Connor Clarke (center), a wine and viticulture senior and member of Phi Kappa Psi, is an openly gay fraternity member. He is pictured here with his fraternity brothers, who he said have fully supported him since he came out to them two years ago. Clarke is one of several gay fraternity brothers who told their story to Mustang News.
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Tyler Earl stood on the ledge — bisexual and very, very nervous.
Ten or 20 years ago, this story might have ended differently, might have ended in tragedy.
But this story ends in applause.
Throughout the evening, one at a time, each of his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers had stood on that same ledge, revealed something about himself and invited any brothers who identified with him to step up onto the ledge.
It was Earl’s turn. And so, he came out.
“I climbed up on the ledge, and I said, ‘I’m bisexual,’ and everybody started clapping,” Earl, a recent alumnus, said. “They literally applauded me. It really caught me by surprise.”
His eyes welled up with tears, and he stepped down from the knee-high ledge, flabbergasted by their response.
That’s when one of his fraternity brothers climbed up onto the ledge.
“He said, ‘We’re 100 percent behind you,’ and all of the brothers stepped up onto the ledge, and suddenly, I was the only one left on the ground,” Earl said. “It was probably one of the highlights of my life.”
Not your typical “frat star”
Despite an overriding notion of heteronormativity in greek life, according to Shane L. Windmeyer, co-editor of Out on Fraternity Row, a book about gay men in fraternities, gay men are becoming more accepted in liberal regions like California.
“In the last decade, we’re seeing more and more men coming out to their brothers, and this has a really positive impact,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done because the real challenge is with more effeminate men.”
With the popularization of websites like Total Frat Move, being in a fraternity is often linked to excessive womanizing. The more a man participates in heterosexual college hookup culture, the closer he comes to epitomizing “frat” life and masculinity.
The gay or bisexual man doesn’t quite fit in.
And so, the reaction to Earl is not what most would expect from a fraternity — with date parties, exchanges and overnight trips, there is, undeniably, an assumption of heterosexuality.
But an estimated 10 percent of fraternity members nationwide don’t identify as straight, said Windmeyer. And he thinks that statistic is understated.
“One of the best ways to combat homophobia is to have the presence of out, gay men in fraternities willing to educate, willing to step up, stand up and be visible,” he said.
Connor Clarke, wine and viticulture senior and Phi Kappa Psi brother, literally stood up.
At the end of a chapter meeting, Clarke got up and set the record straight — or not.
“It was one of those heat of the moment things where you just say exactly what you need to say,” Clarke said. “I remember toward the end of it being like, ‘I want your support, and I’d rather have fifty guys behind me,’ and then being like, ‘Oh wait, that doesn’t sound very good,’ and everybody started laughing.”
Clarke had at least eight brothers come up to him after the meeting and tell him they were proud of his courage.
“Even to this day, it’s been two years of support,” he said.
Clarke is in a long-term relationship and has taken his boyfriend to his fraternity’s formal dances, date parties and a fraternity overnight in Las Vegas, where they shared the room with a heterosexual couple.
“I got paired with somebody in my pledge class who was one of the more, if not the most, conservative people in my fraternity,” Clarke said. “But it was a really good thing, because I was talking to him afterwards, and he said it really changed his outlook.”
Gay, not girly
Still, Clarke concedes, he spent a lot of time in heteronormative culture. He played offensive tackle on his high school football team, and at 6’3 and 215 pounds, it’s hard to deny his masculinity.
That could be why he didn’t face much negativity, Windmeyer’s research suggests.
“It’s less about orientation and more about conforming to a traditional masculine gender expression,” Windmeyer said.
Theta Chi alumni Jason Bertels, for instance, said he presented himself as traditionally masculine in the presence of his fraternity brothers because he knew, “that was a way to access their respect.”
Though Bertels said being openly gay “increased the social divide” between him and some of his fraternity brothers, he picked Theta Chi because, overall, he felt welcomed.
“I remember the first time I brought a guy to a party,” Bertels said. “It was a heaven and hell party, and I walked in with this dude I was dating at the time, and our president approached me, pulled me aside and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re comfortable and willing to bring a guy.’ And I said, ‘When I joined this chapter, that’s what I was looking for: someplace that I felt comfortable.’”
Joined this chapter
Would the reactions have been as positive in another house?
Alpha Epsilon Pi alumnus Austin McBrady isn’t so sure.
“It’s accepted, but it’s obviously accepted more in the — how would you say this — well-rounded fraternities and less in the more stereotypical fraternities,” he said.
So for him, the choice was simple.
“How could I trust people as my brothers if they don’t accept me as me?” he asked. “If I had ever felt stigmatized or unwanted because of who I am, I wouldn’t have rushed or stayed in (Alpha Epsilon Pi).”
The gay fraternity
When McBrady rushed, Delta Lambda Phi, a nationally recognized gay-friendly fraternity, also existed at Cal Poly.
But Delta Lambda Phi dwindled from approximately 23 members in its heyday down to two or three at its low point, until the chapter became defunct, said Lanz Nalagan, Delta Lambda Phi’s president from 2009-2010.
Nalagan joined Delta Lambda Phi because it centered around giving gay, bisexual and progressive men a house on campus, he said.
“At the time, I was interested in joining greek life, but I was nervous to pledge a traditional fraternity because I was certainly not their typical pledge material,” he said. “I hate to be frank, but I’m quite the effeminate man.”
Nalagan said he thinks the reason that Delta Lambda Phi dissipated only a few years after its inception at Cal Poly was because “there was no longer a need.”
“More and more openly gay men were joining traditional fraternities, and DLP was not in demand, and it sucks, but it’s almost a good thing,” he said, “I know my fraternity will probably hate me for saying this, but the mere fact that recruitment became so hard after I left shows that gay men could join traditional fraternities and be welcomed for their diversity. As the years progressed, so did greek life.”
One step at a time
Though progress has been made, there is work still to be done, according to Windmeyer.
“It’s surprising that, in 2014, we know of less than a dozen fraternities that have sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy,” he said. “We still need to do better.”
That’s why Earl is applying for law school with a focus on LGBT law.
“I put the story (of my coming out) in my law school applications,” Earl said. “But no matter what you call it, if you’re gay, bisexual, pan-sexual, omni-sexual, any category of sexuality that’s really not as prominent, there are still struggles for you out there in and beyond the greek system.”