Jonathon Ohlinger, known to his friends as JD, never really wanted to join a fraternity. Just wasn’t for him. But after becoming close with a few kids that lived down the hall freshman year who were all going to rush, Ohlinger decided he’d give it a shot.
“We figured out that you can get a lot of free beer and free alcohol and free food if you tell the fraternity you’re rushing,” Ohlinger said. “So I ended up being on, like, 12 different rush lists.”
This was fall 2008, Ohlinger’s first semester at the University. And although he said he enjoyed the rush process — the free parties and booze, the friends he made — Ohlinger never seriously considered joining. Even after he and his friends received a bid to the same fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, Ohlinger still opted against it.
It wasn’t that Ohlinger didn’t enjoy the people he had met — some of his best friends decided to join. But, rather, Ohlinger thought he wouldn’t be welcome in the fraternity once the brothers found out he was gay.
“I didn’t think the whole, being in a frat and being gay went together at all,” Ohlinger said. “(I didn’t know if) it would be OK with those people having guys come back to the frat … if it would be awkward in front of people, or if people would have a problem with it. So I just turned down my bid right up front. They gave it to me and I turned it down.”
The following day, a few of the ADPhi brothers called Ohlinger to ask why he’d turned down the bid. “Oh, I didn’t tell you guys, but I’m gay,” Ohlinger told the brothers. “And they were, like, ‘Oh, so why’d you turn it down?’ ”
But even after turning down the bid, he still hung out with some of the guys in the fraternity, still attended parties with them throughout the semester.
Throughout the rest of the fall semester, Ohlinger’s friends who were rushing the fraternity and other ADPhi brothers asked him to reconsider. They told him he should rush winter semester. “ ‘We all talked about it and no one cares,’ ” Ohlinger recalls the brothers telling him. “ ‘You’re our friend and we want you in the house.’ ”
But even with the continued encouragement to rush ADPhi, it wasn’t until near the end of the fall semester that Ohlinger seriously considered it.
“One of the older guys (in the fraternity) came up to me the end of the semester. He was always telling people he was homophobic, just that kind of person,” Ohlinger said. “And I forget what he said exactly, but he said ‘I just wanted to say I hope you rush the house, because you made me question what I always thought (about gay people).’
“So what I was thinking,” Ohlinger said, “what it really came down to was, if I could change the opinion of how 60 straight frat guys viewed one gay person, or the whole gay community, while I hung out with my best friends and had a really good time, why wouldn’t I do it? So I ended up deciding to do it.”
Ohlinger rushed ADPhi that winter and hasn’t looked back since. “It was this huge relief,” he said. “There were no negative outcomes. So many people surprised me by the things they said and they did.
“I’d do anything for a lot of the guys in there,” Ohlinger said of his brothers. “For me to keep something like that from them would be horrible and would defeat the whole purpose of what we stand for.”
Ohlinger’s original sentiment about rushing a fraternity isn’t unique. His initial concern that fraternity life and being gay don’t mix resonates throughout the LGBT community.
However, Ohlinger’s experience is distinctive in his coming out before rushing the fraternity. Numerous other gay men who are in fraternities are either not out to their entire house or only out to a select few. Their stories shed light onto the experiences of LGBT men in fraternities, or those considering joining fraternities on campus, many of whom feel they have to change who they are or hide a part of themselves to fit in.
And while there are other Greek councils on campus — which surely grapple with similar issues — most of the officials and students quoted in this story are discussing the culture in the IFC fraternities as the most blatant examples of Greek life stereotypes.
The following names in this section have been changed to protect the anonymity of these individuals. Their reasons for wanting to remain anonymous are all the same — that most or all of their brothers don’t know they are gay.
Steve, a senior in a fraternity that is part of the Interfraternity Council, the collective group of over 29 fraternities on campus, is not yet out to his brothers.
Steve points to what he calls the “dude culture” as the reason many gay men are not comfortable coming out in their fraternities.
“You have a big social life and parties with sororities and hooking up with girls and all that type of stuff,” Steve said. “So when something runs contrary to that I think people are surprised.”
Steve said that this “dude culture” often times lends to the perception that the Greek system on campus is homophobic. He said, however, that from his experience, when you view it on an individual level, most of the fraternity members in the IFC aren’t unaccepting of gay people. It’s when you step back and view the system as a whole, he said, that the perception of how Greek members view LGBT people changes.
“I think at the group level, kind of a pack mentality (exists),” he said. “Whenever someone starts jerking around and saying (homophobic) things, but not necessarily meant to be derogatory, that kind of feeds into those perceptions.”
John, a freshman in another IFC fraternity, has only come out to a few of his brothers. He spoke about his thought process behind telling some of his brothers that he is gay.
He said he first decided to come out to a few of his fraternity brothers, mostly people in his pledge class, just a few months ago. He said he didn’t want to tell everyone because it’s an extremely personal part of his life that he doesn’t want to share with everyone.
“It’s just kind of like a family history story,” John said. “Like you tell the people close to you, a bonding thing. It’s like getting to know each other, gain their trust.”
During the rush process, John said it was important for him to find a fraternity that he felt would be accepting of his sexual orientation. And while he said this is a characteristic of his fraternity, some of the others on campus may be a little more close-minded.
John said that while he has received positive responses from the brothers he’s told thus far, their reactions are generally all the same: surprised.
“I get the same reaction, like ‘no way, like I don’t see it at all,’ and then I start explaining and then it totally makes sense,” he said.
But because he is still not out to most of his brothers, John feels that he still has to act a certain way — especially in social settings like fraternity parties, where the brothers are expected to interact with girls.
“If I just want to talk to my fraternity brothers or something like that I can’t do that,” he said. “Or if some of my LGBT friends come over, I know, like, they’re always, like, ‘Dude, why are you hanging out with a bunch of dudes? Go find some chicks.’ Those are the guys that don’t know that say that to me.”
John said that having to change how he acts in certain situations is difficult for him, and he has found himself having to embrace some of the stereotypes of fraternity members to blend in more easily.
“You know, you kind of have to act a certain way,” he said. “It’s kind of like not a complete change of who I actually am as a person; it’s just the small details. I think it’s dumb that I have to focus my attention on making sure I act that way because it’s kind of the antithesis of what I’m supposed to be doing, but as of right now it’s just the small changes that I’m sure I’ll get rid of.”
John spoke about being most uncomfortable when his brothers ask him about his sex life, something he said guys discuss on a regular basis, but that he avoids divulging any information about.
Paul, a junior in an IFC fraternity who is also only out to a few of his fraternity brothers, expressed similar feelings of having to change how he acts in certain situations.
“There are comments I usually wouldn’t be making if I were around friends who knew,” Paul said. “But you know you need to put up some sort of façade, it’s part of something that you learn growing up that most people, most gay guys do and I’ve talked to other gay guys who are the same way. You just need to throw in a comment here and there.
“Like, I’ve hooked up with girls in the past, but it was really just to put on, you know, a show, not for personal gratification,” he said.
Greg, a junior in an IFC fraternity, hasn’t yet come out to anyone in his fraternity except for one other brother who is also gay. His parents and a few of his close friends know, but he said he doesn’t feel the need to share this information with his entire fraternity.
“For me it’s stupid because people don’t say ‘Oh, by the way, I’m straight,’ ” Greg said. “I don’t feel the need to come out because I’m going to act how I want to act and I’m going to do what I want to do regardless of what people know and what people don’t.
“I’ve had a relationship and I brought my boyfriend around the house and I’m sure some people knew and some people didn’t,” he said. “But you just do what you do and its at the point that I’m comfortable with myself to do what I want to do. I don’t feel the need to announce it.”
One major factor that contributes to the perpetuation of the Greek stereotype on campus is the lack of visibility of gay students in fraternities. Because many gay students feel uncomfortable coming out to their brothers and, in turn, don’t come out, people both inside and outside the Greek community are unaware gay members exist within the system.
Gabe Javier, assistant director of the Spectrum Center, the University office for LGBT issues and awareness on campus, works with the executive boards of all four Greek councils to promote LGBT awareness in the Greek system. Javier, who came out to his fraternity brothers as an undergraduate at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., spoke about the stereotypes and perceptions that surround the Greek community and the psychology behind why many gay students feel uncomfortable coming out.
Even if the perceptions are not true, if the fraternity brothers would be accepting of a brother who comes out, Javier said, these issues need to be addressed because those perceptions still exists.
“I think perception is reality, right?” Javier said. “I think whether or not it’s true, if it’s what you feel then it’s what you feel. So whether or not it’s true that they will be deactivated or beat up, if someone thinks that’s going to happen, then there’s perception to be busted, myth to be busted.”
To address these concerns, a group called the Lambda Alliance was created in 2007 that aims to bridge the gap between the LGBT and Greek communities on campus. The group was founded by members of all four Greek councils — in collaboration with the Michigan Student Assembly’s LGBT Commission and the Office of LGBT Affairs (this office changed its name to the Spectrum Center in 2007) — in an effort to combat the unfriendly environment of the Greek system toward LGBT students.
Kristefer Stojanovski, currently a University graduate student, played an integral part in the formation of Lambda Alliance. Stojanovski came out to his fraternity, Chi Psi, while he was an undergraduate at the University.
Former-IFC president Jose Nunez was also a member of Chi Psi at the time, and upon hearing that his fraternity brother had come out, Nunez realized there was a need for a greater push for LGBT awareness in the Greek system and worked with Stokanovski to form the Lambda Alliance.
Since its formation, the Lambda Alliance has held events like ally training workshops, which aim to educate members of the Greek system on how to be supportive allies to LGBT brothers or sisters.
In 2007, around the same time the Alliance was formed, the Office of LGBT Affairs released a survey to the Greek system to measure the community’s level of acceptance of LGBT people.
The survey asked questions that addressed how people would feel about a brother or sister coming out. Most said that individually they would be comfortable with a brother or sister’s coming out, but that they thought their fraternity or sorority as a whole would not be okay with it.
This groupthink mentality is something that Javier said he thinks still holds true within the Greek-letter community today.
“I would imagine that people in fraternities and sororities feel that they individually would be really affirming or supportive of an LGBT friend or person, but as they got further out from themselves, so perhaps a small group or their chapter, or the Greek system in general, they might feel like it’s less affirming,” Javier said. “That tends to happen in groups, so the goal is to help us think about if everyone thinks they’re cool with it but they also think their peers are not, then someone has to do something.
“Whose job is it if we all say we believe something but we don’t think the person next to us believes that?”
Ari Parritz, last year’s IFC president, said he thinks the results of the LGBT climate survey still hold true, despite greater signs of national acceptance of LGBT individuals like the introduction and passage of same-sex marriage legislation in some states.
“There’s been gay marriage proposals in a variety of states since that survey, so I think maybe that influences peoples’ perceptions of how they interact with the LGBT community, but I don’t know how much or if it has at all,” Parritz said. “I don’t think much has changed on campus.”
But current IFC President Mike Friedman said he thinks the Greek system’s view toward LGBT individuals is, for the most part, accepting, and that the community’s attitude toward LGBT individuals runs contrary to the groupthink mentality found in the 2007 survey.
“Under no circumstances would it be acceptable for people to speak out against that specific community,” Friedman said. “And in fact you would be looked down upon if you did so. So I think as accepting as people are individually, as strongly as people hold their beliefs on an individual level, that is translated to the beliefs and acceptance of the organization as a whole.”
Parritz said that when he was IFC president, the biggest challenge his executive board faced while trying to address LGBT issues within the Greek system was garnering the support of individual chapter presidents and general members. Though members of the executive boards of IFC and the Panhellenic Association, an organization comprised of 16 sororities on campus, attended the ally training workshops last year, Parritz said no non IFC or Panhel executive board chapter presidents showed any interest in attending the training.
The Lambda Alliance, too, faces its own challenges, Javier said, because people who join or show an interest in the group may face questioning about why they care about LGBT issues.
“One of the reasons straight-identified men don’t identify as allies is because they don’t want to be mistaken, quote unquote mistaken, as gay,” Javier said. “They don’t want to be perceived as gay, so that’s a road block to someone who actually does care about LGBT people.”
Even with the formation of the Lambda Alliance in 2007, there still remains a lacking voice of out-LGBT students in the Greek system. The fact that there are still LGBT-identified students who don’t feel comfortable coming out to their fraternity brothers is an indicator that something more needs to be done than programming like ally training. Because despite getting some people involved, educational workshops such as those tend to be insular events that only involve a very small percentage of Greek community members.
While the Lambda Alliance and workshops are valuable tools, Javier said, the best approach to furthering the awareness and acceptance of LGBT students in the Greek system is for people to come out as allies. Javier said people need to demonstrate openness and tolerance of LGBT individuals instead of just sitting back and being apathetic on the issue.
“If people in the Greek community feel like allies… (for) whatever reason; whether they have a best friend, brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, parent, whatever reason — to think about that reason, reflect on that reason and then come out, come out as an ally.”
Claire Sabourin, the current president of the Lambda Alliance agreed, saying that, in her experience, apathy was the greatest roadblock to improving the anti-LGBT perception.
“I think it’s more of an apathy,” Sabourin said. “Not about this particular issue, but about a lot of things in general. But I have met a lot of people who are willing to push the surge to work on it and who want to participate in the programming, want to keep doing what we’re doing. I think that for any issue you’re going to have to work harder because I think people may support something but not necessarily want to act on it.”
Ohlinger also said that something more than just ally training needs to take place to further the conversation on the issue, and said he thinks the most effective approach to creating LGBT awareness in the Greek system is not through formal training or ally workshops. Instead, it is through LGBT-identified peoples’ coming out to their brothers.
Ohlinger recalled what a brother had told him: “They don’t know anything. A gay guy might as well be an alien. But they meet you and they see you’re cool, like all of a sudden being gay isn’t some weird thing, some strange alien, not some crazy thing they’ve just hear about,” Ohlinger said. “(It’s) like, oh, yeah, that’s JD, he’s our friend, it doesn’t matter.”
— Managing News Editor Jillian Berman contributed to this report.