Stepping Forward

12.16.2013

By Andrew Gelwicks

My college frat brothers didn't want me to hide who I was—but I had to learn to accept them first

The hijinks of college frat boys have been dissected and their pathologies diagnosed for generations. All-night partying, using women, vats of booze, and living in a collective stupor—parents and administrators have struggled to tolerate this culture. 

So when I walked onto the Butler University campus in Indianapolis as a freshman last year, with my head full of anti-frat prejudices, I was certain there was no way, as a recently out gay man, I would rush for membership to an organization of sweaty, testosterone-infused, women-obsessed Cro-Magnons.

But, as it turned out, I ended up choosing to do exactly that.

Despite my attitude turn-around in regards to fraternities, I still had anxieties. How long would it be before I began to wear boat shoes, flat-front pastel shorts, and Ray-Bans? I began to imagine myself pridefully strutting around campus with a well-rehearsed "swag walk." I entered into a solemn pact with myself: I would go through the rigorous social campaign if, and only if, I stayed true to myself.

That also meant that I would not hide my sexuality. I would not pretend to be someone I was not. If the frat powers were willing to accept a gay man into their world, great. If not, I would continue with my college life, metaphorically bloodied but unbowed.

Informal rushing was the first semester of my freshman year. I dove in headfirst, learning the names of the fraternities and meeting numerous brothers. I never announced that I was gay, but I admit I tried to stop using words like “fab” and “presh” in their company. Coming from conservative Cincinnati, I was unfamiliar with carefree attitudes regarding sexual orientation. And I surely never expected to find free-thinking in Indiana.

I was taken aback when my evaluators were impressed with my extracurricular skills, telling me it was “awesome” I was trying to break into the fashion industry. When they later learned I had some successes with my fashion photography portfolio, they took notice. It didn’t hurt that I would poke fun at myself with the occasional self-deprecating gay joke. I would jest about the raw intensity of their desires for the girls who circulated at the Greek party scene. They liked that I didn’t take myself too seriously; my lightheartedness dispelled a lot of awkwardness. I freely offered my opinion as to which sorority-rushers were hot and those not. (“You honestly think she’s hot? The hair, the hair, have you seen her hair?”)

They enjoyed my joking about the best wingman being a gay man. The sly references that a gay guy was among them won over many house hombres. I gradually felt more confident about getting a “yes” vote for election to one of the fraternities. The tedious, stressful process of recruitment eventually ended during the latter part of my freshman year. I got in.

Once I was selected by Sigma Nu, the house I most wanted, I felt thankful to have been given a bid to such a well-respected organization full of caring guys. It turns out they accepted me for being me—which caused me to question and adjust my own attitude and ingrained prejudices. 

My biggest surprise has been discovering that I needed to adjust to the open attitude among hard-wired heterosexuals. This became obvious during one particularly poignant exercise in honesty while I was a fraternity pledge. The Sigma Nu leaders wanted everyone to know each other better, so we stood behind a marked line as our Pledge Marshall read statements and questions aloud. If any applied to us, we were to cross over the line and stand there to be recognized.

The topics became more serious (and more personal) and my emotions intensified as the minutes ticked by. Finally, a Big Question was posed: "Have you ever questioned your sexual orientation?" the Pledge Marshall asked. I hesitated for a moment, but then stepped forward across the line. I was alone, which I knew I would be. Standing there, I looked around. The room felt combustible. Then I returned to the other side with the rest of the pledges. Nobody said anything. We continued, as if nothing unusual had happened.

Later that night, I received a text message from one of my pledge brothers. We had only spoken to one another a handful of times, but I read his text with apprehension: “I really want to commend you for your bravery today during the activity. It must have felt strange. But I want you to know that if anyone gives you any friction, or stops to question anything about who you might choose to love—you have support from me and many others. Live life on your terms.”

In that simple, yet stunning, note, I felt his kindness. I learned what fraternal brotherhood meant. I knew I could be the gayest, most flamboyant frat guy my campus had ever seen. And I would still be respected, accepted, and cared for.

Visit AndrewGelwicks.com for more information about the writer and his work.

This holiday season, show us why #AcceptanceMatters. Tag your photos on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram using #AcceptanceMatters and you could win a $100 gift card from MasterCard.  Learn more about the contest here:  statigr.am/contest/pzmg/acceptancematters-photo-contest

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