I recently read with great interest my fraternity brother George M. Johnson’s editorial entitled Black, Greek, and Gay? It’s Time for Organizations to Fall In Line, posted on Ebony.com on May 12, 2016. Special thanks to my sistergreek @thereadingdiva for bringing it to my attention.
There are many parts of Brother Johnson’s piece which I agreed with and other parts which troubled me. It is my intention to gently rebut his editorial while respecting our bond as fraternity brothers.
I became an Alpha in Spring 2003 through an amazing chapter. I had great sponsors and the majority vote of a chapter who believed in me and loved me as I was, even with my long dreadlocks and bohemian aesthetic. (I had even earned the alias “Eric Benet” because of that look.) I knew then that I owed it to myself to be authentic. If the brothers had a problem with it then surely Alpha would not be the chapter or organization for me.
Two years after I made it, in 2005, my first novel Lazarus was released. That was the true test: would the publishing of this fictitious story of a gay black college student pledging a fraternity turn the fraternity against me?
Controversy was minimal and Lazarus performed well. The success of the novel helped me gain access to even more gay members of my own fraternity as well other members of the gay community throughout Greekdom. Through Lazarus, I had spoken to the issues that Brother Johnson mentioned: the lying, the fear, the anxiety of being a gay member of a fraternity. It was not my direct experience, but it was always my concern. Perhaps I was able to avoid a lot of personal heartache in my fraternity for being a gay man because I had already put my protagonist, Adrian Collins, through what I had imagined could be the worst that could happen. Adrian’s experience was traumatic. Mine was not.
Surely I had controversy and I had haters. I speak on those things when colleges and universities invite me to present lectures. Those negative experiences may have been fiery, but they were few—just enough to let me know that my fraternal experience would never be roses and rainbows one hundred percent of the time. Through it all, I have tried to stand as an example for those who might come behind me. I hope I have been seen.
I believe that Brother Johnson paints Greekdom with a wide brush which perhaps may be unfair to those gay brothers and straight allies who have been fighting from within to make positive changes. Over the years I have seen a shift among straight members of my own fraternity. Those who at one time may have been bystanders to overt and covert homophobia, both online and within chapter rooms across the country, have now become upstanders. They are men who will fight for the gay applicant who is perfect for the organization in every way. They are men who will curtail gossip about the orientation of various candidates for office. They are men who speak out in favor of all progressive causes—not just the ones which won’t call into question their own orientations.
I am proud of those brothers for those reasons, and because they have fought for me when I was too tired or unwilling to fight for myself. Besides, it is not up to gay people to solve homophobia. That is for the straight brothers to fix. All I can do is be me, right?
Surely there is more work to be done to shift the culture of Black Greekdom, especially as “white” Greekdom is becoming more in tune with LGBT issues. I was invited to Bucknell University by a chapter of Chi Phi Fraternity–a leader in inclusion on their campus. I am sought-after for advice from other individuals, chapters, and offices of fraternity/sorority affairs on how they may improve their efforts. To date, several national, predominately white fraternities and sororities have already adopted gay and trans-inclusive language on their own.
Brother Johnson is right to demand that predominately black fraternities and sororities also fall in line. Indeed, I am concerned that if we don’t, we may ultimately be disinvited from college campuses which want to ensure that their organizations are safe places for all of their students.
In case it is not abundantly clear, I also firmly believe that transmen are simply men, transwomen are simply women, and they should pursue membership in the fraternities and sororities which match their gender identities, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth. I am not in the business of reviewing DNA reports or doing manual checks to ensure that one’s sex matches my own. That has nothing to do with whether I feel like I get along well with you, serve well with you, and trust my fraternity with you as a leader and as a man.
However, I did have to pause and check my privilege on another matter in Brother Johnson’s essay. And I checked it but I still disagree. He says:
Being Black and Greek is not exclusive to the hetero population, and our platforms and values can no longer act as if this is the case.
Yes, I agree. If my fraternity can take a stand on immigration issues, we should have long since taken a stand on marriage equality—well before it became the law of the land. But…
While many Black LGBTQ people have gained membership into these illustrious organizations, we have only been accepted so long as our gender and sexuality doesn’t cross the line of what’s deemed acceptable. For Black LGBTQ people both our Blackness and sexuality matters. Like everyone else, we are are the sum of all our parts–not just the pieces that you like or choose to accept.
When it comes to my pursuit of membership, I was accepted for who I was with no hesitation. I was what my chapter wanted, even though my performance of masculinity leaned toward the artistic rather than the athletic. I fit. In the tapestry of diverse masculinities which Alpha embodies under the surface, there was space for me as the starving writer—space which may not have been available had I pursued another fraternity.
I do, however, acknowledge my privilege in this tapestry. Straight brothers sometimes presume that I am straight unless otherwise challenged. It seems like no matter what, I am always coming out to *somebody.* I’ve written four novels with gay main characters, done huge speeches on being gay, worn a rainbow necklace, and still some 50-year brother might ask me when I’m going to get a girlfriend.
I happen to find such naiveté among brothers endearing, but I also recognize that I get a kick out of being “unclockable” to certain eyes. I have never been “straight-acting” or “gay-acting”—I’ve just been myself, whatever that means in a given moment. For me, wearing a floppy sunhat would not feel authentic to me—nor would wearing a baseball cap with a football team on it. And yes, I acknowledge that one of those decisions would be heteronormative and masculine-friendly—so I’m not saying this is about a hat. This is not about hats at all, but again, authenticity.
I can empathize with a gay man wanting to be in a fraternity, because that’s who I was. I wanted a brotherhood and a sense of belonging. I wanted to feel like and feel part of men who thought as I did. I found that.
I can intellectualize a transman wanting to be in a fraternity because, again, they seek that sense of sameness and oneness. They want the same sense of brotherhood and belonging that I sought, and that’s why I have no issues with a transman pursuing membership like any other man.
Because there are so few black fraternities, they each seem to fit one of the various archetypes of masculinity: the nerd/geek; the party animal; the playboy; the boy-next-door; and the outlaw. (Or any variations on those themes.) I believe that each of the fraternities purposefully manifests these masculinities in their aesthetic traditions (including stepping and strolling), as well as ritual, protocol, and programming.
Straight or gay, trans or cis, I am hard-pressed to find a member of any major fraternity who doesn’t embody the performance of that masculinity in their lives, especially when in a room full of their brothers. Being in a fraternity is predicated on the acceptance and buy-in of the performance of masculinity, whether our personal performance of that masculinity is at level one or level ten.
Further, there is no better time or place to see the various masculine archetypes manifest than in the probate show/new member presentation. Whether hypersexualized and heteronormative or modest and sexuality-neutral, I believe that these shows are still a performance of traits associated with manhood. There is hard stepping, not soft stepping; a grit, not a smile; and outfits ranging from tuxedoes to army fatigues.
Gay men can be found in each variation of the archetype. Certainly a transman could be found in each variation as well.
Where, then, is the feminine man if the traditional performance is one of masculinity? Where is the home for the feminine man if the prevailing fraternities’ reputations are built on performance?
Each person who joins a fraternity agrees to this performance even beyond the new member shows. This is exemplified in wardrobe requirements in the ritual to dress codes at chapter meetings and conventions. I don’t believe these norms are a surprise to those pursuing membership. If a feminine man was not feminine before pledging, then he has agreed to the performance of masculinity through one of the archetypes, from the nerd to the party animal to the outlaw.
We are all in drag, whether in business suits or fatigues and boots. One who non-conforms may be in accord with the values of an organization generally, but would still have to identify with the aesthetic of the organization in order to truly qualify.
Are fraternities and sororities ideal organizations for gender-nonconforming people? Probably not. A strong identification with not only the values and programs is necessary, but the culture, the style, the way that things are done. The best of Omega or Kappa could surely be the best of Alpha. What separates us is not talent or achievement, but style, method, and performance. What works for the Sigmas may not work for the Iotas, but it still works. What works for those of us who conform to gender may not work for those who are gender fluid, genderqueer, or nonconforming. I respect that these organizations may not be for them. They are still my siblings in justice.
My chosen drag when it comes to my organization is a black suit and gold tie. Just as we get a twinge of pride when we watch YouTube videos of probate shows and see the new members dressed identically and stepping in sync, I get a large sense of pride when I enter a convention and see a thousand brothers who look just like me. We move alike, we work alike. Our thoughts may be different, yet we still know that our drag unites us in a certain way; that our sameness represents a unanimity of thought and action.
I don’t find that to be oppressive. I find that to be inspiring. I feel loved in the space that is my fraternity, a space where I feel I belong. It is a space where I feel my fellow gay men and transmen also belong alongside straight and cisgender men. Gender fluidity may be a bridge too far, yet I remain open to those ideas being challenged also.
Rashid Darden is a novelist. He is also lecturer on LGBT issues as well as topics in fraternity and sorority life. Contact Rashid here.