Out of the Closet and On to Fraternity Row

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FELLOWSHIP: Members of Gamma Lambda Mu

As it is at every fraternity, brotherhood is the bond that holds the members of Florida International University's (F.I.U.) Gamma Lambda Mu together. But the Gamma men have taken pains to spell out the precise limits of their bonding: brothers, their bylaws say, may not date one another. All the Gammas, you see, are openly gay. The chastity rule is necessary, they say, to prove to their schoolmates that gay men can come together in the spirit of service and camaraderie and not for sex. "People think [a gay fraternity] is an orgy," says Mario Campa, 21, a fine-arts senior and Gamma Lambda Mu's co-founder. "It's not."

Gay and lesbian groups have gained acceptance on most college campuses, but becoming part of the conservative Greek system has happened more slowly. Shane Windmeyer, co-editor of Out on Fraternity Row (Alyson Publications), estimates that 10% of men in traditional U.S. fraternities are gay — but that almost all of them stay in the closet for fear of reprisals from the brothers with whom they share the shower room.

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As more young gay men have begun coming out of the closet while still in high school, however, they arrive on college campuses expecting the social environment to accommodate their sexual orientation. There are now perhaps two dozen gay fraternities around the country — with half of them springing up in just the past five years — at schools such as the University of South Alabama and Kent State University.

Gamma Lambda Mu is hoping to affiliate with Delta Lambda Phi, the national parent gay fraternity in Washington, which advises its chapters on how to offer peer counseling, AIDS education and access to online resources for gay men. But first Gamma Lambda Mu must win the approval of F.I.U.'S interfraternity council when it votes on the new fraternity's charter application. The school's president, Modesto Maidique, backs the move, as does the head of the interfraternity council. Yet starting up a gay frat at a school where most students are Latino, a culture in which the mystique of machismo still thrives, hasn't been easy. Campa, a Cuban American, says he has yet to tell his father he is gay. "Many [Anglos] come out with the support of their families," says Gamma Lambda Mu member Jorge Casas, 22. "Hispanic culture is a bit harsher."

That isolation, Gamma men say, makes having a gay fraternity — a surrogate family and support group in which their sexuality is accepted — even more essential. "I never had any gay friends growing up," says a shy F.I.U. student whose family rejected him after he came out. Gamma Lambda Mu, he says, "is a different and very positive experience for me." Out on Fraternity Row's Windmeyer suggests that such groups can serve as a defense against the kind of hate crime that struck Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death off campus in 1998.

"Matthew was in many ways a wake-up call" for college homosexuals, Windmeyer says. He argues that allowing gays to become Greeks may be the best way to combat campus homophobia. What's more, he adds, since many politicians cut their teeth in frats, a place at the Greek table can't hurt gay graduates in the job market and the political arena.

For now, though, the 28 men of Gamma Lambda Mu have more immediate concerns. Gay frats still have to work to "give the impression that we are just another organization," says Casas. Even so, the Gamma men are aware of their differences and have a sense of humor about them. The slogan the group has printed on its T shirts reads LET'S GIVE 'EM SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT.