This past Friday, students gathered in the World Music Hall to listen to Donnie Collins discuss his positive experiences as a trans* Phi Alpha Tau member at Emerson College in Boston. Along with his fellow fraternity brother John Lewis, Collins told his story and partook in a question and answer session with the audience.
After Collins’ insurance claim for top surgery was initially denied, the brothers of Phi Alpha Tau combined forces and raised more than twice the amount of money required for Collins’ surgery, even though he was only a pledge at the time.
Collins’ experience was presented as a reminder that common conceptions of Greek life on college campuses are often skewed, and unfairly shamed for being unaccepting and prejudicial.
“In [a fellow classmates’] eyes, we [fraternity brothers] were seen as a very negative thing, and a lot of people view Greek life that way—that we are very judgmental people and that we don’t accept people,” Lewis said. “I think we can definitely change that, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
For some attendees, Collins’ story serves as an example of students working together to create a healthy support system for their peers.
“[Donnie’s story] demonstrates some of the positive aspects of Greek life and how that sort of community really engenders a sense of belonging and self-affirmation,” wrote Felipe DaCosta ’15, a member of Psi Upsilon, in an email to The Argus. “Additionally, I think this event offers an entirely unique perspective by situating LGBT issues in the context of Donnie’s experiences as a fraternity member. It’s a great opportunity to challenge our perceptions of these types of issues and institutions.”
During the talk, Collins further explained the importance of developing understanding and support for queer-identifying people and communities.
“I think the idea of trans* youth is really scary to America because we consider youth the time where people don’t necessarily know what they want and don’t know who they are, so there’s sort of this reluctance to trust anything that comes from someone who is younger,” Collins said. “Luckily, I went to a very supporting school [that] socially supported me very well.”
Drawing from his experience at boarding school, Collins explained why outreach in schools is critical.
“[The school] never had an out trans* student before, and they had no idea what they were doing,” Collins said. “They didn’t necessarily do everything correctly, and that began with the fact that there just wasn’t a really strong LGBT presence at the school…. I honestly feel like LGBT issues need to be brought into the classroom.”
Collins clarified that people often do not know how to approach LGBT issues because they are not properly informed.
“I really would’ve liked that to be more of a presence when I was a kid because it wasn’t a presence at all, and I was very lucky to grow up in an incredibly sort of liberal-accepting family,” Collins said. “I think educationally if that [presence] could’ve just been supplemented…that would’ve been better because having to figure it out on your own is such a [difficult] process, but luckily you can figure it out, and there are people to help you.”
When he was younger, Collins found encouragement and reinforcement through a support group in New Haven.
“I went to a support group with other trans kids, and those [kids] are some of my best friends,” Collins said. “That was awesome, and I think it was the salvation of my coming out in high school because it really gave me a community of people who were going through what I was going through and were able to give me advice that I couldn’t get at a boarding school in Connecticut in a small town. I was particularly fortunate to not get bullied, which I know happens to a lot of queer-identifying kids.”
He explained his belief that change can come about through addressing society’s discomfort with the subject.
“Rather than starting with a message, I think it starts with each member [of society] really understanding what work needs to be done,” Collins said. “I’ve known a lot of people personally over the last year that have taken it upon them to overhaul their attitude over something that they previously thought was wrong or made them feel uncomfortable. It starts with wanting to be more accepting or wanting to be seen as a safe place, which is really what I think everyone should go for…I really just think it starts person to person.”
The event was hosted by Open House, QueerWes, the Middletown Chapters of Alpha Delta Phi, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Beta Theta Pi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Psi Upsilon, and Rho Epsilon Pi and coordinated by the Queer Resource Center (QRC).
QRC Intern Katy Thompson ’15 expressed her belief that students can learn from Collins’ inspiring story.
“At the October Pride Month Convocation last week, a student speaker reminded us that Wesleyan is not perfect and that we are not a safe haven for everyone,” Thompson wrote in an email to The Argus. “I think that is an important thing to remember. We can be very proud of where Wesleyan is in terms of acceptance but that does not mean we can be complacent. I think one of the reasons Donnie’s story should be so inspirational to us is that it reminds us that the fight isn’t over.”
Matthew Leibowitz ’14, a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, highlighted inclusion as something on which Greek organizations should put more focus.
“[It] is important for the Greek community to improve upon its inclusion of the LGBT community,” Leibowitz said. “Donnie and his brothers’ [experience] really was a great example of the way fraternities can be accepting. They went above and beyond for their brother, and that is something I think is core to what it means to be in a Greek organization, and it’s clear to see how that can apply to being inclusive of everyone.”
Thompson believes students should remember that Collins’ story has larger implications, both in fraternity culture and society as a whole.
“I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just Donnie’s story,” Thomspon wrote. “Like [Lewis] said on Friday, at the core, this is just a story about people helping someone do something that they couldn’t do on their own. At its most basic level, the lesson to take away from this is that participating can change someone’s life for the better.”
Thompson hopes that Donnie Collins will inspire self-reflection in students and motivate them to create a more accepting atmosphere at the University.
“Perhaps we should all question ourselves and question if we would have done the same thing that Donnie’s Tau brothers did,” Thompson wrote. “Especially since Donnie wasn’t even a brother at the time, he was still pledging and wasn’t even close to some of the brothers that supported him. I think we should really look into ourselves and ask if we are creating a space where everyone feels comfortable and confident to be themselves. If we cannot honestly say ‘yes’ to that question, then we need to look harder at what we can do as a community to support one another.”