The words “There’ll never be a n***** in SAE” are ringing through the minds of college students across the country. Nowhere are those words ringing louder or more clearly than in the Greek community. The reaction to this fresh controversy echoes the reaction to every single embarrassing act or revelation that befalls fraternities across the country: recognition, then denial. We always bring up these issues in our weekly brotherhood meetings, collectively recognize how appalling this kind of behaviour is, then remind ourselves that we are not the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilons and that these few unfortunate men do not define who we are as a brotherhood. But the truth is that I am a member of a fraternity of 88 men, only three of whom are black and only one of whom is openly gay. An atmosphere exists in our fraternity that discourages diversity, and it exists despite our attempts to bury our heads in the sand.
Being a frat boy at UC Berkeley, I like to think that I have found my own, comfortable niche from which to discourage the gay stereotype. When I pledged my fraternity, I was surrounded by guys who liked to talk about beer, sports and, above all else, girls. I found sanctuary in my fraternity, like this new environment would be a big-ticket item on my heteronormative resume. I was going to be this frat star who could drink 15 beers watching football with the guys, then take a cute boy upstairs and play an entirely different ballgame. I was proud of that image of myself: an out-and-proud gay man, living an open life but in a way that meant I didn’t have to love shopping or interior design. This artfully constructed image of myself, however, never really materialised.
Coming out to the brotherhood was never difficult: The guys who found out told other guys, and the news just spread from there. The reaction was good — no one said anything negative, and there were a few guys who voiced their support — but mostly, the brothers just pretended as if nothing had changed. At the time, this was all I wanted: to be accepted on my own terms without creating any tension. The problem is, though, that things had changed. Suddenly, I was a new, unknown entity — a funny guy who perhaps didn’t fit the typical frat boy’s vision of a homo.
People were curious about what it was really like to be gay, and for the first time for a lot of these guys, the opportunity to ask someone these questions had presented itself. At first, I was happy about the interest that people were taking. I wanted to share what it was like going to boarding school when you are gay, how being in a relationship with a guy is a completely different experience from being in one with a girl and, inevitably, how the sex worked. To begin with, the obvious questions arose. “Does it hurt?” “Are you the top or the bottom, the boy or the girl?” “How many guys have you slept with?” “Were any of them in the closet in other fraternities?” “Do I know them?” “What are their names?” The questions continued and continued, delving ever deeper into my past and my bedroom, until I began to feel less a trusted part of the community and more a captivating but disgusting novelty.
The imagined role I had so desperately wanted to play was slipping further and further away. I wanted the fraternity experience to help me forget about how I was different and to help me feel more normal — but instead, I was feeling more visible than ever. I was becoming the sage of gay insight, dishing out more information about what being gay “meant” than I had ever had to before. I became the spokesman on gay issues and perspective, as though my voice could speak for how every gay person thinks, acts or reacts. It seemed as though a void had opened up around me, removing the person who was standing there and replacing him with a label. And the label read, “GAY,” in all-capital letters.
Conversations were held in which the word “faggot” was used in abundance, and then, upon noticing my presence, people would follow with hasty explanations: “I didn’t mean like he was being a faggot, you know, like you. I meant he was just being, you know, a faggot.” And I would just come back with empty replies such as: “Sure, I knew the difference,” “Of course you didn’t mean it that way” and “Dude, don’t worry, I’m not like that kind of gay guy.” I said all of those empty things I didn’t believe because I was finally starting to realize the truth: that it is not OK to be gay — not even in Berkeley in 2015.
The shocking event at the University of Oklahoma was a far worse example of discrimination and bigotry than I have ever faced at my fraternity. Because it was so shocking and blatant, however, it was easier than ever to dismiss it as the exception to fraternity culture, not the rule. We can easily separate ourselves from the behavior of those men and, in so doing, vindicate our chapter’s culture as one of tolerance and acceptance, merely because we don’t have such clearly discriminatory practices. But that vindication does not excuse us from a conversation about how we could be better as a chapter, regardless of others’ actions. Just because we’re a much less discriminatory house than those currently making headlines, we are not off the hook. We have to strive to better our own standards, not the ones set for us by fraternities such as SAE. Otherwise, I fear we may be just as bad as everyone thinks we are.
Fraser Muir is a UC Berkeley junior majoring in political science.