“Many are called, but few are chosen.”
This maxim is the calling card for many black fraternities and sororities when selecting applicants for membership. Failure to be chosen for initiation into any of these historic bodies may occur for a myriad of reasons, such as lack of academic excellence, or a paltry record of community service.
Yet, a student at the historically black Morgan State University filed a complaint with the school on the grounds that he was not chosen for membership into a black fraternity because he is openly gay. This comes just a year after social media was abuzz about the gay wedding of a black man who was a member of a black Greek letter organization, or BGLO.
Last week, I pointed out that the next generation of black national government, entertainment, and business leaders are mostly men and women who are not members of BGLOs. This is the case due to more opportunities being available to college-educated blacks, negative perceptions of these organizations’ social behaviors and selection processes, and a typical BGLO’s intense focus on its local community, which may inhibit national prominence.
But the complaint filed by the gay Morgan State student, a former White House intern, provides an opportunity to address BGLOs and the touchy subject of sexual orientation.
BGLO’s alleged resistance to gay members
In a scholarly essay entitled Not On My Line: Attitudes about Homosexuality in Black Fraternities, BGLO members surveyed repeatedly state that gay men applying for membership were not the type of potential fraternity brothers they wanted on their campus. If the allegations at Morgan State are true (and the student claims to possess communications between BGLO members that support his accusations), then it serves as some measure of confirmation of the essay findings that gay men remain somewhat of an anathema to BGLOs.
Why is this the case? With the Supreme Court’s recent decision that cleared the way for gay marriage across the country and President Obama’s coming out in support of gay marriage last year, why does this notion still meet resistance in these organizations?
One explanation is that BGLOs are century-old organizations that provided black men and women the ability to exercise their masculinity and femininity in temporary safe havens away from the vile gaze of racism. The hyper-masculinity and ultra-femininity of BGLOs are on full display in many of their ceremonies and step-show performances. This practice was incredibly valuable in asserting the personhood of blacks in an age when oppression was the rule. There is, however, a fear that gay and lesbian members, and stereotypical perceptions of their behavior, may undermine the concepts of manhood and womanhood BGLOs maintain.
For institutions founded, in part, to help members escape the emasculating and objectifying effects of racism, expression of traditional gender roles was a form of freedom. When sexual orientation is considered in this context, it can help us understand, but not excuse, the reluctance of accepting gay and lesbian applicants.
Brotherhood and sisterhood in context
This leads into the separate, but related, issue of brotherhood and sisterhood. How BGLO members relate to one another within their organizations is at the core of their fraternal and sisterly bonds. These relationships are familial and devoid of any romantic notions. A student interviewed in the essay cited above stated that because of the physical closeness in many selection and ritualistic processes, having a gay member would be unacceptable.
Of course, such reasoning is ridiculous, but it points to the underlying question of whether a member’s sexual orientation could change the brotherly and sisterly nature of intra-organizational, same-sex dealings. Unfounded fears among some members on this question can lead to unfair exclusion of qualified gay and lesbian applicants.
Perhaps the deepest and most enduring reluctance to gay members is found in the adherence to Christian fundamentalism. BGLOs were founded based on Christian principles by young men and women, almost all of whom were reared in churches. The religious basis of these groups is not one that can be easily cast aside as society progresses to be more inclusive.
This is a characteristic of many traditional black entities, especially churches in the southern part of the United States. And they persist today. For example, last year when North Carolina voted to define marriage as only the union between one man and one woman, it was black churches’ majority support of the measure that sealed its passage.
Reality check: Gay frat members exist
Regardless of our BLGO’s stated traditions, all of the prominent black fraternities and sororities have gay members, both open and closeted. And many of the gay members say that they are treated with respect and offered brotherly or sisterly love, and return it in kind. These members are leading local communities, mentoring children and young adults, and serving as role models and sources of inspiration. They uphold the principles of the organizations in a way that would make the founders proud.
As organizations founded to be inclusive meritocracies because of national prejudices that prevented its educated members from enjoying full citizenship, BGLOs should not be turning away applicants because of sexual orientation. Instead, they should lead the charge in accepting men and women who will be assets to the organization, no matter what their sexual orientation. We can lead the black community on this issue.
Many are called, and yes, few are chosen. But to nurture and grow the organizations we are proud of, we must choose based on intellect, dedication to service, and work ethic, not on economic status, popularity, or sexual orientation.
Morgan State University responds
TheGrio reached out for comment from Morgan State University regarding the allegations made by a gay student that he was discriminated against during a fraternity’s pledge process. Jarrett Carter of the school’s media relations division emailed theGrio the following statement, issued by Dr. Kevin Banks, Vice President for Student Affairs of Morgan State University.
“Morgan State University prides itself on sustaining an environment that is inclusive and respectful of all members of our community at large,” the statement reads. “It is the policy of Morgan State University that all employees and students should be able to enjoy and work in an educational environment free from discrimination. Discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status or disability is prohibited by this Policy.
“Recently, it has come to my attention that one of our student organizations allegedly engaged in discriminatory behavior during their membership intake process. The university takes this allegation very seriously and we are reviewing the matter.
“Any employee, student, student organization, or person privileged to work or study at Morgan State University who violates this policy will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including permanent exclusion from the University.”
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.