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The 1950s

.... Now, fraternity life was very different. It was an interesting fraternity in that it was filled with a lot of people who were marginal from the point of view of family backgrounds, but people who remain good friends until this day. People who I really liked a lot, and who were all survivors from, in many cases, very difficult family backgrounds. And an inordinately large number of us turned out to be gay, and we automatically gravitated together, but we didn't know it. And it was only with time that, slowly but surely, you realized the number of you who were gay.

This was an interesting part of fraternities: an institution to talk about is the White Horse. Now, when I was in the fraternity [1949-1954], the White Horse was a very straight and very much fraternity bar, and so after all of our fraternity meetings, though we were under age, we would go to the White Horse.... [I]n 1957 I returned to Berkeley, and the first thing I wanted to do was go to the White Horse, and was shocked to find that it was gay. Wasn't shocked to see the people who were there, because they were mostly the people who were there when it was straight. One of the things that is fascinating (I supposed somebody has done a sociological study) but the percentage of [fraternity] presidents [who were gay]. I was president of my fraternity, so I was on the fraternity council, the IFC: Inter-Fraternity Council — the percentage of us who were gay is astonishing, probably thirty, thirty-five percent.

Was that of student leaders in general, or just fraternities?

I think just fraternities, and I think it's the nature of the institution. I think it's, you know, why so many people in the military are gay. It's all male, and the emphasis is on male bonding, getting drunk, male values, blah, blah, blah.... I would be interested to know if anybody else you interview was a fraternity president. But what it showed is that the people in the fraternity picked us as leaders, and I think for a whole lot of right reasons: that we tended to be more responsible, more organization-oriented, more community-oriented, and all that sort of thing....

I had two [friends] named Dwight, one who just died and one who died very early on. Both fraternity brothers, both whom I was really close to. And both of whom were gay. The one I'm telling you about, that was kind of the Fred Astaire type, everybody knew he was gay, and it just didn't seem to ever bother anybody. He did date, and he had a very close woman friend who he went to all the dances with at the fraternity, and they went to a lot of things together. But I don't think there was a doubt in anyone's mind where Dwight was in fact. (He died in an automobile accident, so it was really kind of tragic.)

But he was rare among people that I knew. I mean, the rest of us just were never [open about being gay]. I never talked to Dwight about it, and I did talk to the other Dwight, there were two Dwights. The other Dwight, who we've not talked about at this point, Dwight No. 2, the older of the two Dwights, who was both in World War II and the Korean War, so he was much older. He was twenty-six! We really thought he was old. But anyway, the two Dwights were very close friends, and later on in life when Dwight and I came out to each other, we did talk about various fraternity brothers who turned out to be gay. And I don't think in anybody's mind was there any doubt that Fred Astaire Dwight was gay. And on the other hand, the people who would have been [anti-gay] — there were some homophobic people in the fraternity, and those people never figured it out.

We had a really strange thing happen during rushing once. We had two people who came through rushing, one of whom we all liked a lot, and all of us who were on the gay end of the spectrum thought he was really in trouble because he was effeminate. And there was another guy who we really thought was a bit macho, and we weren't sure if we liked him. And the homophobes [rejected] the macho one, thinking he was gay. And so he got black-balled, and we got our [effeminate] friend in — who we never did find out if he was gay or not. It wasn't important. But he's another one who died in our fraternity.... He died one night in bed, and no one ever figured out [why]. He was a very effeminate guy, but just a really nice, sweet guy. And it was funny, somehow or other, whatever he did was right. But none of us had the chance to sit down and figure all this out. Why was it that somebody might be subject to homophobic attacks?

Erwin Kelly
Gay Life in Berkeley in the 1950s
Oral history transcript
Gay Bears! Collection
The University Archives


The 1960s

My anecdotes are from the period September 1962 to February 1964, when I was completing undergraduate work and living in a fraternity on the north side of the UC campus.

On my first day living in the House, I met an 18-year-old freshman, George, who immediately intrigued me. Of course I was in the closet then, and for some years afterward, so nothing happened right off or for months afterward. In the Spring, though, the two of us were sitting on the stairway very late at night after one of the fraternity’s exuberant beer-keg parties. It was a warm evening; he looked great what with his curly blond hair, lithe little body, and hairless legs exposed by shorts. I was so bold as to caress the back of his foreleg, gently, intensely. He gazed at me with equal gentle intensity; then we were interrupted and the moment of intimacy passed.

Six years later when I was a graduate student at Harvard, George came to visit. It was the winter after Stonewall, so it was suddenly much easier to be frank. We had no trouble expressing our desire for one another, and spent a wonderful night together.

I lived in the fraternity house throughout the three semesters I attended UC Berkeley. I joined for three main reasons: first, it was inexpensive room and board, close to the campus; second, it immediately provided a social environment that I was reasonably comfortable in; and third, it was the same fraternity that my Dad had belonged to when he was at Cal in the early 1920s.

The fact that the house was an all-male world was an added benefit, although homosexual attraction played a very much smaller role in my life than it did a few years later, i.e., in the three decades since Stonewall. My sexual desires were well sublimated into studies and other rewarding activities; this is evidenced by the fact that I had heterosexual intercourse only two or three times in those three semesters, and engaged in no homosexual activity at all (at least nothing more than my caress of young George's calf that late Saturday night). There were certainly some strong friendships in my life, as there were with most of the brothers — fraternity life was very much about forming such bonds, and many of them were profound and long-lasting. In my own strong friendships, sexuality played zero part.

These three semesters were the days just prior to the Free Speech Movement. There was a great deal of radical political activity on campus, which took different forms such as Bob Dylan/protest folksinging, or Beat/James Dean nihilism, or civil rights activism. My fraternity brothers (as with the fraternity culture in general) had a mild disdain for all of this. We were very clear about sartorial distinctions: WE wore Madras shirts, shorts, and white socks, and had short haircuts; THEY wore colored socks and strange unhip shirts, and carried green book bags. But some of us were pretty leftist in our politics, and very sympathetic to civil rights for blacks, and certainly the majority of us would have voted for Jack Kennedy.

Bob, the cutest guy of all in our house, was also one of the most homophobic. He wasn’t exactly hateful — his was far too sweet a temperament for that — but he expressed an almost instinctive disgust at any homoerotic expressions. Somehow we became good friends; there was a double-date to a prom that involved a huge long drive to Bakersfield and back, and there was another occasion in which we shared a double bed when we stayed over at another brother’s house in San Francisco. Nothing ever happened between us — but there was one occasion, during Christmas break when only four or five of us were staying in the House, when Bob took it into his head to walk around the place totally nude. He (and the others of us) thought this was most amusing and daring.

Bill — tall, dark, strong, built like a Marine — was the most macho and masculine of all the brothers. He was the leader of many a drunken caper, hilarious for their audacious vulgarity. Quite a number of times these inebriated evenings would end with him putting a heavy make on one or another of the brothers. Chosen especially often for these unwanted attentions was my roommate Ted. Bill would pile on top of him in bed and make some really very frank homoerotic advances, which Ted would resist with increasing vexation. Ironically, Ted was 100% heterosexual in spite of a theatrical voice, nicely-sculpted face, and reputation as one for whom “homosexuality/fits his personality” as was sung one afternoon (an adaptation of a song popular in our fraternity, itself an adaptation of a popular school kids' four-line song; the original (fraternity) opening lines were, “SAEs and Sigma Nus/Can hold a lot of booze”). Bill was never upbraided for his midnight homosexual playing because he was so obviously “straight.”

There was another friend (not a Cal student), also in the closet, to whom I was not attracted but with whom I could at least talk about my gay feelings. He was more ashamed of his desires than I, and convinced me to see a psychologist for “therapy.” The counseling was rather unmemorable — the counselor said little, as he was apparently of the “client centered” philosophy. I do recall that he was neither sympathetic nor judgmental. I quit after two session; even in 1963 I knew that I didn’t really want to change.

Two of my fraternity brothers left the house to live together off-campus. Word soon got around that they were lovers; this was a big scandal and it promptly divided the fraternity brotherhood into two halves, one unremittingly hostile and the other supportive to some degree. The attitudes of the latter were a mixture of respect for the courage of the pair of lovers, a general leftist-inspired feeling that people should be allowed to choose their own path, and a simple liking for the two of them because (after all) they were a pair of decent handsome blond fellows. Much later I found out that one of the two had had sex with six of the brothers; perhaps this accounted for the (for those days) surprisingly extensive sympathy for an openly gay pair.

Of course there were gay jokes all through my time in the house, but there was much less of a “what hateful deviants those guys are” quality than a “maybe you’re like that too!” teasing-each-other quality. We were, after all, a group of 44 young men living together who often spoke of “loving our brothers.” Machismo was fairly rare and restrained; we were not one of the athletic, rough-housing fraternity cultures. The relative comfort we felt with our homosocial life was especially evident in February 1964, when Beatlemania arrived: one evening there were about 20 of us downstairs — we put on a newly-acquired Beatles record — turned it up way loud — and danced with one another, laughing ecstatically.

Reflecting on all of this, I can see that it was fertile ground for the emergence of homosexual expression. Indeed, I was able to enjoy such emergence soon after, in London in the Summer of 1966 when I discovered the gay bars and after-hours clubs. What held me back at Berkeley — but not in London two years later — was the presence of so many fellows I knew and liked, whom I was sure would like me less if they knew I was gay.

John A. Newmeyer
Stories from the Closet
Gay Bears! Autobiographical Essays Series
The University Archives


The 2000s

Up until this point, only his best friends knew. But the fraternity found out one evening, when members heard the couple having sex inside his room.

“Just as the ‘study break’ was coming to an end, we heard a message on the machine saying, ‘Hey homos, the cat’s out of the bag now,’” he says. “We came out and all the hallway doors were open and people were standing in the hall watching us, and I remember feeling as though the whole world had just fallen on my shoulders.”

The process of telling one’s fraternity brothers about a new love interest is one already fraught with fears of rejection. However, for two gay members of the same fraternity, telling the rest of the house is an even more difficult process.

When bonds of brotherhood develop into more intimate bonds, the attempt to come out in the Greek community becomes considerably more complicated.

Relationships like these often challenge the beliefs of fraternity members and put the reputation of the organization on the line.

One particular relationship in a local fraternity house became an important lesson about understanding, tolerance and the homophobia prevalent in many of these organizations.

This UC Berkeley student, who asked not to be identified, held a prominent position in his house at the time he began a relationship with one of the fraternity’s pledges.

The two established a close friendship in which he grew to have a deep respect and attraction for the pledge. Their friendship became more intimate after a night of drinking.

“We were both intoxicated, and he needed a place to stay, so I said, ‘You’re too drunk. Come over and spend the night,’” he says. “Then he said, ‘I love you,’ and I was caught off guard. Did he mean it like some intimate attraction, or was it like, ‘I love you, man,’ like a friendly attraction? We ended up lying in each other’s arms all night long, and my mind was racing. I was hoping that he would do something to show me that he was gay. But the next morning we just went on and acted as though nothing had happened.”

Eventually the two sat down to talk about their relationship.

“He said, ‘Do you like me?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but is that OK?’ And I asked him, ‘Are you gay?’ and he said, ‘I don't know, maybe I'm “bi,”’ and I said, ‘Well, then I’m “bi” also,’” he says. “That was when I started to have these thoughts in my head that maybe everything I had been taught wasn’t correct — I’m Catholic, and we pretty much wrote the book on being guilty.”

The student said he previously had a few intimate encounters with people of the same sex — for instance, once when he was 14 he kissed a friend.

“I felt so guilty when it happened that I jumped in a scalding hot shower and tried to cleanse myself,” he recalls.

In the following years, he dated numerous girls, one with whom he had a long-term relationship during his freshman year in college.

“My first year here I dated a girl for six months in the dorms,” he says. “I was pretty popular with the ladies — but I never had sex with any of them.”

However, soon after joining his fraternity, the student says he knew he was attracted to other men on a deeper level.

He says he later realized that on a subconscious level, he used his high position in the house to try to pull in potential pledges he found attractive during rush.

“Deep inside I think I knew what I was doing, but I was unable to acknowledge it, because then I would have to admit what I was thinking,” he says.

Soon after starting a relationship with his fraternity brother, he began attending raves, which helped convince him that he did not have to be afraid of telling people about their relationship.

“Going (to raves) opened up my mind,” he says. “I saw guys together with other guys. I think that helped my decision to tell three of my good friends in the house — and they took it pretty well.”

But then, the rest of the fraternity members found out about the couple when they were overhead having sex inside the room. The student said there was a lot of awkwardness in the house following the incident.

“The chef was the liaison for a while between us and the rest of the house,” he says. “It was a very unspoken thing — no one would come out and say anything to us, but a lot of things were said behind our backs.”

Though no one actually approached the student, gossip spread rapidly among fraternity members.

“I'm lucky because no one actually confronted me about it,” he says. “But I remember hearing that one guy in the house had been saying things like, ‘Why are there fags in our house? No chicks will come by if they know we have homos here.’”

Patrick Neer, a counselor in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, says gay jokes and epithets like “queer” and “fag” are discouraging to closeted gays.

However, despite the prevalence of insensitive comments, he says that he believes the Greek community is becoming less homophobic.

“I am not as convinced as I used to be that the Greek system is homophobic,” Neer says. “I have folks who have come out and who have maintained a role in their fraternity and who have become leaders in the Greek community.” Fraternity members who adopted a “don't ask, don't tell” policy eventually became more accepting as the year went on.

“One guy who was cool with it — as long as he didn’t have to see it — approached me a little while ago and started talking to me about my lifestyle,” the student says. “It was good to know that someone wanted to take a look into my world.”

He explains that intolerant views make coming out a difficult process.

“Everyone has their own way to live their life,” he says. “We're all trying to figure it out and it doesn’t help when someone is constantly stomping on others. For me it is about being happy with who you are.”

Sarah Mourra
“Closet Doors in Fraternities Slowly Open: Gay Student Recalls Coming Out to Greeks”
Daily Californian, May 18, 2001

Read More About It

  • Cathy Cockrell, “Fraternity Adviser with a Difference,” The Berkeleyan, June 6, 2001
  • Neil Gladstone, “Brotherly Love and Hate,” New York Times, January 3, 1999
  • Out On Fraternity Row: Personal Accounts of Being Gay in a College Fraternity / edited by Shane L. Windmeyer and Pamela W. Freeman (Los Angeles : Alyson Books, 1998)
  • Pamela W. Freeman, Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian in a College Sorority (Los Angeles : Alyson Books, 2001)

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