Ever since I came out four years ago, my straight friends have been incredibly accepting of me being gay. They're fine with me talking about guys and will sometimes even offer a bit of dating advice. Last spring, I invited a guy to my Indiana college fraternity's formal. I realized, though, that my fraternity brothers had never actually seen me with another guy. To them, I was "gay in theory." Would they be as accepting when they saw me dancing beard-to-beard with my date?
The guy I had been casually seeing, whom I will call William, was a nice, good-looking Southern boy from Kentucky, and I genuinely liked him. He was a crazed sports fan, which was refreshing, as I am more passionate about popular culture and fashion. We had been lightly seeing each other for a few months by that point but, because he went to another university, not many of my fraternity brothers knew him, let alone had met him. Until then, he was merely an amorphous figure only occasionally mentioned.
It wasn't until the two of us were standing in the corner of the dance venue in Cincinnati, where we had traveled to for the big weekend event, that my "theoretical William" was all flesh and bone, standing in front of them. Now there was no questioning, no doubt, no maybes.
On the dance floor, eyes were on us. Our every subtle interaction was carefully gauged. The men of Sigma Nu, my brothers for two years, had faces of curiosity, even confusion. The years of fun bantering and supportive gestures were being tested in that regal hotel setting, right there and then.
Depending on where the masses of partiers were migrating, I would guide William and I to the opposite direction of the ballroom floor. What I can clearly identify as paranoia now seemed nothing but too real in the moment.
During one of our moves, a girl saw us and ran over, squealing with excitement. "OH. MY. GOD. You two look so cute! Let me get a picture!" She immediately grabbed a cell phone, pointing it at us. William automatically put his arm around me, pulling me closer to him. I could feel his supportive hand on the arch of my back.
Once the pictures were taken (of course with flash, because there wasn't enough attention on us already), I quickly took a step back, separating myself from my attractive date. "Really," the girl continued to gush, "you two look adorable."
After she ran away, I thought back to our hotel room, just as we were about to come downstairs. I had fixed William's bow tie and admired my date. I made very certain we weren't too matchy-matchy. I didn't want to be one of those couples who color-coordinate every detail.
"Well, do you want to dance?" William asked me after we had said hello to everyone. Reluctantly I agreed. Walking onto the dance floor was a major jolt. I fought panic. Yet minutes later I began feeling in-charge, even powerful. I was in control of my -- our -- night. (The Beyoncé song playing may have helped a bit while I'm being completely honest.)
As we danced, I made sure not to get too close to William. I also must say I secretly hoped no slow songs played. Baby steps.
One brother in particular caught my attention. We'll call him John. He studied us carefully; he never took his eyes off us. I knew John was from a small town in Indiana. I've been to small towns before, seen the residents. I had always wondered about John; what he really thought about me. I knew it was wrong for me to think, but his cornfield childhood concerned me.
With my concentration stuck on John, and what he was thinking of William and me, I accidentally backed up into one of the older guys in the house who I didn't know as well. He spun around, taken aback.
Before I could interpret his reaction -- did he realize it was a total accident and was just startled? Did he think I was hitting on him? -- I had grabbed William and made a hasty move to the back of the room. With roller coaster craziness, the extreme high I was on quickly disappeared, my confidence plummeting.
I had become the stereotypical kid at the punchbowl; only now it was in college at a dance I really should be enjoying with my date. I stuffed my face with some soggy, hotel egg rolls and plopped down into a chair.
"Are you okay?" William asked, clearly confused by my odd behavior.
"Doing great!" I lied, feigning a smile.
I surveyed the dance floor, a tinge of jealousy rising up. All of my friends were moving around, dancing, laughing, and having a great time with their stunning dates. Why couldn't I let myself go out there and enjoy myself? I had no reason to believe my Sigma Nu brothers wouldn't be fine with me enjoying my date.
The evening was winding down. I wanted to make sure William and I got out a little early as to not bring attention to the fact we were sharing a hotel room (something I had tirelessly debated about with myself).
Just as we were about to enter our room, an older brother in the house walked past, arm-in-arm with his girlfriend. He gave us a quick wink and a hint of a smile, and continued walking. I was surprised -- and that's when I saw how wrong I'd been. All those stares? My friends were probably worried about how skittish I was acting.
The weekend as a whole, despite my inner turmoil, turned out to be a great success with wonderful memories made -- not just with William but friends as well. I had taken a giant leap of faith: in William, in my fraternity, and ultimately in myself.
Little did I know that in two months time, coincidence would have William and I both interning in New York City. But he wouldn't be in my life anymore, he having completely (and abruptly) stopped all communication.
So, in the end, I was right to be worried. I was just worried about the wrong thing. In many ways, I felt I had betrayed my Sigma Nu brothers. I doubted their compassion when they had been nothing but loyal.
After reflecting on this with a friend, I realized I was projecting my homophobia onto others. He declared me a homophobe-phobe. He may just have been right.
Although I can add William to my list of dating failures, which I have no doubt will grow in the years to come, I realize now how important he was. The dance in Cincinnati was a sort of social laboratory, testing my "gay in theory" hypothesis. Thankfully, it was all in my head.
The camera girl was obtrusive but kind-hearted. Small-town John was quizzical but not mean (and likely struggling with his own belief system now that he's in the wider world). It's as surprising as it is wonderful that even in the conservative heart of America, perceptions are changing -- including mine.