What it’s like to be gay in a fraternity

This story, podcast and photo illustrations were published in USA TODAY College Aug. 28, 2015.

When you hear the words “Phi Delta Theta,” “Beta Theta Pi” or “Sigma Phi Epsilon” at the University of Kansas, what you think is “frat bro.”

These fraternity members can be seen roaming campus in herds, wearing salmon shorts, baseball caps and t-shirts advertising Greek letters. They host social events that might include kegs of beer and white-bed-sheets-turned-togas.

“We’ve had a long time to establish a brand,” Cal Bayer, a Phi Delta Theta brother says with a laugh.

But that brand is changing. Traditional fraternities are seeing more members who don’t fit the “frat bro” stereotypes of rich, politically conservative, white and heterosexual.

That includes gay men.

Cal Bayer, Cecil Keyes and Zach George are the only openly gay men in their respective fraternities at the University of Kansas.

Each man says he was the first queer person many of his respective fraternity brothers got to know on a personal level. But, they say, their fraternities have been supportive. Being a gay fraternity member, Bayer says, has been “more positive than ever expected.”

Cal Bayer, the only openly gay member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at the University of Kansas. (Emily Donovan / USA TODAY College)

 

‘Not his defining factor’

Cal Bayer had already come out as gay before he first toured the KU Phi Delta Theta house. But, he says, “You’re straight, right?” wasn’t a question that popped up during recruitment.

“It wasn’t his defining factor,” says Peter Muehlebach, a fellow Phi Delta Theta brother who graduated in May and has known Bayer since high school. “He was just a person like everybody else in the fraternity.”

For the most part, Bayer, a senior from Kansas City, Mo., says his sexual orientation has not been as big of a deal to his peers as he once feared.

“Nobody’s like, ‘Ugh, I would do my homework tonight but Cal’s gay so now I can’t do anything,’” Bayer says.

At worst, Bayer says his fraternity brothers sometimes avoid bringing sexual orientation into the conversation. While they might joke around about girls they’re interested in, for example, they sometimes avoid bringing up hookups or dating with Bayer.

Bayer says he has fun with his fraternity brothers. Some even came with him to a gay bar once. As they walked into Missy B’s in Kansas City, Mo., Bayer says his straight brothers noticed other men checking them out, which he says creeped them out.

“Well, that’s how women feel,” Bayer told them.

Bayer laughs thinking back on that night.

“It was really cool of them [to go with me],” he says. “They did not have to do that.”

Bayer thinks there would be more gay fraternity members if people realized fraternities can be safe spaces. If gay high school students who were interested in Greek life knew there were already some openly gay fraternity brothers, they’d feel more comfortable pledging.

Though they had heard he was gay before, it wasn’t until spring formal his freshman year that the Phi Delta Theta brothers actually saw Bayer with another guy.

It went well.

People could tell he was nervous, Bayer says, came over to him and his date to say they were glad he was there and introduce themselves to his date.

Like many of his fraternity brothers and their dates, Bayer and his date kissed at the dance.

In his dinner group’s photos, the fraternity members and their dates line up.

At first glance, Bayer’s date blends in with the fraternity men wearing suits. You barely notice there’s more guys than girls. They’re all smiling.

 

Cecil Keyes, the only openly gay member of the University of Kansas chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. (Emily Donovan / USA TODAY College)

‘Is everyone going to be staring?’

Cecil Keyes’ heart pounded as he parked his car outside the University of Kansas chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Worries rang in his head.

“What am I going to say?”

“Is everyone going to be staring?”

He looked over at his date and wondered if either of them would have fun.

Keyes, a junior from Kansas City, Mo., is Beta Theta Pi’s only openly gay member. And until the fraternity’s spring formal of Keyes’ freshman year – when he showed up with a guy as his date – most of his brothers didn’t realize it.

There had been whispers, but Keyes hadn’t come out publicly. He had only answered honestly to the few fraternity brothers who asked him directly.

“No one really talks about it,” he says.

Keyes and his date climbed Beta’s stairs to join his pledge brothers to pre-game the event, fearing the worst.

But his pledge brothers were, as Keyes describes them, “amazing.”

“Everyone was chatting [my date’s] ear off,” he says.

Keyes says he’s some of his fraternity brothers’ first gay friends, and he enjoys that. He sees it as a way to help change the atmosphere of the Greek community.

For example, Keyes’ fraternity brothers still sometimes use gay slurs casually, he says.

A fraternity brother, he says, might say, “Oh, he’s being such a little fag,” when someone is being annoying. Realizing that’s offensive, the speaker will look over at Keyes guiltily and apologize.

“Just don’t do it next time,” Keyes will tell him.

It can be a little uncomfortable for everyone, but Keyes says he thinks it’s important to be uncomfortable.

“In that state of uncomfortableness, you often learn.”

Zach George, the first and only openly gay member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Kansas. (Emily Donovan / USA TODAY College)

‘Can we watch football now?’

When Sofía Vergara came on the screen of the Sigma Phi Epsilon living room television his freshman year, Zach George panicked.

Back then, George would play along as his fraternity brothers commented on how hot Vergara was.

“Yeah,” he said, his face turning red and his tongue swelling. “Yeah.”

Now that he’s out of the closet, George just rolls his eyes.

George, a senior from Ottawa, Kan., is the first and only openly gay active member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Kansas. Coming out to his fraternity brothers, he says, has only brought them closer.

When George joined the fraternity in 2011, he was looking for a good friend group. But he was also hoping that joining a fraternity would boost his chances of having sex with a woman so that maybe, he says, his attraction to men would disappear.

Unlike other gay men he met on campus during his freshman year, George felt guarded. All of his decisions were calculated – what he said, wore, ate and drank – to not seem gay.

In the fall of his sophomore year, George came out to his future boyfriend over dinner.

Walking back into Sigma Phi Epsilon that night, George realized he smelled like his date’s cologne. He bundled up his pea coat and took an alternative hallway straight to his room, avoiding his fraternity brothers.

For the two years that he and his boyfriend dated, George led a double life.

One time on a date, George and his boyfriend were sitting at a two-person table in a restaurant’s front window when George saw one of his fraternity brothers approaching. He jumped up and hid in the bathroom.

When his roommate would ask why George hadn’t slept at the fraternity house on a given night, George would lie, saying he drove home for the night to study or crashed at a student senate party.

When George and his boyfriend later broke up, George says it felt like he had lost the only person who truly knew him.

A month later, he called a house meeting to come out to his fraternity brothers. It was a Sunday in November of 2014; the Kansas City Chiefs were playing. George set up a chair in front of the television.

His announcement was a surprise, said Cormac O’Connor, a graduate from Prairie Village, Kan. who had been close friends with George since they pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon together. But being gay didn’t change who George was.

One fraternity brother joked, “OK, can we watch football now?”

Everyone laughed. George couldn’t stop grinning. He went to his room to cry tears of joy.

And that was it. He was out.

“After that, honestly, we were really curious,” O’Connor says. “None of us had really had an openly gay friend before.”

From that point on, George felt more comfortable being himself – which sometimes meant playing the Les Misérables soundtrack while he showered. And doing so only improved his fraternity friendships.

When his brothers talked about the girls they thought were hot, they would then turn to George.

“All right, Zach, what’s your type?” O’Connor asked.

George’s fraternity brothers enthusiastically asked questions about being gay.

“Do you have gaydar?”

“Is that guy over there gay?”

“What’s a bear?”

Their curiosity was George’s favorite part.

“I was an open book,” he said. “I would tell them everything.”

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