By Richard Morgan
His friends also derided the 'rah rah shit' of Howe's 'God-damned alumni-teasing business' and 'grab-as-you-can social life.' Lawrence Reedy, one of his closest friends and the former newsletter editor for the national Sigma Nu office, wrote in a January 1946 letter to Howe: 'Is your 'frat' business still a flourishing enterprise? Somehow, I can't face a return to that brand of B.S. -- it's almost as bad as the Navy.'
But Howe was so much of a flagrant racist that, when one of his friends suggests a trip to Trinidad, he warned Howe to tone down his bigotry. Howe was also a cheapskate who loathed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. His was not the kind of giddy gaiety you might associate with Walt Whitman, Cole Porter, or Oscar Wilde -- or even Allen Ginsberg or Harvey Milk.
It is a routine circumstance in academic circles that some historian somewhere will lay claim to some ancient hero as gay. Abraham Lincoln, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci. So when he learned of Stewart Howe, Shane Windmeyer wasn't surprised at all. Windmeyer, who came out in rural Kansas, is now the executive director of Campus Pride, the nation's only national nonprofit organization for gay college students. 'I've always believed -- and, c'mon, you know statistically it just has to be true -- that every single fraternity in our country, all of them had at least one gay guy as a founder.'
Those theories can be complicated by the fact that, according to Campus Pride, more gay fraternity members are out (83%) than gay fraternity alumni (25%), so it can be tempting to label many of those not-out alumni as closeted. 'Because, really,' Syrett notes, 'what is fraternity life -- hazing together, bunking together, showering together, wrestling, and horsing around -- other than a kind of ironic homosexuality?' In that way, Howe is a kind of missing link between these estranged cousins, the gays and the Greeks.
Syrett, who is gay himself, sighs. 'Look,' he goes on, 'historians -- and mostly, in these cases, these are historians who are themselves gay -- like to say that gays have always been everywhere, out and proud and changing everything for the better. Historically, that's pretty bullshit. But at least in the 20th century, it holds some water. Still, most gay men were simply not activists.'
Similarly, fraternities like to tout their reach. According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the umbrella group of nearly all Greek organizations in the country and their 9 million members, 48% of U.S. presidents have been fraternity brothers, 42% of all U.S. senators, 40% of all Supreme Court justices and 30% of all Fortune 500 executives. It was tough, then, to be a college-educated gay man in the early 20th century without being a fraternity brother -- or at least considering it.
'But Howe and his boys, these are not the heroes of gay liberation,' Syrett continues. 'In a lot of ways, these are the Uncle Toms, the Booker T. Washingtons, the gays we don't like to talk about because they don't fit into that brilliant history of progress, celebration, and triumph.' Howe was a Revolutionary Road kind of gay man. But Syrett sees value there. 'If it's messier than we want it to be, that's all the more interesting and all the more important.'
When he hears the news of Howe's secret, Peter Smithhisler, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Council, is quiet for a few moments before exclaiming: 'Wow. That must've been gutsy for them in those days. I can't hardly believe it. More [power] to them.'
By 1961, Howe had found a steady love in his life: a Portuguese coworker named Tony Ferreira (although they often had an open relationship when either was out of town). They lived a plain life in a plain house in a plain neighborhood of New York City, on East 37th Street. But they remained playful with each other. 'See what your absences are driving me to?' joked Ferreira in a letter that described having happy-hour cocktails with a female neighbor. 'Imagine'WOMEN and liquor.' In another, detailing a trip to L&L, a strip club in Iowa, Ferreira wrote, 'Horrors! Loved every minute of it' (he fell asleep on a barstool). He signed that note 'yours in celibacy, T.'
At that time, Howe was head of his own Chicago-based public relations firm; owned a printing business across the street from the University of Missouri; organized the business logistics for the entire Greek social world at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., (where he was also the town's USO chairman); and hopped from college to college fundraising or assisting high-ranking administrators (in one sample stint, he raised $33 million for New York University).
Howe died in 1973, the same year the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The stream of letters had long since become a trickle, mostly sent only from Ferreira. The last letter in the collection, from 1971, is junk mail from a your-name-on-a-plaque vanity business.