Homecoming: Gay and Greek: Reconciling the old with the new at Pitt

Homecoming: Gay and Greek: Reconciling the old with the new at Pitt

Natalie Daher
/ Assistant News Editor

September 27, 2013

When the music started to blare and the brothers began to pour drinks at the Sigma Chi house last year, Inter-Fraternity Council President Zach Patton would either spend time in his room or sneak away as the more than 200 people danced and partied.

“It was just easier for me to do that because I felt like I was different,” Patton said. “In my head, I’m feeling like I don’t fit in, and I don’t look at things the same way as anyone else. They don’t know that, so they think that I could be weird.”

His style of partying also might have blown his secret.

“I would worry that if I had a couple of drinks, I would start having a limp wrist or something,” he said. “It wasn’t a social thing as much of as a ‘Let’s see what I can forget.’ I just kind of wanted to exit.”

After months of coping with depression and confiding in a counselor and a few close brothers, Patton mustered up the confidence to come out before about 80 of his brothers in April. With shaky hands and concise words, at their final meeting of the spring semester, Zach reminded his brothers of their shared values: friendship, justice and learning.

“I haven’t really been living up to my own expectations here because I have something that I need to share that’s been on my chest for a while,” Patton told his brothers. “And that’s when I told them I was gay.”

In an increasingly sexually diverse society, the “Animal House” fraternity reputation of boozing and pawing at women is slowly changing. As University of Pittsburgh Greek society members reveal their sexuality, Pitt’s decades-old Greek culture is being challenged by the membership of openly gay, lesbian and bisexual students.                                                            

Joe Andros, a Sigma Chi brother and Patton’s roommate, called Patton “a trailblazer at Pitt.” Patton came out to Andros in fall 2012 over breakfast. Andros thanked his friend, ensured Patton that he supported him and called him brave for what he was doing.

Before coming out, Patton served a two-semester term as vice president of Sigma Chi fraternity and was elected to be this year’s Inter-Fraternity Council president.

To be voted into those positions, Patton composed speeches and built his experience with about half a dozen smaller leadership positions in his fraternity and as Inter-Fraternity Council vice president of judicial affairs.

Patton is a candidate for Homecoming King. If he is elected, he will be the first openly gay student to assume the crown at Pitt. In short, some may come to regard this as a successful referendum on breaking the tradition at Pitt of having a straight king and queen. 

It was much the same after his Sigma Chi brothers found out their vice president was gay. However, some brothers who aren’t close friends of Patton’s have not gone out of their way to accept him.

“Even though there’s no other openly gay members in my entire fraternity, I still had so much confidence in their acceptance,” Patton said. “I knew that I was a leader in our fraternity, and I’ve done a lot for our fraternity. I would hope that they would respect that enough to be able to get past the fact that I was gay.”

Since joining Sigma Chi as a first-semester freshman in Fall 2010, Patton’s brothers have endearingly called him by the nickname “Patty.” In an effort to overcompensate for his lack of typically masculine traits, Patton responded angrily when one of his brothers called him by “a girl’s name.”

“I hated it so damn bad,” he said.

Andrew Hansen, Sigma Chi president at the time of Patton’s announcement, recalled his friend’s earlier disposition.

“He used to have a shell where if people would push his buttons, he’d fly off the handle and get bent out of shape,” he said. “Now, he’s a lot more comfortable and relaxed with who he is.”

Additionally, Patton’s revelation provided an opportunity for Hansen to learn about a culture that he previously knew nothing about.

“I never had a friend that was gay, and I don’t know many people who are gay,” Hansen said. “I was really interested and just kept asking him questions.”

The evolution of brotherhood

Over the past 40 years, the increasingly common societal conversation about sexual orientation has been somewhat reflected in Greek life. 

Keith Schaefer, a Sigma Chi brother who graduated from Pitt in 1971, said it would have been “highly unlikely” for fraternity members to recruit an open homosexual or a member of a minority race when he attended Pitt. He is now a Board of Trustees member at Pitt and stays connected to Sigma Chi members through the organization’s alumni and mentorship programs. 

“In the ’70s, if somebody was out, it would be highly unlikely that he could get through the process of being admitted to the fraternity,” he said.

Schaefer, who is gay and who met Patton through his mentorship of Andros, said that the “cultural environment” of the 1970s was far more stringent, lacking the laws and models of acceptance that are in place today. Schaefer did not come to terms with his homosexuality until after college, and he did not share it with his closest brothers until five years after graduation.

While his fraternity experience relied heavily upon the social aspects of Greek life, Schaefer said that contemporary Greek life more strongly emphasizes academics, networking, careers, and outreach and community service.

Greek life at Pitt during the 1970s also composed a larger percentage of the student population than it does today. 

The Greek population currently makes up about 10 percent of the total undergraduate student population at Pitt, compared to Schaefer’s estimate of 25 percent during the 1970s. Pitt fraternities and sororities belong to the Inter-Fraternity Council, the Collegiate Panhellenic Association or the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

Currently, there are 17 fraternities within the Inter-Fraternity Council on campus, accounting for about 1,000 brothers. Pitt also has 13 sororities within the Panhellenic Council on campus, accounting for about 800 sisters. 

The National Pan-Hellenic Council, which includes traditionally black fraternities and sororities, currently has three sororities and four fraternities active on campus, accounting for 30 active members.

Patton estimated that he knows fewer than 10 fraternity men who are openly gay, and about five Greek men or women have come out to him since his April announcement. 

National Pan-Hellenic Council President William Griffin said in a statement that “he is not aware of the sexuality” of the council’s members because the members are “not open with [their] sexuality.” The council’s mission, along with its values and traditions, aims to provide support and equality for marginalized groups, which makes the organization more receptive to gay members, Griffin said. 

While research estimates that roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population is gay, Patton’s estimated sum of both openly and covertly homosexual members in Pitt Greek organizations is equivalent to less than 2 percent of Pitt’s Greek community.

A native of Kittanning, Pa., which he describes as a “cliched American town,” Patton entered Greek life because he was attracted to the aspects of brotherhood, self-betterment and leadership. During his first two years of college, Patton, fearful of negativity and stereotypes, concealed his homosexuality. He dated a woman during his freshman and sophomore years.

“I thought I was taking that to the grave,” Patton said of his sexual orientation, though at 14 he started experiencing same-sex attractions. “I knew it my whole life, but I never thought I’d ever act or ever say anything.”

Eventually, “living a lie” took its toll on Patton emotionally.

“Before, I was very antisocial,” he said. “A social environment for an antisocial person can lead to some serious conflicts internally that manifest themselves in fairly destructive ways.”

Changing from within

College environments are places where young people become adults and encounter a much wider range of human experience. This process of exposure educates and changes them, making them more understanding and accepting than their more sheltered lives of home and childhood.

Pitt professor Melanie Hughes, who teaches the class Sociology of Gender, said that a huge shift toward acceptance of the LGBT community is especially common among young people.

“Older people may be more resistant to change than younger people, who have grown up with MTV, a network that often portrays gays and lesbians as people rather than as villains,” Hughes said.

Hughes added that American culture still embraces the ideas of heteronormativity, in which everyone is “assumed to be heterosexual” in social settings, making dissenters “abnormal.”

In same-sex environments, such as Greek life, Hughes said it’s common behavior to mask one’s sexuality in order to fit in. Additionally, particular same-sex activities such as sports, which often involve frequent physical contact, can trigger the overcompensation of someone’s masculinity or femininity.

“People still perform heterosexuality and enforce it in others so that they aren’t assumed to be homosexual,” Hughes said.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Patton said he strived to fill the role of a “conservative man’s man.” He was 60 pounds heavier, he tended to wear denim, and he had a shaved head and bulging biceps from lifting weights. 

But now he wears collared shirts more often than before, his physique has slimmed, his hair has grown long enough to be “slicked,” and he opts for cardio over pumping iron.  

“I’m so much more effective,” he said. “My physical, mental and overall demeanor has improved.”

Hansen said he was “shell-shocked” that his friend, who “couldn’t match his ties to his shoes,” came out as gay. Since Patton’s announcement, Hansen said that he has become more open to making friends with people whom he previously thought he had nothing in common with. Furthermore, he no longer makes derogatory remarks about homosexuality.

“If I would have known he was gay from the beginning, I probably would not have been close with him,” he said. “But I was friends with him the whole time.”

Traditional Greek culture, which is based on rituals such as date parties and mixers with heterosexual men and women, might be harder to change despite open-minded members. 

Hughes said that while members may overtly have no problem, the adaptation of the long-standing Greek culture to more progressive ideals will take more than adding strict nondiscriminatory policies to their bylaws.

“Norms of gender roles and sexuality may be changing more slowly in the Greek life than elsewhere in our culture,” she said. “But for change to happen, it needs to come from within the system just as much as from the outside.”

Hansen said that while the majority of his Greek organization accepted Patton’s homosexuality from the beginning, others needed more time to warm to the idea.

“Although one person is [gay], you still have an organization of 70 to 80 guys,” he said. “Many might be changed by it, but there will still be a select few that won’t.”

He’s not alone

Brandon Benjamin, president of Rainbow Alliance and brother of Delta Chi, has been openly bisexual since he was 12 years old. Now a junior, the past 1 1/2 years in his fraternity have negated his preconceived notion of an organization “driven by testosterone and beer.”

Benjamin, who also entered a six-year program in the Army reserves this year, said that people often express “some sort of surprise” when he says that he has had a positive experience in a fraternity. While he enjoys “girl movies” such as “Miss Congeniality” and “The House Bunny,” he also participates in “macho things,” which confuses people.

“Maybe I’m actually very masculine, and I just happen to like girl movies, not that I’m very feminine and trying to hide my femininity behind all of these masculine archetypal types of things.”

He added that Greek life can often be self-contained, restricting members from interacting with the non-Greek community. He hopes to see more social events spring up that “aren’t so sexualized,” so that gay members can integrate more smoothly.

He said that it can be daunting for a gay brother to bring a male date to the formal when “all [his] brothers are dancing with women, and [he’s] the only one dancing with another guy.”

At social events, Benjamin sometimes dances with guys or wears high heels, but opted not to take his boyfriend to a formal, though his brothers would have supported his decision. He wanted some “time off from being LGBT” because he invests a lot of time into it at Rainbow Alliance, so instead, he took a “friend who is a girl.” 

But in some instances, such as when he’s recruiting new brothers for his fraternity, he is unsure of how much to talk about his work in Rainbow because it might risk scaring the new guys. 

“It’s hard to bring something you know nothing about into your fraternity,” he said. “Zach’s coming out starts a conversation — he’s in all these leadership positions in Greek life, and he’s not a freak.”

After almost four months of dating, Patton has yet to bring his boyfriend, Mark Pelusi, who graduated last semester, to his fraternity house. Though his boyfriend has met some of his brothers. Patton said that he has to “man up and do it” because many of his brothers have been prodding him, yet he still faces the pressures of a heteronormative society, which labels homosexuality as “not something you should do.”

“If I had been in a position or a place where being gay was always all right, I wouldn’t feel like that now,” he said. “But it wasn’t always all right. It was something I hid for a very long time, so it’s going to take me a little bit of time.”

Patton’s announcement could also heighten sensitivity within Greek life toward the gay community.

“People are now thinking ‘maybe one of my brothers is gay, maybe I need to be more sensitive about how I talk about LGBT issues or calling people a faggot,’” Benjamin said. “Brotherhood is important to all of us. Nobody on this campus wants to screw over their brother or make their brother feel uncomfortable.”

Patton hopes that Sigma Chi’s response to his coming out will prove the unconditional bonds of brotherhood that many people outside of Greek life cannot understand. 

“Out of all of this, I want people to believe me when I tell them what it’s about,” he said. “The idea of brotherhood, leadership, responsibility and betterment.”

The sorority sector

Erin Case, a bisexual member of Sigma Delta Tau, came out her freshman year — roughly a month before she rushed in her second semester. She did not mention her sexuality during rush, and it did not come up in her conversations with potential sisters. Those conversations focused on topics such as her major, hometown and hobbies.

Case, now a senior, began dating a woman during her spring semester, and the relationship came to light in front of her sisters unexpectedly. One sister had been making negative comments about bisexuality when Case interjected.

“That’s when I said, ‘I’m bisexual, and that’s not true,’” Case recalled.

Once Case came out, she said that her sisters made it a point to “not make [her] uncomfortable at all,” and she credited them with the leadership roles she holds today. Case served as the fundraising chair of her sorority for two semesters, filling her with the “confidence boost that [she] needed to believe that [she] could be a leader.” Now, she is the president of Campus Women’s Organization.

“I think people are more surprised when people find out I’m a feminist, and I’m in a sorority and not that I’m bisexual and in a sorority,” she said.

Case has found that the stereotypes that cast sororities as havens for “objectification” or the “beauty ideal” have not held true in her sisterhood. She finds that members of the LGBT community are hesitant to join Greek life because of the stereotypes of image obsession and partying.

“Greek life is about finding the people who accept you no matter what,” she said. “I recently went through a breakup, and the first place I went to was the suite.”

At some universities, barriers to such friendships have been implicitly imposed from the start. Earlier this month, on Sept. 11, The Crimson White, the student newspaper at the University of Alabama, published an exposé on the racial segregation that permeated its Greek community. 

Several sorority sisters told The Crimson White that alumnae of their organization had prevented them from admitting African-American sisters to their house because of their race.

Then, a week after the article was published and rush season completed, the president of the school said that Panhellenic sororities extended 11 membership offers to black women, according to The New York Times.

Colleen Carr, a lesbian sister who also holds a leadership position as vice president of membership development in Pitt’s Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, has also found the sisters in her sorority to be accepting. But like Case, she has faced the occasional derogatory remark within the Greek community.

During rush this fall, Carr served as a recruitment counselor, leading groups of prospective Greeks up and down the stairs of Amos Hall as they toured each sorority suite. While waiting in the stairwell, a sorority sister who she did not know approached her to compliment her eyebrow piercing.

“I’d get one, but I’d look like a lesbian,” the girl joked, and Carr shrugged it off.

“You have to take it with a grain of salt,” Carr said. “I’m light about life. You have to be if you’re a lesbian in Greek life.”

Carr realized during her senior year of high school that she was a lesbian, though she feels the questions about her sexual orientation such as “Have you always known that?” or “Why didn’t you tell us?” automatically make homosexuality seem abnormal. She feels that the imposed abnormality especially applies to lesbians.

“I feel like Greek life in general is set up to be heteronormative. Girls are brutal,” Carr said. “You almost have to have another identifying characteristic to make you less weird.”

Carr referenced Ellen Degeneres’ fame for being both gay and funny as an example.

In some cases, sororities might not have strayed far from the “Mean Girls” perception of high school. 

Carr said that some sororities care more about maintaining a house that is appealing to fraternity men, which will score them invites to the “good parties.”

“Sometimes I think a sorority’s social standing is determined by which fraternities they mix with,” she said. 

But Carr, who typically only reveals her homosexuality if it comes up or to friends she’s close with, said that being more transparent might be that extra push that some gay women need to seek out a sorority. She said that lesbians should give the Greek life a chance if it seems like a good match and not be intimidated “to talk to people in letters.” 

Another bisexual woman in her senior year in Greek life, who chose to remain anonymous, has only come out to about half of her house because of a leadership position that she currently holds. When the role in her current position concludes at the end of the semester, her true orientation “won’t be a secret” to the rest of her sisters. 

“With what my position is, if someone was uncomfortable with my sexual orientation, they wouldn’t be able to utilize my position,” she explained. “I can’t really do my job if they aren’t comfortable coming to me with stuff that’s private for them.”

“If you are looking for quality people, I think that being gay [in Greek life] is fine,” she said, noting that some houses would not be OK with bisexual or homosexual members. “In some other houses where they are less accepting of differences in people, I don’t think that would be OK.”

Adversity to overcome

The outside world has not been quite as accepting, and it has affected how Patton handles many social situations, such as giving his brothers the opportunity to meet his partner at their fraternity house.

While recently walking through Sewickley, a suburb outside of the city, holding hands with Pelusi at about 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, a group of young men drove by and screamed “faggot” out of their car window.

Although the incident reminded Patton that the entire world might not be so accepting, he is grateful for the Greek setting where he can feel “welcomed, accepted and respected.”

“I feel safe at Pitt, and I feel safe in my fraternity,” he said. “A group of young men rolling down the window and yelling ‘faggot’ at me made me love Pitt. This changed my life.”


Leave a comment.