I waited patiently outside of what I thought was the side door of the house. On the glass door was a white decal of three Greek fraternity letters that, to an insider, represent a variety of experiences from brotherhood, comradeship and community to football tailgates, Hamms Special Light, drunken hookups, cleavage, infatuation, regret and the occasional smell of vomit.
I had rarely come to the fraternity house on a weekday night. The feel was very different. There was no music blaring and my boots were not sticking to spilled alcohol on the tile as I walked down the main hallway. The same three Greek letters were painted in white on the wall. I noticed a half-full bottle of off-brand Sprite on the floor, probably a leftover bottle of chaser from the weekend.
Todd Needle, a senior photo editor at The Michigan Daily, sat across from me on his bedroom floor. He sat with his legs crossed — a position we referred to in elementary school as “Indian style.” It made his body look cramped, but the informality of his posture made him appear relaxed at the same time. On the wall above his bed was a poster that read “Forward with Obama.”
For years, Needle has struggled to come to terms with his sexual orientation. Being a student at the University, a fairly liberal school at that, has both complicated and cleared his path to self-discovery. Needle is a member of Greek life on campus. However, it hasn’t always been an environment in which he felt comfortable expressing his sexual orientation.
Greek culture stigmatizes gays. “It’s not an environment conducive to homosexuality, to open homosexuality,” Needle told me. Because of this, in the past he has consciously filtered himself while with his brothers. He has spoken in a more masculine tone. He has joined in conversations about hot sorority girls.
Last semester, I took a course in narrative journalism. I chose to write my narrative about Needle’s experience with the intersection of homosexuality and Greek life. I originally set out to tell a story about keeping a secret, but it didn’t take long to see that he wasn’t keeping one; rather, he was concealing his sexual orientation from a key element in his life: his fraternity and the broader Greek-life culture.
“So it’s really not a secret that you’re keeping. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s more so that you don’t want to shake things up?” I asked him.
“Yes. It’s not that interesting. I’m a normal person.”
Jackie Simpson, director of the Spectrum Center, explained that over the years, acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Greek life has been a topic of conversation. It’s routinely brought up by students to the Spectrum Advocacy Board as an issue they would like to pursue.
According to Simpson, about six years ago, the Spectrum Center, in collaboration with Greek life, led a survey that explored the perceived level of acceptance of LGBTQs within the Greek Community.
“I found the results to be very fascinating,” Simpson said.
What the survey found was that the perceived level of acceptance of LGBTQ members varies across community, chapter and the individual.
Simpson recounted that when students were asked, “Do you feel said level is supportive of LGBTQ members?” the vast majority of students claimed that as a community, Greek life is not accepting, and that their chapter is somewhat accepting, and, as an individual, they are accepting.
Simpson explained that judging by the needs of students consulting at the Spectrum Center, she has not noticed a change in the level of acceptance of LGBTQ members in Greek life since the survey was conducted more than half a decade ago.
“I would say that students experience it the same. They continue to bring this up as something they feel needs to be worked on. What that says to me is that it hasn’t changed.”
Simpson added, “For me personally, as director of the Spectrum Center, I view my colleagues in Greek life and students I’ve worked with in IFC and Panhel as very supportive.”
So what’s going on? If the majority of surveyed Greek members are allegedly accepting of the LGBTQ community, why, as an entity, does it appear so homophobic?
It’s worth considering, however, that maybe the issue isn’t that the Greek community is homophobic, rather hyper-heterosexual. As a Greek life member, I can attest that when I lived in a sorority house, conversations at the dinner table were largely driven by heterosexuality — “That guy you met at Alpha Beta Chi last night … are you taking him to formal?” It isn’t homophobic, it just isn’t inclusive language.
But the same can be said for the wider campus culture, not to mention all across society. When viewed broadly, we wonder how it can possibly change, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part in making all corners of our University an accepting place for the LGBTQ community. One way is to continue consciously eliminating micro-aggressions, like using “gay” or “faggot” in a negative connotation.
There is much to be done before the Greek community, as an entity, can tote acceptance of LGBTQ members, but I believe we’re moving forward. Personally, I have seen a change in acceptance within Greek life over the past four years that I’ve been part of it.
Last February, Needle told me, “We’re just not there yet, as a Greek culture. It’s disappointing. I’m not even there yet as a person, to be running around taking guys to formal.”
With a smile he added: “Although we’d totally have matching bow ties.”
Since then, Needle has become more and more open about his sexual preference. This fall, he posed for pictures next to his boyfriend at his fraternity’s Gatsby-inspired date party.
And yes, they wore bow ties.
“I’ve been very impressed by everyone who knows me personally — especially my brothers. They haven’t batted an eyelash.” Needle told me in late October. “But when I hear people say ‘fag’ or ‘that’s so gay,’ I want to tell them that it doesn’t make you sound cool; it makes you sound like an asshole.”
“It reminds me that we still have a ways to go.”
Sara Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.