Pay Attention Queens: Why the Oklahoma Fraternity Fiasco Should Matter to Us

03/16/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

...the Negro is...born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world -- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness... It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

It is a little ironic that I taught a class on racism and white privilege on the Friday before the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity story broke. Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that our black and brown LGBT brothers and sisters have to suffer the extra burden of racism, this is a story to which we white LGBT people should be paying attention. Hate is hate. Bigotry targeting difference can manifest just as easily based on sexuality as it can based on skin color. This is a moment for us to think about ways in which our experience of exclusion is in harmony with those of others.

In my discussion of this, I brought up the idea that in the United States, white heterosexual Christian men are a kind of undefined universal. I as a white male have been socialized to think that most people experience the world in ways similar to my own. This is far from the truth. One of the reasons police brutality committed against black people receives only periodic attention is because it is portrayed as an anomaly, disconnected events outside of most people's experience with law enforcement. That perspective of "most people" is that of middle and upper class white men.

However, that universalizing of one specific perspective or experience does not hold true on closer scrutiny. Many of my gay friends in New York City take it as fact that police increase their raids of gay bars on Pride weekend. Furthermore, gay men's experience of law enforcement is often quite different from that "universal" experience even when they are white. Women's experience of law enforcement might be entirely different than what "most people" experience as well, especially when it comes to sexual violence committed by police officers or reporting sexual violence.

This universalizing might not seem relevant to the Oklahoma fraternity, but it is. I don't know the demographics of the Greek system on a national level. My experience has been that the fraternities at the schools I've attended were almost entirely white and mostly middle to upper-middle class. I have also heard from fraternity members that if another member came out it would cause a lot of conflict. This is by no means a universal poll, and I am trying to be sensitive to people who are not out of the closet.

But, the kinds of privilege central to the fraternity culture in Oklahoma exclude not only black men, but non-heterosexuals as well. It is a culture that prides itself on its heterosexuality and encourages relationships between fraternity members and members of allied sororities. It rarely offers a warm welcome to members bringing boyfriends to formals.

Greek life on college campuses seems to embody a sexual dynamic similar to what Du Bois is describing as a double-consciousness. Is it the same thing? Of course not. Yet in a world of hypermasculinity, of clearly defined sexual roles and culture, I can't help but feel that a young gay man would be very aware of the divide between being male and being gay. Though he may not exist behind a "veil" as described by Du Bois, the culture that excludes men of color can be just as hostile to gay men. For all our fantasies about frat boys and its perennial status as the subject of gay erotica, reality is often quite different.

The Oklahoma fiasco isn't simply a reminder of the troubling culture of exclusive organizations like fraternities. It is a chance for white gay men to recognize that the universalized experience of whiteness excludes us too. Here is a moment where the experience of otherness and exclusion based on our sexuality intersects with the otherness and exclusion of men of color. I'm not trying to say we should all join hands and march together. It seems clear to me, though, that here we have an example of the kind of institution that excludes us. We can see the mechanisms of exclusion and the culture from which they stem. We see that we are not the only ones excluded and should speak up for each other.