Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: A Tale of a Gay Greek
Thomas Collins, Alpha Chi Rho
With the recent signing of the bill to repeal the law known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Hulse, 2010), I think back to my days as an undergraduate brother of my fraternity. In those days, I was very much in the closet.
I was a shy, sometimes out-of-place, freshman just getting used to the idea of being on my own at college. I was always independent much to the dismay of my mother, who wished I would feel homesick once and a while. I was finally at college and worlds of opportunity were available to me, though joining a fraternity had never really crossed my mind.
I went to recruitment events due to a combination of meeting some of the brothers and the chapter heavily recruiting my roommate and floor mates. I quickly made friends, received an invitation for membership, signed, and went through the new member program. I got along quite well with my fellow new members, and they even gave me the first nickname that ever stuck: TC.
My freshman and sophomore years in the chapter were great and I respected the brothers and was respected in turn. Throughout this time, I still firmly maintained I was straight, both to the brothers, as well as to myself. To their credit, no brother ever really asked or made an issue of it either way.
In the summer following my sophomore year, I finally came to terms with my sexuality and came out to a close friend, who happened to be the girlfriend of a chapter alumnus. It was an incredible relief to finally admit to myself who I was and be able to tell someone. Over the course of the next seven months, she was to be my sole confidant. No one else in the chapter knew; they didn’t ask, I didn’t tell.
Why didn’t I tell? Well there are a number of reasons, some rational, some not. First, it was 1999 and I knew of no other out fraternity or sorority members on my campus; I had no way to know how the information would be received. Second, part of me felt it was none of their business. Third, I was new member educator that year, and the last thing I wanted was to have that taken away from me, or to have my sexuality interfering with the brothers or new members respecting me.
One thing that weighs heavily on all of this is my experience with the treatment of individuals within the masculine stereotypes that society demands of boys and men. In elementary school, I was often verbally bullied. I was called a sissy, a girl, a pansy, and other derogatory terms. Thankfully, the kids did not quite know what “gay” was yet. It was not until my junior high school and high school years that I was subject to being called gay, homo, or faggot. I have a vivid recollection of a sobbing conversation with my parents, begging to be sent to a private junior high school. I just wanted to get away from it all, to retreat, to hide.
My parents ended up convincing me to give it two more years and if I still felt the same way when it came time to high school, they would send me wherever I wanted. Through a combination of good friends standing up for me, maturing, and possibly just blind luck, the next two years went quite well. I decided I would stay with my classmates as we moved on to the public high school. My junior year I began receiving verbal attacks from the freshman and sophomores. Thankfully, I was capable of handling myself, fighting back, and knowing that I only had two years until I could escape again, this time to college.
Given that experience, I was afraid to lose the relationships I valued by outing myself to the fraternity, and so I played the game: don’t ask, don’t tell.
The conclusion of this story is that I did eventually come out, and the question becomes, what changed? As the year went along, I was becoming more comfortable with myself as a gay man. I told more people, such as my mother, my father, a few aunts, and a few old friends from my high school days. Overall, people responded well.
I continued my charade though, and would take advantage of chapter social events, talking to my confidant about what was new in my life, who I had come out to, and who I was crushing on. When she would show up, I was incredibly happy, because for the short 10 to 15 minutes we would steal away to my room to catch up, I would truly be living my life honestly.
In the end, something had to give. Over the years, not many people were shocked or surprised when I came out to them. Add to that my closed-door meetings with my confidant, and it was not surprising that many of the brothers felt that something was up. Secrets in fraternities do not stay secrets long. Many brothers came to my friend to ask what was going on or to say that they did not care one way or the other about my identity, but that I should just be open with them. Others were less kind behind my back, but thankfully not as bad those in elementary school.
Finally, I decided to come out to the brotherhood at a chapter meeting. I arranged with a friend of mine who lived in the residence halls to stay in his room that night. I felt that no matter how it turned out, I should not stay at the chapter facility that night. If it went well, I wanted to give them space to come to terms with the information. If it went badly, I had an escape.
I was anxious all night. I am not sure I remembered how to breathe as the meeting went on. It was finally the last call for serious discussion topics. I raised my hand. Once called upon, I took a breath and began one of the hardest speeches I have ever had to give. I began by saying that it had come to my attention that many brothers had been asking questions, that others had been spreading rumors, and that I felt I could no longer let this continue. I told them that while I felt it was none of their business, I would end the speculation once and for all. I was gay.
What felt like minutes, passed. There was complete silence as everyone registered what I had said. Then, one brother began to clap, then another, and another, until the whole chapter was clapping. I think that is when I remembered to breathe.
From that point onward, my life was much more vibrant and happy for being truly able to be me. I would love to say all was perfect and everything went well, but there were issues and other problems along the way, although the overall experience was positive.
I continue to be an active alumnus with the chapter and was eventually asked to be, and unanimously appointed by the undergraduates, the chapter advisor. I have been, in almost all situations, a brother first; being a gay man has just another part of who I am.
Now, as an advisor, I try to make sure that whether we have any gay undergraduates or not in a given year, that we always have a supportive environment, and that we do not tolerate offensive or derogatory behavior. You never know which young man could be struggling to find the courage to come out to his brothers.