A few weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking on a panel entitled “Out and Greek, For Historically Black Fraternities & Sororities: A Conversation about Race, Greek, and all things Queer.” As I walked up the grand staircase at the University of Maryland to take my seat on the stage, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha for more than 10 years, I have had my fair share of peaks and valleys when it came to dealing with others’ reactions to my gender and sexuality expression. To my surprise, though, there was nothing to worry about that night. The main reason? Over 95 percent of the audience was non-Black. Rather than wallow in disappointment about the lack of Black Greeks interested in the topic, I used the event as yet another opportunity to tell my truth and share some of the encounters other LGBTQ people in the Black Greek community have experienced.
The event spoke to a problem that is much larger than the lack of support from fellow Black Greeks at a panel discussion. For years, I struggled with reconciling how openly queer I am with how to also showcase the love I have for my fraternity. Most recently, this came to a head when I switched my Facebook profile picture to an image of myself dressed in a mesh bathing suit and a “feminine” sun hat, while a picture of my line brothers served as the background image on my page. Within minutes of sharing, I was contacted by several Alphas from across the nation who felt my beach-ready pic had crossed that invisible line called “masculinity,” which it seemed I had somehow threatened by dressing in such a way.
I won’t lie, I was shocked. Although I have been an out brother for years, fighting for the rights of the Black LGBTQ community, I was never that concerned over how my two worlds intersected within my own lived experiences.
Navigating the Black Greek sphere while also being a member of the LGBTQ community has never been easy. Many gay Black Greeks have similar stories about how we came to enter our fraternities–lying through our teeth every time we were questioned about our sexuality; denying the rumors in an effort to protect the image of our dear brotherhoods; and watching quietly as other frats were sued for barring openly gay men from joining their ranks, regardless of their academic or community standing. These events kept many of us discreet, only truly portraying bits and pieces of who we were to protect ourselves against rejection and the discrimination we watched many others face. Ten years later, I see so much of the landscape changing, but it also feels like we are in the midst of the calm before the storm.
The Black LGBTQ movement is in full swing and we now demand more than just visibility, or to be footnotes at the end speeches of community leaders. We want access, acknowledgement, and acceptance in an effort to gain a sense of normalcy in society. We want the Black LGBTQ community to have the right to apply for membership into Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) and not be discriminated against for being exactly who we are. In my opinion, this level of inclusion would also extend to trans women who seek access to membership in historically Black sororities and trans men who want to join one of the five Divine 9 frats. This would also mean the acceptance of openly gay, bisexual, and lesbian members and the acknowledgment of issues that affect those who are outside of heteronormativity.
For years, we have watched as society has grappled openly with issues such as gay marriage, HIV, and women’s reproductive rights, but the silence from our venerable organizations has spoken volumes. For example, the killing of multiple trans women, and the CDC’s recent prediction that half of Black gay men will contract HIV in their lifetime hit the web and not one of the BGLOs issued a statement, or even commented on the findings, despite the rampant HIV/AIDs pandemic in the Black community. That’s scary and problematic. Not only are the openly gay and queer men in these organizations directly affected by this news, but turning a blind eye to the plight of a contingent of members simply to protect an organization’s image places the status of the fraternity over the welfare of those who love it.
If we are truly about improving the lives of Black folks–as each of our organizations claim–and demonstrating love for our people, our actions must begin to reflect the lofty aims of our fraternities and sororities.
Being Black and Greek is not exclusive to the hetero population, and our platforms and values can no longer act as if this is the case. While many Black LGBTQ people have gained membership into these illustrious organizations, we have only been accepted so long as our gender and sexuality doesn’t cross the line of what’s deemed acceptable. For Black LGBTQ people both our Blackness and sexuality matters. Like everyone else, we are are the sum of all our parts–not just the pieces that you like or choose to accept.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education, He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.