Monday, January 14, 2008
Yes, Jordan Williams says, he hears locker room talk. Sex talk, that chick's so hot, that dude's so gay, yes, yes, he hears it. He's in a fraternity.
"Wow, Matthew McConaughey's really attractive," he might chime in. And then he says what happens: "The room goes silent."
As the only gay man in his fraternity, of course there are times he feels different from his straight brethren. But he isn't complaining, exactly.
"I don't like political correctness to the point where, if you have a room full of 100 white men and one black person should walk in, they all should have to change their customs to accommodate the one," says Williams, who is African American, by way of example.
When his fraternity hosts a dance or a party, he doesn't bring another dude. The guys don't want a sausagefest, and he understands that, so he brings one of his "very attractive female friends."
"I could raise a big stink about how I should bring a boyfriend and equal rights and blah blah blah," he says, "but I just respect the custom."
He likes the guys at Theta Chi. He joined last year, his sophomore year, and he feels more at home there than he did in the fraternity he left the year before. He likes the structure, the camaraderie and all that chummy stuff. He's the philanthropy chair, and being in a fraternity will look good on his resume when he applies to an Ivy League law school.
But he does wish the climate was a bit different.
"I would actually say that a lot of the men are hyper masculine," he says. "And I think that's a trend that really needs to go away."
Last month, a national educational initiative called the Lambda 10 Project released the first-ever formal study on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the greek system.
The study found that far more LGBT people are "out" to their house members today than in the past. It also found that close to half of the respondents encountered a homophobic atmosphere in their chapters.
According to the study (citing a 1996 survey), 5 to 6 percent of fraternity men and 3 to 4 percent of sorority women are LGBT.
"One of the things that's happening today is that more men and women are coming out in fraternities and sororities," says Lambda 10 Project coordinator Shane Windmeyer. "And because gay and lesbian issues are much more visible, there's more acceptance."
Windmeyer, who is gay, grew up in Hiawatha, Kan., and joined a fraternity at Emporia State University. He says the climate toward LGBT people has improved a lot since he was in college in the mid-'90s.
The big problem today isn't being ostracized or harassed, he says. It's the pressure to conform to the group. In this sense, the LGBT experience isn't altogether different from what many straight members go through.
Throw a big group of college guys and a big group of college girls into separate houses, mix in traditions handed down from past generations, build a social calendar around parties and dances stressing heterosexual relationships, and you've got a formula for a culture hyper-infused with machismo and femininity.
So even though greek culture has progressed to a point where people are mostly OK with you being gay, Windmeyer says, that doesn't mean it's cool to act less macho or feminine.
"If I'm a gay man and I'm flamboyant, and I'm wearing pink shirts and glittery hair, more than likely I am not going to get into the fraternity," he says. "Not because I'm gay, but because of how I express my gender. And that's the real issue behind fraternities and sororities today."
Williams says that although he's accepted in his house as a gay man, he occasionally feels like he has to watch himself.
"I sometimes get the feeling that if I'm a little bit too friendly with my gestures or with my affection, that they kind of get like, 'OK, get away from me,'" he says. ":Sometimes I have to be aware of, 'Wow, am I too close to this guy? Am I patting him too much?' Something that a straight guy could get away with and not worry about."
He says he knows only a couple other gay men in fraternities at KU, and they're closeted.
Sara Thompson, a KU junior, says she's been warmly received by her sorority sisters since they found out she likes girls.
She's gone through a lot of changes since she joined the sorority, from having her first relationship with another girl as a sophomore, to telling close friends, to being the subject of gossip and rumors-"Is she a lesbian?"-until everyone to found out that yes, she was.
As she's become more comfortable with her sexual orientation, she's also become more comfortable around her sorority sisters. Last semester, for the first time, she showed up to the fall semi-formal with a girl as her date.
"I was really nervous," Thompson says. "I was a little worried about how it might go or how people might react, or if we needed to be together but not together-like 'don't touch, don't kiss,' that kind of stuff."
As it turned out, the girls made a point of walking over to her. "Who's your date?" they asked warmly. "What's her name?" "Oh my gosh, you guys are so cute."
"I totally felt comfortable," she says. "We could just be ourselves and be together and that was fine."
When her parents cut her off from the family checkbook after she came out to them last summer, she could no longer afford the house dues. So the sorority worked out a special payment plan.
As is the case in any large social setting, she hasn't felt warmly received by every one of the girls, and there are awkward moments. And although she says she's had a very positive experience, the sorority requested that its name not appear in this story.
"It's hard to describe why exactly it's awkward, but it sort of is, just a little bit," she says. "Maybe it's just that I know that I'm different, and everyone else is like, 'Yeah, Sara's different.'"
A Mixed Bag
In the Lambda 10 survey, 91 percent of those who were out and 77 percent of those who were closeted said they were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their experience in the greek system.
Williams makes compromises, and he criticizes the system, but he doesn't write it off. Sure, fraternities can be homophobic, he says, just as they can be racist and sexist and classist. After all, it's a system dominated by straight, wealthy, white, conservative, Christian men.
He smiles at the goodhearted wisecracks about his taste for expensive clothing, even if they do get repetitive. And he's still waiting for the day his fraternity brothers return the question when he asks how a date went.
"I know this may sound like I'm apologizing for a homophobic system," he says, "but I just kind of fall down and take it."
At the same time, he says things in the system aren't so bad. He's had good roommates. He says he doesn't think twice about bringing gay friends over to the house. "I feel at home at Theta Chi," he says.
When he chooses not to bring a guy to a party or a dance, it's not because he would be harassed or spat upon. It's a subtler force that drives him. He chose to join a culture steeped in tradition. Tradition created by straight men. "I just go with the tradition," he says.
And yet he knows at least one openly gay man is adding to it.