Brotherly love

One man remembers the joys and compromises of living in the fraternity's closet.

Published March 31, 1999 6:42PM (EST)

When he was drunk, Derek used to kiss me on the cheek, just there. And Ray had eyes like silky blue opals, and a smile to melt a virgin's vow. Reeve was tall, dark, deep-voiced, the descendant of deposed European royalty, and he smoked a huge meerschaum pipe like Sherlock Holmes. And Gerry and I ran together, talked together until 3 a.m. of love and loss and family and our shadowy hopes for our changeable futures.

This is true: My two years in the fraternity were among the best and happiest of my life.

This is also true: I was deeply frustrated sexually, infatuated with half of my fraternity brothers and constantly afraid of being found out.

This is so far beyond "mixed blessing," so much more than "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," such a tangle of mutually exclusive emotions, that I do not know if it will go into words sensibly -- though it might make sense to someone else who has been there, "there" being just one more flexible term in the flux of this memory.

In the fall of 1977, when I was a junior at Illinois Wesleyan, a small Midwestern university, I joined the local chapter of Sigma Pi, a large international fraternity. I already knew many of the brothers socially, had dined with them, partied with them, shared classes and committees and honor societies with them. Their house had the highest grade point average on campus, a policy against pledge hazing of any kind and no one in the house smoked or used drugs. And, perhaps most importantly (but never to be spoken of aloud), my best friend in the theater department, a blue-eyed hunk on whom I had had a crush since freshman orientation, was a brother. When I asked him tentatively about pledging, and after he had spoken about me to the others, the general consensus was that I would be good for the house and that the house would be good for me. "Good for" a very young 20-year-old, a skittish virgin, barely out to myself, much less anyone else.

My pledge class of 20 was mostly freshmen, with a handful of sophomores and one other junior. We were required to learn the names, hometowns and girlfriends of all of the active members of the house -- but, oddly for the Greek environment of the late '70s, the actives were required to learn the same of us. The pledge class had to train together for a relay race at homecoming, had to dress in suits and ties one day a week, and had to memorize the fraternity's national history and that of our local chapter. There were no paddlings, no sleepless hell nights, no incidents with barnyard animals (about which we had heard rumors over at the Animal House frat). We were not even referred to as "pledges," but as "junior members." Civilized. Plus, there were dances and exchanges with sororities, float building, skit practice all during a semester in which I had parts in three theater productions, worked a part-time job on campus and stayed on the dean's list. On top of that, I was given the "most valuable junior member" award, and I was elected an officer of the fraternity a few months later.

I was valued by my brothers, very much valued -- but it was for feminine things, somehow.

I was the one asked for a massage after a brutal rugby game, asked for advice about what a girlfriend must be thinking, and then asked by the girlfriend for advice about the boyfriend. I was expected to tell accurate fortunes with my old Tarot cards, and to play medium, soothing the house ghost when she was restless. At Halloween, my theatrical makeup kit was raided; and I nursed brothers through concussions and broken hearts, planned a winning homecoming skit, baked gingerbread, took photographs, plotted elaborate practical jokes and parties. In return, I valued my fraternity brothers, very much valued them, for the glorious, casual masculinity which they projected. Having grown up in a very small suburban home with three thuggish brothers who despised me, I felt privileged to be counted as an equal among smart, funny men who did not bruise, insult or wound me on a daily basis. Guys who did not ignore me, men who did not insist that the only version of masculinity worth having was their own. And yet ... I remained deeply closeted the entire time I lived at the Sigma Pi house. I declined alcohol, knowing full well what could happen if my inhibitions were to be loosened. I was beyond "virgin." This was eunuch-mode, convincing and complete, comfortable, in its way, even comforting. Falling asleep in the third floor common dorm room, surrounded by the breathing and snoring of twenty-five of my fraternity brothers was, well, nice. Comforting. There were a half-dozen or so beds into which I would gladly have crawled, but it never happened. I told myself (and I tell myself) that I wanted it to happen, and I wondered (and I wonder) if it would have been good for me, young and confused and impressionable as I was then. "That I would be good for the house and that the house would be good for me ..."

There were only three brothers in the house who ever knew that I was gay, one of them my ol' blue-eyed theater buddy, who of course saw the differences in my speech and behavior between frat house and backstage. Ray knew exactly what it meant, and he never condemned me, never seemed particularly dismayed by the agonizing-to-me revelation -- and never knew that I would have lied, cheated or stolen to have slept with him just for one night! Ray agreed with Gerry -- the handsome, brilliant, temperamental blond Adonis from my pledge class, the recipient of many an asexual backrub -- that I probably just had not met the right woman, and they kept introducing me to pretty sorority girls on campus.

At the end of my senior year, an outraged rumor went hissing through the house that one of the freshman pledges had been caught in bed with another man from his dorm. Turmoil!

What should they do? What should they say? How would this affect the "honor" of the house?

Should they confront him, blackball him, give him another chance? It was just a week or so until graduation, and maybe I was finally feeling the constraint of four semesters among handsome, untouchable men, but ... something snapped. I stood up in the weekly chapter meeting and declared that I was ashamed of them all, that they had never given the honor of the fraternity a moment's thought when seducing a drunk townie in the rec room or sweet-talking a sorority girl into a blowjob in the attic. I was angry, trembling with fury and with fright. How dare they? How could they? These men who prided themselves on their civility and their intelligence? And it was none of their business anyway, any more than their own sexual preferences and partners were the concerns of anyone else.

No one spoke after me. The meeting was adjourned, and not another word was said about the affair, and Dermot was duly initiated the next semester with the rest of his pledge class. I was valued by my fraternity brothers. I was to be their touchstone, their conscience, their innocent, hero-worshiping little brother who nevertheless knew how they ought to behave.

Just before I left campus for the summer, I wrote Dermot a note, telling him what I had said, why I had said it, and how I had felt while saying it -- I was declaring myself to someone, at last, at last! I told him I wished that I had shared my bed in the freshman dorm, too ... but then I graduated the next Sunday, and he and I never got a chance to talk about what it had been like to be gay in the fraternity. I have often wondered, if I had tried harder, spoken louder or spoken sooner, might I have had a life with one of my oh-so-idolized fraternity brothers? With Derek, who always kissed my cheek when blitzed on beer? With Rod, the 6-foot-5-inch ex-football jock, gentle and kind and searching for God or some substitute? Dan, the golden-haired pre-med student, eager to join the Marines after college? Dermot, surprised in his narrow bed with the handsomest freshman on campus? All married now, I think. I sang at most of their weddings.

Were there any other gay men in the composite photograph which I glance at maybe once a year? Forty young men, lots of raging hormones. Politically correct lesbigay politics says that there ought to have been three others, and the mathematical odds say at least one more ... but who was it? And why did we never recognize one another, and why did we never speak?

Silence is acceptable. Silence means that nobody needs to think about the 10 percent minority -- need not fear, need not discuss, need not allow space, effort or emotion. Call me grateful for my years with my fraternity brothers -- grateful for the ability to blend, to play the non-threatening chameleon, for the lessons on how to behave like a man in middle America -- and sick at heart, still, that those lessons were necessary at all. So what if I can chat with preacher or politician or farmer or jock, and appear at ease? It remains just appearance. It is all masks and pretense. I tell them nothing genuine and they hear nothing honest or real from me, all good manners and hail-fellow-well-met and expected modes of behavior and scarcely a word of it from the heart. And yet ...

I was valued. I was. Eunuch, virgin, other ... but I was wrapped for two years in the concern of friendly (not loving), smart (not sensitive) men, and it was wonderful to learn that not all men were like my brothers-by-blood, that there were men in the world who were tolerant and decent and who might value what I had and what I was. "That I would be good for the house ... that the house would be good for me ..." How had Ray known? Was I so obvious?

Derek used to kiss me on the cheek when he was drunk, just there. It was enough then. It would not be enough now ... but I would not be able to speak out today if I had not endured that anxious silence twenty years ago.

By L.E. Wilson

L.E. Wilson is a writer living in Chicago.


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