.... 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?
Gay Life in Berkeley in the 1950s
Oral history transcript
Gay Bears! Collection
The University Archives
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
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
John A. Newmeyer
Stories from the Closet
Gay Bears! Autobiographical Essays Series
The University Archives
Up until this point, only his best friends knew. But the fraternity
found out one evening, when members heard the couple having sex inside
“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
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,”
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.”
“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 http://www.lambda10.org/nytimes.htm
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)