Monday, October 11, 2010

Coming Out, Greek Life, & Changing a Nation

It’s rather strange that in the days before National Coming Out Day we are writing and talking about the tragic loss of life. National Coming Out Day was created to celebrate our lives and to celebrate the enthusiasm and cathartic nature of being who we are. It has been twelve years since Matthew Shepard was left to die on a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming. A decade later, we are now mourning the untimely passing of Tyler, Seth, Raymond, Billy, Cody, Asher, Harrison, Felix, and Caleb- nine young lives that could not see beyond the homophobia and picture a life worth living. Unfortunately, there are many unnamed lives that were taken due to the hate and homophobia along with the nine lives that we are aware of.  Even worse, is there will be more lives in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.  The Trevor Project ( estimates that over ten thousand LGBTIQQ youth will take their own lives within the next year.

We are struck by the complexity of emotion that goes through us with each new suicide and related news stories.  This past month has brought about the dissonance of youth and experience.   If we would have known in our teens what we know now, we might not have been scared, confused or insecure.  We love what being gay and out has brought to our lives - friends, love laughter, peace and family.  To each of the lives lost, we want to shout at the top of our lungs -- "it gets better...what are you doing... just give it a few more days, months or years... we got through it and so will you!"  We often ask ourselves, if we had had an "us or someone like us" when we were growing up, would we be different?  Perhaps we would be less jaded, but we also might be less resilient.

We also know deep down just how they must have been feeling- "the anxiety of a parent or friend finding out...the lonely isolation of not knowing who to talk to...not being able to trust all of my friends with this secret...and trying to find just that one person who understands." Many of us within our community have felt this lonely and unworthy, especially as we were coming to terms with our identity no matter what age we are when we come out. We got through it and we have danced onto the other side and celebrated. But we have forgotten to turn around and reach back offering a shoulder or hand to those who are struggling. We have moved on without offering as much as an ear to listen or a nod to acknowledge the pain. We need to support each other through all of our times, not just the highs and the lows, but each and every day. Isn’t this what we all learned during our member education process?

This past month Campus Pride ( released the “2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People” which included 5,149 participants (LGBTIQQ students, faculty, staff, and administrators) representing over two thousand campuses in all fifty states. The report discovered that LGBTIQQ students, faculty, and staff remain at significantly higher risk, compared with their heterosexual and gender conforming counterparts, for harassment on our colleges and universities. Participants reported that much of the neglect or overt hostility and harassment they experience on college and university campuses comes directly from professors and staff employees, and also from adult members within the off-campus community. Participants often claimed that, overall, their institutions are doing little or nothing to improve conditions.

Complacency and inaction demonstrates acceptance! Suicide and harassment can be prevented! Action is necessary from all levels of the community!

Greek Life has historically demonstrated the values and tradition of leadership that have often been used to eradicate hate and bias. Brothers and Sisters have bonded together in the spirit of community service and philanthropy in hopes of changing the campus community and make it a better place for all. The energy and drive that Greeks bring to any culture change is dynamic and contagious. During this time, Greek Life is more important than ever in helping us all improve the campus climate into becoming more inclusive then ever. For each of us, Greek Life has been an important and critical support in our lives. Our Brothers and Sisters continue to lift us on their shoulders and fights for our place at the table. In the past ten-plus years, the four of us have been given so much by so many Greeks that we cannot begin to imagine our lives without our Brothers and Sisters.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s program (, Teaching Tolerance, is offering a free video on bullying ( - perhaps this could start conversations where you live. The key here is to not assume that someone else is going to do something- the key here is that Greeks can and should do something. We are the best tool we have to start conversations and enact change. Greeks do this every day!

As we travel around the country speaking to college students, staff, faculty, and community members we see a lot - pain, guilt, fear, anger, apathy, energy, organizing, fundraising, and paralysis. We have also witnessed the power of Greek Life making the changes on campus by co-sponsoring LGBTIQQ events; standing beside and in front of gay Brothers and lesbian Sisters when anyone makes derogatory comments; supporting those members who have just come out; and challenging the administration to become more inclusive. We do not have any more time to waste. What will you and your organization do?

Jessica Pettitt, Sister of Delta Gamma, Social Justice Educator, LGBTIQQ Advocate, and speaker with Kirkland Productions

Shane Windmeyer, Brother of Phi Delta Theta, Executive Director of Campus Pride and speaker with CAMPUSPEAK, Inc.

Bil Leipold, Brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Associate VP at Rutgers University, LGBTIQQ Educator and speaker with The College Agency

Dr. Joe Bertolino, Brother of Delta Sigma Phi, VP of Student Affairs at Queens College, LGBTIQQ Educator and speaker with The College Agency

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