Gay Men in Black Fraternities

The discussion about heterosexuality, homosexuality and masculinity is long overdue within black fraternities. Engaging it will require a delicate balancing act. Avoiding it will have lasting effects unforeseen by black fraternity members and leaders.
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On Sept. 8, 2012, Nathanael Gay married Robert Brown in Lexington, Ky. About a month later, on Oct. 4, 2012, Brown uploaded a video of the wedding to YouTube. Their wedding was only slightly remarkable given our society's changing attitude with respect to marriage equality. Something about their nuptials was striking, however. The wedding's color scheme (red and white), as well as Gay and some wedding attendees holding aloft the same hand signs (representing a Playboy bunny), bespoke Gay's fraternal affiliation: Kappa Alpha Psi. Here enters the controversy: The wedding brought unwanted national attention to the fact that some black fraternity members are gay and may be inclined to marry other men.

Given the controversy, Gay participated in a radio interview with Tom Joyner to clear up the misconceptions surrounding the wedding ceremony. Gay noted that the wedding was not meant to be affiliated with Kappa, despite the fraternity's crimson-and-cream color scheme. To Gay, the wedding colors were intended to represent love and his husband's favorite color (red), not Kappa. Gay also noted that the image of him photographed with his pledge brothers, performing their signature hand sign, was not intended to convey a "gay Kappa wedding." Rather, it was a mere show of brotherly solidarity and support.

Gay indicated that he believed the wedding video's dissemination to have been at the hands of a member from a "rival" black Greek-letter organization (BGLO). While BGLOs are notorious for their intergroup rivalries (see Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and CNN's Roland Martin's tweets and Facebook posts about other black fraternities), one should not be too quick to mock another organization. For example, on Oct. 13, 2012, "Shaun T" Thompson, a fitness enthusiast who is famous for his workout videos, including Insanity, Insanity-Asylum and Hip Hop Abs, married his longtime boyfriend. Thompson is an Alpha.

I've researched and written about BGLOs for almost 10 years. Therefore, I can say that there is a range of internal issues and dynamics that these organizations either ignore or engage in ways that skirt the data and facts. Chief among these issues is the place of gay members in black fraternities. There have only been two groups of scholars to research issues around gay men in black fraternities. Dr. Alan DeSantis and Marcus Coleman (Kappa) studied the attitudes of members of four black fraternities about gay members, and Drs. Rashawn Ray and Kevin Spragling (both Alphas) studied the experiences of gay Alphas. These researchers found that homosexuality is rarely if ever openly discussed in black fraternities and is only engaged in order to condemn it.

DeSantis and Coleman found that notions of masculinity influence black fraternity members' attitudes about gay members. Masculinity within black fraternities is defined by conceptions of stoicism and physicality and perceptions of being "hard" and street-smart. These traits are viewed as being the exact opposite of being chaste, sensitive, studious and refined. BGLO members found these latter traits to be indicative of femininity or homosexuality. Not surprisingly, the work of Dr. Marcia Hernandez and colleagues suggests that black sorority women have well-defined stereotypes about men in black fraternities regarding notions of masculinity. Omega Psi Phi members are stereotyped as the man's man, masculine, bad boys, anti-intellectual and ideal lovers. Kappas are stereotyped as ladies' men, bad boys, and, interestingly, effeminate (possibly due to their fixation on being "pretty" boys). Alphas are stereotyped as gentlemen, nice guys, intellectuals and the ideal date and husband. Research by Dr. Reynaldo Anderson and colleagues suggests that black fraternity members play up these stereotypes to a large extent. DeSantis and Coleman's work, however, suggests that those fraternity members who view themselves as overly refined and intellectual balk at such an identity, aspiring to be more like 50 Cent and less like Martin Luther King.

Stigmas attached to homosexuality may lead to gay pledges being treated worse or harsher than normal, although most gay members don't believe that they were personally treated differently. Most gay members feel conscious of their status within the BGLO, and many feel uncomfortable around heterosexual members. To fight the stigmas attached to homosexuality, many gay members feel that they must validate and authenticate their masculinity so that other members regard them as "true" brothers.

It wouldn't be surprising to find a sizeable portion of heterosexual black fraternity members who believe that gay members should either be expelled or have their conduct regulated (or to have gay aspiring members refused membership). The rationale that black fraternity members employ for such attitudes is all over the map. For those focused on the argument that BGLOs were founded on Christian principles, homosexuality is inconsistent with biblical teachings. However, they are not similarly outraged by members who commit fornication and/or adultery. Some have concerns about pedophiles within the membership, but research suggests that pedophilia is largely a heterosexual issue, with most perpetrators identifying as such and most same-sex victims chosen simply due to convenience of access. For others, the concern is about men who flamboyantly demonstrate their sexuality. Flamboyance, however, can cut against both heterosexual and gay men. Yet others believe that the presence of gay members can damage the organizations' brand. However, these same individuals fail to consider how a whole range of black fraternity members' behaviors damage the organizations' brand and how the "brand" argument may simply pander to the attitudes of homophobes.

Ultimately, the belief, if acted upon, that gay members should be run out of town by sundown could be the ruin of BGLOs. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law v. Martinez underscores the fact that at least at public institutions of higher education, student organizations cannot discriminate against LGBT students when the university has an express policy against such conduct. This puts black fraternities that (or members who) might seek to discriminate against gay aspiring college chapter members, for example, to consider the implication of such a policy on the viability of college chapters. There is room, however, for dialogue. Probably the most legitimate concern that heterosexual members have about gay members is that some gay members are more than happy to transgress the bounds of brotherhood. They are not only content to date their own fraternity brothers but view their fraternity as "preying grounds" to pursue members and aspiring members, gay and heterosexual, alike. Moreover, anxieties about homosexuality within the ranks of black fraternities may have a constraining effect on how black masculinity is performed by members, influencing issues like academic achievement, hazing and the ability of members to work together effectively on matters internal and external to the organizations.

The discussion about heterosexuality, homosexuality and masculinity is long overdue within black fraternities. Engaging it will require a delicate balancing act. Avoiding it will have lasting effects unforeseen by black fraternity members and leaders. And that is where the ultimate challenge lies -- with leadership visionary and courageous enough to tackle the challenge.

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