by Eldon C. Brown
July 1996

Sometimes it is our failures that help us remember why we still keep fighting. I have not seen much failure in my recent endeavors. Our campus student organization (Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians, and Friends Association) at Western Illinois University has recently accomplished things we never thought possible and our colleagues at other schools can't fathom.

For the first time in WIU's history, an openly gay candidate sponsored by the campus g/l/b organization sat on the homecoming court. This year our Student Government Association, after years of requests, added a voting liaison to its senate for g/l/b students.

We have been a trendsetter in our state for programming, training, and visibility. We have instituted a safe space program for faculty and staff members, which received an overwhelmingly positive response. In two years, we have gone from a quiet support group who met in the counseling center to a major student organization. I cannot claim the credit for everything we have accomplished, but many of these things happened while I was serving as president. My determination, hard work, and heart went into all of those projects. And we tasted success again and again.

Then, I failed. I thought I was invincible. Everything I have striven to do on this campus has been a success. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are being heard and their rights are starting to be recognized. Finally gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are treated with respect and not forced to hide. Some changes, however, take longer than others.

During my "reign" as a homecoming king candidate, I spent a considerable amount of time with two men from the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. This young fraternity is known for its strong student leaders, and I had worked with both men before. Sharing the homecoming court experience with them gave me some insight into an institution that I never had the chance to see before -- the greek system.

I witnessed this idea of "brotherhood" that was touted so heavily in the rush brochures. It was amazing to see a group of men support each other the way that they did. Every event that we attended had a group of Pikes there to cheer on their brothers. They were proud to be a part of that organization; they were proud to belong.

It was that experience that sparked my interest in rushing Pi Kappa Alpha. I knew several members of the organization, including the president and vice-president. I went to a Pike party during homecoming where I met many others. I did not fool myself -- it was not a perfect group of men who always got along and always liked each other. But it was something worth investigating. I wrote in my journal about my apprehensions:

"Maybe I should rush PKA. Maybe they'd actually offer to me an opportunity to be one of them. Maybe I'm fooling myself. Maybe one drunk, funny fag is just that.. a drunk, funny fag. Maybe they really could give a shit about me. Maybe they would accept me for who I am. It's hard to tell. I suppose the only way to know is to find out.

Would I be a sell-out? Would I enter the institution that is so naturally my enemy? Or would this be my chance to make a difference and open some minds. But I don't want to do it to make a statement. I'm tired of being the voice and action of the gay community. I want to be me."

I spent the next few months talking to the president of the fraternity. He was already a friend of mine, and I wanted his honest opinion. I did not want to be a part of an organization that did not want me; I also did not want to pass up a great opportunity just because there might be some tension. I was not doing it as a way to educate. I was doing it as a way to experience something that I had written off as impossible.

After all the talking, it seemed that we were going to try to make it happen. I attended an interest party, where I learned the four Pike Principles known as SLAG: Scholars, Leaders, Athletes, and Gentlemen. They talked about brotherhood and eternal bonds. They talked about building leaders and personal growth. They talked about the diversity of their organization.

After that meeting, they did not talk to me about anything. Rush began after semester break, but I never heard anything about it. Even the president, whom I considered a friend of mine, did not say a word. It all suddenly happened and I was left out completely.

I discovered that it was quite intentional that I was forgotten. In some secret meeting of the leaders of the organization, it was decided that I would not be offered membership because of my sexual orientation. They comforted themselves with the fact that it was not necessarily because I WAS gay, but rather because I was so OPEN about being gay. Some members threatened to quit, and others would have stayed but would have tried to make my experience a horrible one.

None of this was told to me. To this day I have never heard anything about the situation. I was hurt. For the first time in my life, I had been denied something that I wanted and that I was qualified to have, and for one reason: my sexual orientation. I felt that I at least deserved an explanation, but I never got one.

I discussed the situation with our campus affirmative action officer. Our non-discrimination clause, which applies to all University entities, includes sexual orientation. I was informed that I had a very strong discrimination case. If they had been found in violation, they could have lost their recognition as a university organization. The Pikes had been around for less than a year and were on the verge of receiving their national charter. It would not have been very beneficial to them to face a university sanction for discrimination.

I never filed a complaint. I did not enter the situation to make a political statement, and I did not want to exit with a political statement either. Instead, I let the situation drop with the vow that I would do something to make progress in the area of homophobia and the greek system. I am now in the progress of developing an educational program for greek organizations that addresses that very issue.

As I struggled with this situation, something very reassuring occurred to me. The gay, lesbian, and bisexual community is very much like a fraternity. We provide a network of support for each other, promote leadership, and build community. The friendships that I have made with other gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are as strong as the bond between any fraternity brothers. I have met people in the g/l/b community who will be close friends of mine until the day that I die. When one member of our community has problems, everyone is there to support that person. Like a greek organization, we do not all get along all of the time. In times of crisis, however, I have never worked with a more loyal and devoted group of people. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have always created their own substitutes for the things that society has denied them. Our community is my fraternity.

It pains me sometimes to think of the gay and bisexual men of Pi Kappa Alpha, not only the ones I know personally, but also the ones that I do not. I only hope that my presence has not made their situation worse. It may have scared them deeper into the closet to see the homophobia in their own ranks, but it also may have helped for them to see their brothers who supported me and spoke in my favor. The fact that it was discussed openly among the members has at least given them the opportunity to see which of their brothers would support them if they came out. To this day, none of them have.

I do not hold any resentment towards the men of Pi Kappa Alpha. They faced an issue many other fraternities would have avoided at all costs. They have treated me with dignity and respect. To this day I am friends with several of their members. I think that they have learned something from this experience, and I know that I certainly have. It still hurts, though. When I see a man wearing the PKA letters, it reminds me not only of my personal discrimination, but also of the fact that discrimination is still alive and well no matter how many voting seats we have in student government.

That pain also gives me the drive to continue to do the things I do -- to educate and lead by example. It often takes a failure to remind us how important our successes are. My failure has reminded me how important it is to keep fighting and educating, no matter how slow or impossible progress may seem. Not only did I miss a great opportunity because of discrimination, but the men of Pi Kappa Alpha missed a great opportunity due to their own homophobia. I look forward to the day (and that day will come) when the S in SLAG no longer stands for Straight.

Eldon C. Brown is a 21-year-old graduate student at Western Illinois University studying College Student Personnel. He may be reached at muecb@wiu.edu.
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