Samuel Autman didn’t get off to such a good start when trying to fit in with Greek brothers at college. But slowly he learned to dance.
The first time I danced with the Greeks was in 1985. A gaggle of male and female students from the University of Missouri’s group, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, figured we’d infiltrate a fraternity party unnoticed.
Before RuPaul was the supermodel of the world our gender-bending heroes were Prince, Boy George and that guy from Dead or Alive. (Before the plastic surgeries.)
That good ole 80s music got the best of us. We tried to dance so that it looked as if we were dancing with people of the opposite gender. Our cover was blown. It became clear that we were guys dancing with guys and women dancing with women. The residents of the house frowned and scowled, as if they wanted to vomit.
They stopped dancing.
We stopped dancing.
They resumed dancing.
We grab our things and left the party.
“Did you see the way they stared at us? You’d think they’d never seen two men dancing before,” Joe laughed. “Geez. I thought people from college were supposed to be more progressive. I guess not, huh?”
“Apparently not,” I snapped back.
For the first time in my life, the line was drawn. I was on other side of the Greeks. During my colleges I came to think of the Greek system as no different than the Old South with its gigantic antebellum houses that symbolized division. In those days protestors and picketers forced the University of Missouri to divest its financial holdings from the apartheid system in South Africa. We still had our own unspoken caste system though.
A few years later when I was an obituary writer for the Tulsa World in 1990, I sat at the doorway of death and answered, “Obituaries, may I help you?”
The newspaper had begun receiving death notifications through faxes machines.
One day a fraternity member from the University of Tulsa sent over a fake obit on one of the brothers in his house. It looked as if it came from one of the local funeral homes. The newspaper ran it. Imagine how outraged he and his parents were to see that obit. I can imagine his fraternity brother had a good laugh. We had to correct it. Fortunately I wasn’t the writer who had been hoodwinked. After that all the funeral homes in northeastern Oklahoma were assigned a password like “Chattahoochee.”
By the year 2000, I had become the higher education reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. The biggest institution I covered was San Diego State University, which had about 35,000 students. With easy access to booze right across the border in Tijuana for people under 18, SDSU was one big party. In its’ first rankings of colleges and universities in 1986, Playboy magazine designated it as the nation’s third top “party schools.”
“You have a bias against fraternities Mr. Autman?” the voice thundered through the phone.
“Why do you say that?”
“Every time you write about the Greek system it’s always about parties and drinking. You never mention our philanthropy.”
He was right. I was elated to write about all of the boozing vomiting in hospitals. I went to his fraternity house and met his brothers. They seemed like decent people and the philanthropy was real. I kept writing about their missteps but always included a special line acknowledging that fraternities are also known for their philanthropy.
Now, I’m a professor myself. I’m still dancing with the Greeks. More than half of the students at the university where I work actively participate in Greek life. In fact, some of my best students are Greeks.
It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday night. A student has invited me to his fraternity house for a scholarship dinner. Everything in me says don’t go but I liked this student’s attitude and work ethic. I accepted.
My palms are sweaty and my chest tightens as I walk into palatial building. As I relaxed into the evening, I found the food and conversation were quite good. I was surprised how polite they were. I’ve been to many scholarship dinners since.
It’s still hard to not look at those gigantic houses as islands of privilege and exclusion, the kind I experienced as an undergraduate.
I’ve had to relax my ideas about Greeks. I don’t think they’re closed-minded homophobes. In fact, some of the houses have openly gay members and people of other racial backgrounds.
Once in my advanced reporting class I used a story from The New York Times Sunday Magazine about drunken frat parties, written by a former member himself.
The students eviscerated the piece as propaganda.
I’m still dancing with Greeks. I just have learned how to not step on their toes.
Photo by andydr / flickr