Monday, February 26, 2007

The Bright Side of DePauw's Greek Life

The article on the Delta Zeta scandal here at DePauw (which I wrote about yesterday) is number one on the New York Times most-emailed list, as of 11:15 AM today. And, yes, it is a big topic of conversation on campus. DePauw's campus is overwhelmingly "Greek." About 70% or so of our students are members of a fraternity or sorority. (Only a small minority of music majors, though, are Greek; the vast majority are independent.)

The incident does not cast the Greek system, or its pervasiveness at DePauw (evidently the result of a time a hundred years or so ago when the university couldn't afford to build dorms and fraternities and sororities filled in the gap), in a positive light. It's the dark side of Greek life, but there is a very bright side as well.

I live next to a fraternity house. The guys there are among the nicest, smartest, and most responsible I have met at DePauw. They rarely have loud noisy parties, and if they are planning on one, they visit the neighbors and let them know, give us coupons for free pizza from the one really good pizza place in town, and then have a party that is usually rather anemic by fraternity-party standards, at least when it comes to noise. It's a bunch of nice, smart, nerdy (in a good sense) guys trying to misbehave but not having it in them to pull it off. A number of of the brothers have taken classes with me, and I know from them how much this home-away-from-home, and the mutual support means to them. And they readily accept out gay men.

Saturday night the Putnam County Museum had a fundraising roast/tribute for Dorothy Brown, a local resident who had an outstanding career as an educator: school teacher, principal, and education professor at DePauw. She was also the first African American teacher and principal in Greencastle, so her career is historically significant as well. And for since her retirement from DePauw 15 years ago, she's been the house mother for one of the fraternities on campus. At the roast, a number of current and former members of the fraternity spoke of her with great humor and love; they call her "Mom Brown," or just "Mom." Towards the end of the evening, about forty guys knelt around the platform and serenaded her with the same song they sing outside sororities during "flower ins" and similar events. It was a sweetly paradoxical moment; these very low, very masculine, gruff, and very out of tune voices singing with a tender love for someone who has made a great difference in their lives. The bonds of affection and the benefits of brotherhood were clearly evident.

It's rare to find a gay man my age who lived in a fraternity while in college. But many of us have had the experience of creating a second family, a family of choice, when we found ourselves not accepted by our families of origin. For a while after I got divorced I shared a house with three other gay men and the teenage daughter of one of them. It was wonderful in many ways. I used to call it my "gay fraternity." There was much mutual support; we felt like brothers. I came to feel more comfortable and open with them than I did with the men in the support group I was attending.

So I have some sort of sense, I think, of what a family of choice and a sense of brotherhood can mean to guys in a fraternity (and to sisters in a sorority). Unlike my experience, in which we were brought together by financial necessity, members of fraternities and sororities have chosen each other, and made explicit commitments to one another, commitments formalized by ritual and then solidified by the experience of living together and sharing each other's loves.

I was incredibly lonely and often isolated during my college years, and spent much of them living in an apartment. I often feel a pang of envy for the sense of belonging and acceptance that so many of my Greek students clearly experience. I know how much it can mean, I know how important and central those relationships can become on many levels, including the emotional and spiritual.

Reflecting on this makes me more appreciative for the good aspects of Greek life here at DePauw, and of the extraordinary hurt and emotional trauma experienced by the women of Delta Zeta here at DePauw.

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