masculinity. Hank would often remind me of tact and having decorum when representing the fraternity. Still, I was determined never to let my inner demons take hold of me again.

Over the following summer, I stayed in Pittsburgh on the Duquesne campus to do some studies in my major. Being in the loop was wonderful that summer and I tried hard to reconnect with what I valued about fraternity life. Since our fraternity was applying for a national fraternity charter, I volunteered to be one of the two fraternity delegates from to be sent to Seattle for the National Biennial Convention. I figured this was an opportunity to try to bond with other brothers remaining on campus too.

When I went to the Convention, I rode on three different Greyhounds, four different airplanes, two cabs, and slept in an airport. Then, I finally arrived in Seattle. Never was I prouder to be a brother than when I saw the men vote my fraternity chapter into the national fraternity. While I was thrilled that we had become a part of a national fraternity, the feeling was eerie like Daniel in a Lions’ Den. Here I was—a proud homosexual at the great assembly of an Irish Catholic fraternity. All of this was happening at a point in my life where I was becoming more political and vocal about my homosexuality. For the first time ever, I had begun reading political themed gay literature, discovered the presence of national gay rights organizations and learned about the history of the Stonewall Riots of the late 60’s. And it was then that I began to read Out On Fraternity Row. The book told of first-person accounts of being gay in a fraternity. I found that the book had stories that mirrored my own struggles and gave deeper insight into my own fraternity life.

My eyes were being opened wide. The national convention full of leaders and my own gay prowess sparked me to push harder. I started to see my life from my own perspective and not how others thought I should be. I wanted to be taken seriously as both a brother and a gay man. My homosexuality was no longer a part of me that I wanted to use for tongue in cheek comic effect, a guaranteed laugh. Being gay was something to be taken seriously and accepted as part of who I am. Fraternity life did not mean I had to hide being gay. I wanted to actually meet someone special, have a relationship, and bring him to my fraternity formal without any fear or issue.

When I arrived back at Duquesne in late August, I could get a sense early-on that the fraternity was not the same. The graduation of certain brothers had substantially left the fraternity altered. The brothers who graduated were either ambivalent to me being gay or highly gay-positive. Instead, the brothers remaining in Red House acted distantly towards me, much like I had witnessed with Carl. Smaller social cliques were forming in the fraternity. There were those brothers in power and those who were powerless. The inner fraternity circle made decisions for everyone and merely strong-armed their ideas over other opinions. Anyone who deviated from their standards and ideals were considered threats.

Suddenly, I was clashing heads. One of the brothers who immediately became my nemesis was Ace. He and I were like a lion and a zebra in a nature video—the zebra was going down. Ace was a ladies man. He had a hefty bank account and a horrible rich boy gone bad motif going on. Ace was everything derogatory you can think about a WASP, except he was Irish-Catholic. He was essentially the über-conservative; a euphemism for bigoted, all-but-admitted racist and homophobe, Republican brother who best represents “the good ole boys.”

The conflict initially began when Ace flew off the handle because I had approached another fraternity guy on campus that I knew was gay. I could not imagine why he was upset. I did not even do it in person. I had seen the guy on a personals website and decided I would chat with him via Instant Messenger. Immediately, Ace discovered the web encounter and I was called down to his room. Several of the brothers in charge including Ace relentlessly interrogated me. They drilled me with each question sounding like it was about a double homicide instead of a romantic advance. I felt ganged up on. I felt like I was in a police station interrogation room. They stood encircling me, hovering over me; until each was satisfied with verbal remarks breaking me down. All I can remember is seeing their faces illuminated in the darkness of my memory. Their eyes were staring daggers of utter contempt.

These men were my brothers and yet they were treating me like some malformed creature that must be forcibly kept in the closet. A few of the same brothers who had commended me for coming out a year earlier were now among the gang siding with Ace. I should have known that Ace was going to be trouble when on several of his drunken occasions he had threatened me physically. As a result, I agreed to three concessions for the sake of the brotherhood. First, I was told that I could not have information about the Lambda 10 Project for Gay Greeks posted on my fraternity room door. They said it reflected badly on the fraternity. Second, even if I had a boyfriend or male date, I was not allowed to be seen with him on campus. According to my brothers with or without my letters, I was well known for being a Red House fraternity member on campus. Nothing I did could bring shame upon the fraternity. I should have fought back with that one. Essentially, the edict meant I could never be free to be who I am. The third concession was that I would never have another guy in my fraternity room. The brothers wrote up a contract for me to sign and threatened to kick me out if I ever crossed the line. Signing my name I had forsaken being gay for the illusion of acceptance. Sadly, I found myself drinking with Ace just to keep the peace and maintain good brotherly behavior in their eyes.

Finally, some good news came my way that semester after feeling like a fiend in my own fraternity. The first good news was that I had been cast in a play on campus. I was excited at the opportunity since I had not performed since high school. The second piece of good news was a huge surprise. Greek week was coming up and I had been asked to write about Greek Life for the campus newspaper. Neither was against the unique fraternal contract I had reluctantly signed and I loved both, so I figured what could go wrong. Plus, I would be too busy to be concerned about the fraternity.

Being in the theatre was truly a joy. But, then the real challenge: the task of writing about Greek Life when I was not exactly feeling my best about my fraternity. I did not want to lie and make fraternity life sound “rah rah siskoom-bah! Go Greek Week!” No, that was not my style. In addition to the fact that I was bitter, I was never “Joe College”. Instead, I decided to write about Greek week and what I think needs to change in Greek Life. The writing was to appeal to multiple levels of reader experiences. I would write from not my perspective but rather the view from someone who might be non-Greek. The writing slant was meant to be a satirical vein and I thought people would find humor. The piece was honest and funny. Maybe too honest and, I guess, not enough funny.

The night after the paper hit the stands featuring my Greek Life article, I was woken up abruptly around 3 am by Ace pounding on my door. He screamed “Faggot, get up faggot, faggot!” Then, he tried to bombard into my room by knocking down my door. Thank goodness my door was locked. Ace was drunk and reputedly violent under the influence. Frightened. I laid in my bed dreading the next day.

Ace may have been a drunken asshole, but he managed to gather popular opinion. I was suddenly the fraternity leper. Many people did not get the humor. In fact, nobody was more upset than my fraternity brothers. The entire fraternity scrutinized my article. I refused to take any more of their rules. I was proud of the article. When asked what I had to say for myself, I said, ”Judge me all you want, but my writing speaks for itself.”

Red House kept me around until after Greek week. Then I was put on suspension. I was half tempted just to quit on my own accord, leave with my head held high. But Hank convinced me that the reaction was no big deal and that probably nothing more would happen. Apparently, the Inter-Fraternity Council saw the article as a much bigger deal than Hank anticipated. Following the weekly council meeting, the fraternity held a secret meeting about me and a vote was taken. Then and there, I was expelled altogether from the fraternity.

The vote blind-sided me. I was so worried about getting kicked out for being gay that I could never imagined an article would be my undoing. I had finally given Ace and the others the perfect, legitimate reason. Without hesitation, the fraternity moved swiftly acting without remorse. The aftermath was most painful. I turned in my Greek letters, the proud symbols of my devotion to Red House. The fraternity had defined me for over a year. I had lost a sense of who I was as an individual. I acted like I did not care—like I had expected as much, but it was a harsh blow. My first thought was: “If they can’t accept me for who I am, I don’t want them either.” This was quickly followed by: “I wish left on my own accord.” The regret stung deep. I had become their whipping boy and did not like the feeling of victimization due to my sexuality. For a month afterwards, I cried whenever I was alone. I never let anyone know but I was deeply hurt and at a loss.

Theater kept me afloat and from going into a deep depression. For a while, I did drink just to forget about the fraternity and the pain seemed less. Emotionally I was adrift for some time. My typical routine was: “Theater. Class. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.” In the theater, I found my new home and was able to hide away keeping busy. The days passed by quicker that way not seeing any of the brothers or Greek letters on campus.

Finally, the school year ended and I was at home with my family for the entire summer. Memories of the fraternity would fade and then resurface on occasion. Then came my birthday, nothing remarkable or eventful except one thing. Late that night, I was checking my e-mail And, there, low and behold, was a letter from Nick.

Nick was the fraternity brother who went with me to the pool. He had the tragic eyes; whose pain I felt like the tides of an ocean. He wrote:

I think this is more for me than for you. No, I’m not being selfish. More like an instinct tells me that you’ll understand. I don’t know why. But enough with the exposition. Time to move on. I’ll start off with the big one. Something that shouldn’t surprise you, but at the same time, should. Well, I’m gay.

Nick revealed to me his truth. He was not the first Red House brother to come out to me. Yes, there were others. But with Nick it was different. I always cared about Nick. His loneliness was so akin to my own and I knew his pain well. I felt such pride when he came out and that he could tell me. I wanted to sing out praises, as though he could hear me from five hours away. I was so happy for him and inside had a fondness for him. Nick finally had found the courage to be who he was. His coming out made me feel as if I had made a difference in the fraternity. Nick was reaching out to me.

I called Nick shortly thereafter that summer. He was shocked that I had even read the letter. We talked by phone into the late hours of the night. Then, we spoke again calling each other the following night, and many other nights that summer. At first, I wanted to just be there for him: offering wise council, the proud platonic philosopher. But with each night, I found it harder to hide my feelings for Nick. Luckily, he felt the same. Both of us had changed from our previous fraternity days. We were not the “Nick” or the “Dave” of Red House. No longer did we have to be inhibited. We had found each other.

Nick and I are now boyfriends. Red House fraternity made us brothers; yet I had to leave the fraternity before we would find each other and become lovers. Nick coming out allowed us to find commonality and love one another. The happiness I feel with Nick is beyond brotherhood. On my birthday, Nick had returned as a gift—a friend, a brother and now my lover. I no longer have to hide my true self–who I am. Despite this, Nick finds himself confronted with similar issues being gay in the fraternity. Whatever happens in Red House, one thing is clear: we will always have each other.


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