On Being OUT in the Fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon

This article is about men, gay and straight. It analyzes fraternal bonding in a fraternity at UC Irvine where I am an openly gay sociologist. The central questions concern how men bond without homophobia, sexism, or hazing. It highlights a progressive fraternity and suggests a new kind of masculinity awaits us in America.

The data is drawn from my participant/observation as an elected faculty mentor to the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon. But before one assumes that my involvement stems from having once been a fraternity member, or from somehow already having been on the “In-group,” it should be noted that I am as unlikely a candidate to be involved with a fraternity as they come. Indeed, prior to being asked to serves as the faculty mentor to this fraternity, I was as much an outsider as they come. I maintained the dominant sociological view that fraternities serve as a pillar of patriarchy. Indeed research has shown that fraternities, in general, tend to be both homophobic and misogynistic as they teach men to devalue gays and women. However, my preliminary findings with the chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon at UC Irvine stand in stark contrast to what both the sociological literature regarding fraternities and my pre-conceptions of fraternal life suggested.

My involvement with a fraternity is a paradoxical position, in short the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon asked me to speak to their fraternity about homophobia, after a few of the brothers took my class on men and masculinities. I, of course, jumped on the opportunity to address a fraternity – I had come out of the closet as an openly gay coach in 1993 (Anderson, 2000) and was used to operating from within the lion's den. My presentation was (apparently) quite successful, and stirred the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon into the kind of conversation one hopes to stir after an academic presentation. A few weeks later, a former student of mine, Jairo Gutierrez, came to my office. “Gumby,” he said, “we at Sigma Phi Epsilon were very impressed with your presentation. It really got a lot of us thinking. And, after discussing it with the Fraternity, we've decided to formally ask you to serve as our faculty mentor.”

Dazed, I gasped, “Wait, are you telling me that the members of your fraternity want me, an openly gay guy, to serve as their faculty mentor?”
“Yeah,” he responded.
“And the guys from the fraternity want me?”
“Yes. It's a done deal if you accept.”

I asked Jairo if there were any openly gay members to the fraternity, “No,” he responded. “But if you join, I'll come out and then there will be two.”
I inquired what it meant to be a faculty mentor, and he responded, “Well, we don't really know exactly, no fraternity has one. We just decided that we wanted you to be involved with us in some manner, and we created a position called faculty mentor.” I accepted the position. He agreed to come out.

After Jairo left my office, I sat – simply amazed. Nine years ago I came out in the hyper-masculine arena of sport as the nation's first openly gay high school coach. Other athletes horribly ostracized my team and me, and matters grew so bad that one of my athletes was brutally (and horrifically) beaten by a hyper-macho football player who assumed him to be gay because his coach was. Since leaving that high school in 1997 I had tried to land a coaching position (something for which I am highly qualified) at local high schools and junior colleges, but I was denied four times. Now, I was being asked to lead boys from another masculine arena, another pillar of patriarchy and homophobia, a fraternity? The irony was not lost.

For Jairo Guiterrez coming out of the closet would be no small affair either. He is a well-known figure in both Greek and campus life. He has served on a multitude of committees and worked for a variety of organizations within his fraternity, within the Greek system, and with the campus in general. In fact, the faculty and staff at UCI had recently honored Jairo as “Greek Man of the Year” during their Greek Awards night. He is known by all Greeks on campus, and when I asked members of a sorority what they thought of Sigma Phi Epsilon one said, “Sig Eps? Whenever I think of Sig Eps, I just think of Jairo.” Jairo serves a great example for other GLBTI Greek members through his activities with the Greek community at UCI, and his coming out publicly in the school newspaper would let all Greeks know that the alpha male, was indeed an alpha queen.

Jairo's accomplishments, essentially, are not surprising. There are very few Greek members who are openly gay within the fraternal system in America, and those who do come out tend to have high merits. In fact, one researcher found that some 80% of closeted gay fraternity members are in an elected position for their fraternity (or at least they are more likely to admit it to the researcher). This is consistent with my research on openly gay athletes, which shows that they tend to become over-achievers in order to cast-off suspicion of their true sexuality, or in order to have an excuse not to date the opposite sex. This is also done in attempt to validate themselves and their status as fraternity members. Essentially, they seem to earn respect before coming out as a form of insurance against discrimination from their brothers for when they do.

Jairo joined Sigma Phi Epsilon three years ago for the same reason that gay and straight young men join fraternities, he was looking for a sense of family, for support and acceptance.

“A Fraternity is the last place I'd think of looking for acceptance,” I asked.
“Yes. I hear you, but Sigma Phi Epsilon is different,” he said.
“We were the first national Fraternity to allow blacks in fifty years ago; and in 1999 we became one of the few to add sexual orientation to our non-discrimination clause.”

Jairo knew he was gay from pre-adolescence, and he had actually come out to a few of his close high school friends before coming to UCI. But without having much knowledge of the gay community he didn't really know “what to do.” So during his sophomore year at UCI, he volunteered at the LGBT resource center. “I didn't really come out there,” he said, “and nobody ever asked.” But his experience prompted him to come out to a select few fraternity brothers – including the former president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Charles Clark. “I'm proud of Jairo, and of my fraternity,” he said.
I asked him if he was surprised that Jairo was so well received after upholding his promise to me and coming out to all 68 of his fraternity brothers through an e mail.
“Not at all, he said.” “I'd expect nothing less from Sigma Phi Epsilon. “I've encouraged him to come out for quite some time now. I told him that people just wouldn't care. We had already learned our lessons with Henry.”

Henry, a member who I have never met, was a Trailblazer in this Fraternity. Charles told me that two years ago Henry came out before being accepted as a member. “I fought for him.” There was one or two people opposed to it, and one of them quit the fraternity. But we were better off without him.” Charles and Jairo have both seen the Fraternity come a long ways in four years. Just how far have they come? “I never hear them use the word ‘fag' or the term ‘that's so gay,” Jairo told me. The current president John
Mavros told me, “This is just not an issue. Whether it be Jairo or any of our other brothers, one's sexual orientation does not cause them to gain or lose prestige – it's not important.” But saying something isn't important and acting upon it are two different things.

So how did Sigma Phi Epsilon react to my accepting their nomination to serve as faculty advisor? With a standing ovation. How did they react to Jairo's coming out letter? With indifferent support. It truly wasn't an issue to them. Charles said, “It's like a former Sig Ep, Dr. Seuss said, ‘Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. »

I've been quite impressed with the boys from Sigma Phi Epsilon since I've begun working and playing with them. Their fraternity as a whole does a good deal of collective good for the community. Each member volunteers 30 hours of work during the school year outside the UCI community. The chapter has been actively involved in fund raising for Big Brothers of America (something I did for years until I came out of the closet and was no longer allowed to serve as a big brother), and other charitable organizations. They volunteer work with the clothesline project, and have even voluntarily asked me to present a workshop to them on issues pertaining to sexual assault.

I have, without doubt, experienced a romance period with the fraternity – a period in which I've just been in awe of what the fraternity was all about, compared to what I had always imagined what fraternal life to be like. But I was quickly rained back in from my place of joy one night while expressing the good news to a pro-gay fraternity member of another fraternity on campus. “Congratulations Gumby. That's great. It's just too bad it's going to hurt them though.” “Huh?” I inquired. “Yeah, I'm sure it's going to hurt their recruitment.”

The words hit me hard – sending me back to my coaching days in which my team size dwindled from 45 to 9 after I came out. Although I had not had any athletes quit my team after I came out, gaining new members seemed almost impossible. I worried as to whether this might happen here or not. And did the boys at Sigma Phi Epsilon know what they would be getting themselves into?
Hughes (1998) has shown that historically, when a member of a fraternity comes out, guilt by association process leads the entire fraternity to be labeled “the gay fraternity”. This type of marginalization serves as a strong social sanction for a fraternity not to accept a gay member, or to strongly influence its closeted gay members from coming out.

Hughes has also shown that once a fraternity is labeled as « gay » its membership drastically declines, just like it had on my team. This isn't an archaic notion either; I read just today a story about a fraternity in Michigan that was labeled the “gay” fraternity and some hazing that took place because of it. So I expressed my concerns to the current chapter President, John Mavros. “Look,” John said, “Anybody who would be repelled from joining our fraternity because of the presence of openly gay members isn't somebody we would want anyhow.” While I was mildly comforted by John's ideological stance, what would happen if, indeed, Hughes was right? Would their attitudes turn sour, and scapegoat Jairo and I?

Unexpectedly, just the opposite seems to have happened. “Three of our new recruits told me that they sought us out because they had read that we recruited an openly gay faculty mentor,” said Galel Fajardo, the V.P. in charge of recruiting. “They said they wouldn't want to be part of an organization that didn't accept gays.” “And Charles Clark last year's Sig Ep president added, “We've got more gay guys in our fraternity than just Jairo, all fraternities do. I just hope that we at Sigma Phi Epsilon create a culture that promotes them to come out of the closet, to be who they are.” And in a letter about speaking to their fraternity regarding sexual assault, Ashu Kumra wrote, “Also, I have a strong notion that your class last quarter might have influenced Jairo to come out. I want to thank you for doing that because Jairo must now feel more free and open, not hiding or screening his sexual orientation. No one should have to hide or be ashamed of that.”

So one might be wondering, just what kind of fraternity is this? By some accounts it's an average fraternity: there are currently 68 members, of racial composite that reflects the school at large. They like to throw parties, drink beer, go clubbing, and play sports. In fact, the bois at Sigma Phi Epsilon (and I use boi intentionally because it implies one who is male, yet has cast off all the baggage of being a “man” and who is certainly not immature as “boy” implies) are quite athletic. “Its part of our Balanced Man Program,” Jairo told me. “We strive to be a scholar, leader, gentlemen, and athlete.” And while none of the members play division one sports, they certainly hold their own in the Greek sporting turf. I saw them route an opposing fraternity in some rather exciting (and good) basketball, where the Sig Eps added another fraternity championship to their list of accomplishments. “We're football champions too, not to mention we've been voted fraternity of the year three years running,” Jairo added.

So the bois at Sigma Phi Epsilon seem to be upholding their balanced man notion. In fact, before I was asked to be their faculty mentor, I had the honor of giving them an award for being the fraternity with the highest collective GPA on campus. Galel told me, “We've got guys in this fraternity with 4.0 GPAs. That's one area that we do discriminate in, we won't take you if you're not above 2.5.”

Since accepting the position as faculty mentor at Sigma Phi Epsilon, I've observed dozens of hours of interaction in various locales. I've befriended various members of the fraternity, I hang out at their house – dropping by unexpectedly or by invitation, and I've even partied with them. My boifriend and I hosted them at our house for a bar-be-que; I've had them in my classes, and presented lectures to them. I believe I've seen enough to make a judgment as to the type of culture of masculinity they are producing, and the bois at Sigma Phi Epsilon are creating a culture of manhood that respects women, accepts homosexuality, esteems academics, and bonds without hazing. Indeed the bois at Sigma Phi Epsilon are creating a culture of masculinity that values femininity. Whereas sociologist tend to lump all fraternities into reproducing a patriarchal gender order, in which men are symbolically violent, Sigma Phi Epsilon at UCI is contesting orthodox gender roles. Their balanced man program, as implemented, has created somewhat of a feminist fraternity.

I'm not sure that all of the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon would be comfortable with me calling them a feminist fraternity; masculine backlash has tainted the cultural value of the word. But if one keeps in mind the ultimate goal of feminism – equality for all – the bois at Sigma Phi Epsilon, as a collective, maintain the mission of total acceptance and equality for all. A closeted gay member of a different UCI fraternity told me, “Yeah, Sigma Phi Epsilon is known as the Fraternity that does not discriminate. Had I known, I think I would have – no – I definitely would have joined them.”

By doing things differently, the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon are challenging other fraternities to follow. Now lets get one thing correct: I've not hung around the other fraternities at UCI much, so when I say this, I refer to previous research on fraternities. But I have talked to closeted gay members of several other fraternities, who all tell me that their members use the word “fag” extensively. “I never hear my brothers use that word,” Jairo told me. “Not even when I was in the closet and before you came along. I'd be so shocked if I heard that.”

The lack of homophobic discourse in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and the presence of it in other fraternities, shows that whereas heterosexual men normally bond around homophobia, and whereas homophobia has been shown to be extraordinarily high in homosocial institutions (like fraternities, sports and the military) Sigma Phi Epsilon chooses not to use homophobia to bond. “Why would we want to bond around the marginalization of some of our brothers,” Charles asked? “We can just bond around other things.” “We also don't bond around hazing,” he added. “Hazing has absolutely no place here at Sigma Phi Epsilon, and that's not just something we say, there really is NO hazing.”

Bonding through the segregation of women is, of course, part of the fraternity experience of Greek life. But just because they are segregated (something upon which I have mixed views about) does not mean that they marginalize them and degrade them as fraternities have been reported to do. The degradation of women through viscous words such as “slut” and “whore,” words that create a culture of apathy and violence toward women are rarely heard around the Sig Eps. They seem to esteem their female friends, even creating an honorary title for those who they consider part of their social clique, “Goldenhearts.” Now, this isn't' to say that they infantalize women by catering to their every need, but it does mean that women are not looked upon as mere sex objects. Several of the members have expressed to me that they remain virgins by choice, while others actively pursue frequent sexual encounters.

“Don't go in there,” one of the bois warned me, “Tim (name changed) is in there and he hasn't been with a girl in a few months.” The next day I saw Tim at my bar-be-que, and the other guys ribbed him in somewhat typical masculine jocular manner, “Tim, in the room with the door closed.” “Tim, I see your all smiles today.” But, the language lacked the hyper-macho tone of symbolic rape. I heard none say, “did you fuck her,” “nail her,” or did you “score.” Similarly, I've yet to hear the words, “slut” and “whore” from the members of Sig Ep, although I did hear one member say to another, “Don't be a bitch.” “Being a balanced man is really what its all about,” Jairo told me. “And being a balanced man has nothing to do with sexism or homophobia amongst my brothers.”

So as a sociologist who studies men, I find myself asking what my experience with Sigma Phi Epsilon has taught me. First, and foremost, I've learned (again) the problems of stereotypes. I used to hate walking the corridor in front of the commons during rush week. I was struck with a sense of ugliness as “frat bois” attempted to attract other members by looking the part. Now, I walk the corridor hoping to see one of my friends, to gain a hug from a fellow Sig Ep. A real hug too. The bois at Sig Ep are not afraid to be seen giving me, an openly gay guy, a real hug in public, not one of those masculine two-pat hugs that says, “I'm not gay” and is more akin to beating the shit out of each other than actually embracing.

I've also learned that men can, and in Sigma Phi Epsilon, do bond via other mechanisms – via shared experiences, and (gosh I hate to say it) through expressing emotions to one another. Sigma Phi Epsilon recognizes their own difference – some would say their own internal social drama – in their ability to express emotions, so much so that they offer a “drama queen of the week” award. “Oh, there is lots of drama here,” Jairo added. Social drama, of course, is all about negotiating ones personal space within a larger cultural framework. But to have men expressing drama, opposed to withholding their emotions and only letting them out in the form of violence, is certainly one direction I like to see men moving toward.

So if the men of Sigma Phi Epsilon can develop fraternal bonds around male-to-male interaction, without being hyper-macho, I guess all men can. In fact, it is the vision of the UCI Sigma Phi Epsilon that I'd like to hold out as the next, progressive, phase of masculinity in America. A form of masculinity that values femininity, and one that believes that being “tough' isn't doing the easy thing – of towing masculine party line by being sexist, homophobic and violent – rather one that considers toughness standing up for equality, expressing emotions, and breaking out of the restrictive gender order.

Kudos to the bois of Sigma Phi Epsilon!

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