About a month ago I got an email from the Alumni President of my college fraternity- Alpha Delta Phi at Cornell- asking me if I would be willing to write an article about what life was like for a gay brother at the fraternity. He has seen the item in the Cornell Alumni magazine about my marriage to my partner of 20 years last September and wrote:
“I am writing with a request: I am trying to be more inclusive as the president of the Cornell Alpha Delt alumni. One of our stupid family secrets is that we have gay brothers. I know that the Phi must have played some kind of formative role in the lives of young emerging gay men. I know it did for me as a straight man, how could it not for other horny undergraduates regardless of the sex of their mate?
Would you be willing to share an honest story from your undergraduate days that speaks to the role (hopefully supportive, but pointing out ignorance and homophobia is fair game too) that the brotherhood played in your development as a gay man?
I think that if your article opens one mind, or gives comfort to a confused undergrad, then it will have been more than worth the effort.”
I was wildly impressed with his initiative to be more inclusive and to recognize that gay brothers are part of our fraternity’s legacy and are valuable members of the Cornell Alpha Delta Phi brotherhood and I was exceedingly proud of my fraternity. For those reasons alone I would have agreed to write the article but because it spoke to my activist spirit I jumped on the opportunity and agreed immediately.
Here is the article that will appear in the next issue of the Cornell Alpha Delta Phi newsletter. I hope it does provoke some conversation among the brotherhood.
Being a gay brother at the Phi
When I got an email asking me to write about what it was like being gay at Alpha Delta Phi, I didn’t hesitate to agree , but I also began to wonder if my experience would resonate for any other gay brother or speak to any of my straight brothers. I came out as a gay man at Cornell but it was in the mid to late 1970’s. Never did I dream when I was living at the Phi that there would be an item in the March 2009 issue of the Cornell Alumni magazine about my recent marriage to my gay partner of 20 years at San Francisco City Hall officiated by a California State Assemblyman. Times have changed indeed.
The fear of being shunned and ostracized has no doubt waned in the 30 years since I left Cornell. But in the late 1970’s it was profound. Cornell, like most of the Ivies, has a profound progressive streak and was probably more “gay friendly” than most universities- there were regular gay dances at Willard Straight Hall. The irony was not lost on anyone- gay dances at the Straight. But still gay men and lesbians were the source of jokes, ridicule and disdain on campus and there was always a fear that the disdain could turn to violence.
How being a brother at Alpha Delta Phi weighed into my gay life at the time is a complicated story. When I rushed the Phi in my freshman year what appealed to me most were the literary tradition of the brotherhood and the camaraderie of smart men who seemed to possess a higher degree of emotional sensitivity than most. During my time living at 777 Stewart Avenue I never outright divulged my sexual orientation to the general brotherhood other than to a couple of brothers who were also gay. But I am sure that it was no great shock to my brothers when they read that I married a man.
Coming out in the 1970’s was indeed a complicated, difficult and often painful process; at least it was for me. In many ways I think I let my brothers down by not being honest about who I was. I wanted to; but I was petrified of losing friendships. Oddly enough I found ways to ensure that I lost those friendships anyway. But in the mind of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality at a time when it was rarely accepted, finding ways of distancing myself from my friends was easier than the prospect of losing them because of my homosexuality. In essence it was not a good time for me, but that was because of me, not my brothers. Yet as difficult as that time was- my best memories of Cornell were not about the men I dated, but instead centered around the Phi- “Rongo Runs” for an evening of inebriated camaraderie at the Rongovian Embassy, Victory Club events, Croquet on the Arts Quad on Spring Weekend and the Wednesday night dinners with guest faculty speakers.
Years later I can see that Alpha Delta Phi at Cornell paved a road for me as an activist for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community and for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was at Cornell’s chapter of Alpha Delta Phi where I began to develop the leadership skills that have been important in my work as an advocate. I don’t think I would have been an effective member of the board of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization- the Human Rights Campaign, a founder of California’s state LGBT advocacy group, or a participant in meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House successfully advocating for the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS had it not been for the individual growth that came from being a brother at the Phi.
In the request I received from our alumni president to write this article he wrote that one of our family secrets is that we have gay brothers. Family secrets are always unhealthy and the brotherhood is indeed a family. By keeping that secret while I lived at the Phi I did myself and my brothers an injustice. I hope that my honest reflection will help open a dialogue between our gay and straight brothers and make the bonds of our brotherhood stronger.