*NAMES OF FRATERNITY AND ITS MEMBERS HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY AND RESPECT THE WISHES OF ALL PARTIES INVOLVED WITH THIS SOCIAL EXPERIMENT.
Helpful terms via HRC.org
At the beginning of the 2014 winter quarter the students of Queer Identities & Movements in the U.S. split up into groups with the intent to either produce original and needed educational materials, or engage in activism related to queer issues. My group chose to conduct a social experiment. We formed under the name Gamma Alpha Upsilon (ΓAY), or GAY, when loosely translated into Greek lettering.
1. Determine what space LGBTQ students occupy within Greek like— specifically fraternities.
2. Critically examine how fraternity members would react to the presence of a LGBTQ identified member within their group.
3. To encourage a dialogue in which ideas could be proposed on how to promote queer visibility and tolerance within said fraternity, and hopefully Greek life overall.
Pioneer of LGBTQ work in fraternity and sorority life Doug Case administered a survey a few years ago to determine the percentage of what he calls “lesbigay” students in Greek life organizations around the U.S. It initially began circulating through word-of-mouth and eventually was published on announcements in popular LGBT publications, through referrals from previous participants, and shared via email newsletters of online discussion groups, etc. But it proved difficult to accurately determine definitive percentage seeing as how the participants were self-selected and “…may not be completely representative of a true random sample of all lesbigay fraternity and sorority members,” (Case, “A Glimpse at the Invisible Membership").
Excerpt from “A Glimpse at the Invisible Membership” on their survey results:
“…Over a third of the men… self-identified as heterosexual at the time they were initiated, but by graduation only 20%... identified themselves as heterosexual. Many identified themselves as bisexual for a period of time before accepting a self-identity as gay… With a mean reported chapter size of 52, it is probable that the average respondent matriculated with 75 – 90 different brothers over the course of his undergraduate career. Thus, a total of approximately 5 – 6% of the chapter membership was known by the respondents to be gay/bisexual [during his undergraduate career].”
Furthermore, 64% of gay fraternity members report a high degree of satisfaction with their undergraduate fraternity membership and involvement with their respective organizations (15 Telling Stats on The State of Greek Life Today). So then, is Greek life truly a welcoming environment for LGBTQ students?
In hopes their reactions would be authentic one of our group members (Wade*) took a same sex date to his fraternity’s formal dance without telling any of his brothers beforehand. Wade identifies as bisexual, and his date Eric identifies as gay. We’ll call the fraternity Beta Omicron Upsilon*, or BOY. Another group member (Michelle*) also attended the same formal to help observe and gauge the reception of Wade and his date, Eric*. Michelle is not only currently a member of one of UCR’s six Panhellenic sororities, but she is also close to the brothers of Beta Omicron Upsilon; we expected her presence would further help facilitate our experiment both during and after the event.
In the few days following the formal Michelle went around to some of the brothers to ask what they thought of Wade’s bringing a same sex date to the dance and then recorded their anonymous responses— at times acting as an instigator of the situation, or simply taking in whatever feedback she given regarding the situation. With some of the brothers she prompted them with questions regarding the situation that could be seen as having homophobic undertones. We used her as a stimulus to test whether those who had previously been accepting of Wade and his date would waver under peer influence and follow into a herd mentality.
We decided to have Michelle secretly record these conversations on her phone instead of asking for a fraternity consensus after revealing our social experiment to the members of Beta Omicron Upsilon, thus hopefully eliciting complete honesty from said members. By this point we included a member from the fraternity to help with the collecting of data— Michelle would surely get useful information, but at the same time, we were aware some things might only said amongst brothers.
After critically examining the audio files we collected, we discovered a prevalent pattern of reactions to Wade and his date.
1. Widespread Acceptance – Wade reported receiving an overwhelming amount of congratulations from his brothers, leaving him feeling ambivalent about the situation overall. He classified the acceptance as such:
a.Genuine and well-intentioned – Many of the brothers showed their sincere support of the couple by including the date, Eric, in the festivities of the night, even after it being made clear he was in attendance as Wade’s date, and not the photographer as one brother initially believed.
b.Contrived and Over-compensatory – Wade described some of the recognition he received as perhaps being a means for some brothers to prove a point: that they were not homophobic, or simply just following the herd to avoid seeming intolerant. Wade believes it was their way of alleviating the situation, to make them feel welcome as a same sex couple by constantly assuring them of their acceptance of it. And though the brothers were well-meaning, Wade thinks it was their inadequate knowledge of how to approach this type of situation that led to their profuse enthusiasm. He also mentioned feeling that some brothers may have only claimed acceptance due to the fact that he was already a brother.
2.Exhibition/Sensationalizing - Through their incessant displays of encouragement Wade couldn’t help but feeling like a bit of a spectacle that night, especially during an award ceremony when he and his date were called to the front and they received more exuberant applause than the opposite sex couples who were also called up.
“I felt like a source of entertainment, like everyone had to acknowledge my presence,” said Wade.
Eric even said, “While this was a positive reaction, there was a lot of undue attention and it made me uncomfortable.” Wade expressed feeling like they were under a microscope with people wondering if they would dance, kiss, etc. and also slightly policed on how to act, wary of not going too far and remaining within a designated space created for them.
3.Rationalization – The recorded conversations also showed a vast amount of rationalizing of the situation. Many of the brothers made comments along the lines of “Well, I kind of already knew he was gay/bi because of how he dresses/acts/pictures he posts on Instagram.” There seemed to be a need to make sense of why this had happened or why they should have guessed it, or else a way to prove why some brothers had not been surprised by the news. The search for indicators of Wade’s newly displayed sexuality had begun, and stereotypes were being entertained.
4.Gender Policing and Limitations to their Tolerance – Though some brothers believed Wade had, in the past, shown some effeminate qualities, others communicated an earnest surprise at the news. Furthermore, amongst the surprised collective there was an expressed relief that he did not possess overtly feminine qualities, that he had “successfully” maintained his masculinity intact. So there emerged a sense of limitations to their acceptance— where one can be gay, but mustn’t deviate from the expected masculine gender role traditionally associated with the gender “man.” There had even been a comment made by a brother who said that while he was fine with Wade’s sexuality, he was also grateful Wade had never imposed it on him. During another particularly notable conversation one brother shared an anecdote about his high school prom experience where a male gay identified student ran for prom queen… and won. He stated said student would have made a bigger statement had he run for prom king, because when you’re a “man,” whether gay or straight, you don’t want to lose sight of your masculinity. And being seen as a “female” was the ultimate disgrace for a man.
5.The Gay Inquisition – With the use of stereotypes in attempts to understand Wade’s sexuality, the members of Beta Omicron Upsilon also turned their attention to other brothers in the fraternity, using the same methods to conclude someone else’s sexual preference. Because Wade dresses well we should have known he was gay, just like so-and-so brother, too. It was certainly an interesting phenomenon occurring that we came to discover.
Hour of Honesty and Open Dialogue
About a week after Beta Omicron Upsilon’s formal dance we called them together under the pretense of brainstorming ideas on how to better relationships within UCR’s Greek community. What we didn’t tell them was we would be discussing how to better the Greek community’s relationship between LGBT/Queer identified students, both prospective and active members. Our meeting was a great success. Though shocked, the fraternity seemed understanding and still very accepting. They actively engaged in an open dialogue where they were asked to come up with ideas on how to better educate their members on Queer issues. The responses we got were not only plausible ideas, but they were presented in a manner that indicated sincere interest to participate from many members.
Ideas included (but were not limited to):
- Beta Omicron Upsilon’s participation in a Day of Silence.
- Ally Training for members of the fraternity.
- Making attendance of LGBT Resource center workshops and seminars a part of their new member/rushing process.
- Creation of Gay Straight Alliance style organization specifically for Greek life
- Risk Management chair within fraternity to create a "safe space" committee that tailors to the needs of LGBT members
What We Came To Understand
There is little knowledge within our predominantly heteronormative American society about the wide array of sexualities and genders available to an individual— including the fact that the relationships between sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression are not fixed. The associations between these terms are unique to the individual, and are not available for interpretation by the general population. There should be a greater emphasis on the education and awareness of the LGBT/Queer community.
It came to our attention that the bylaws of Beta Omicron Upsilon state that only natural born males may be offered membership to their organization, and while this would certainly be an issue for any trans* students wishing to join, we hope our discussion with this fraternity has opened up the possibility for progress and growth— that they may choose to take further steps to educate their members on queer issues and hopefully open the door for more queer identified students to join their organization, should they so wish to. Our group – Gamma Alpha Upsilon— sincerely hopes to have been able to shed some light on these issues to students of UCR, both within and outside of the Greek community. Though our focus was enhancing queer visibility in fraternities, we also want to strengthen queer visibility at UCR overall.
Please visit the UCR LGBT Resource Center if you’d like to learn more about the LGBT/Queer community. Education is a power tool to equip yourself with! Fight ignorance and intolerance by educating yourself first.
Case, Doug. “A Glimpse at the Invisible Membership: A National Survey of Lesbigay Greeks.” Campus Pride. Campus Pride. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
“Doug Case, pioneer of LGBTQ work in fraternity and sorority...” Campus Pride. Campus Pride. 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
Windmeyer , Shane, and Miller, Geroge. “Gay History of Men’s Fraternities” Campus Pride. Campus Pride. Web. 7 Mar. 2014./
“15 Telling Stats on the State of Greek Life Today.” Online Colleges. Online Colleges. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.