When I was 11 years old, my father passed away unexpectedly. Death is a reality that most of us do not have to deal with until adulthood but those of us that have experienced this at such a young age know that it can become very engrained into our development. I know the way I deal with this is by being super friendly and outgoing with everyone. By being friendly with everyone, I can avoid becoming friends with anyone. After all, what is the point of becoming close to somebody if they are just going to leave you? I do not want to imply that I am incapable of making friends but this is the first line of defense my personality provides. This is surely a combination of a predisposition I would have regardless of whether or not my father was alive with my extroverted personality intensified by his death. It is something I have noticed about myself time and time again.
One of my favorites parts about college had been that people don’t know about him. Of course my friends know and I am very honest about his deceased status but at home, it is something that everyone knows about. I was able to get away from all of that and I really enjoyed that coming to Wesleyan. I recently spoke about his death at “In the Company of Others” event during New Student Orientation. I decided to speak so publicly about it because I wanted to let any incoming students know that they are not the only ones with a dead parent. While my experience does not reflect everyone’s, by speaking about it, I hoped to destroy the feelings of loneliness that can be felt when a young person has such a tragic experience. When you learn that someone else is like you in anyway, no matter how big or small, it establishes a connection, a sense of recognition, and a sense of belonging. It says to you, “Hey! I’m like that too. I understand.”
I want to take this time to discuss how my father’s death has affected my relationships at Wesleyan. As an out and proud gay man, my relationships (both platonic friendships and lust-filled romances) have been constantly affected by the death of my father. My understanding of masculinity is, to my knowledge, different from many others. Throughout much of my childhood and adolescence, my sexuality and fatherless status have left me lacking the male touch. In America, a man touching another man is often seen as a taboo. After my father passed, there was no immediate male figure in my life that could show me physical affection. Furthermore, my trust issues with men would have inhibited any potential for other male family members to establish such a bond with me. Additionally, any physical connection with another man I could experience has been stunted since I came out as a gay man when I was 17. Straight men are wary of showing me too much physical affection. When a guy slaps another guy on the ass, it often has nothing to do with either one of them being gay. It means a touchdown was scored or something else exciting may have happened that warrants such a bonding moment. The only people that slap my ass are my closest friends who do not care about my sexuality, or guys who I am 50 percent sure have a crush on me. Either way, I’m flattered. I do not blame straight guys for being wary about putting their arm around me, hitting my butt or touching me in any way. My hormones are wired to be physically and emotionally attracted to men and when straight guys touch me because they are my friends, or maybe they are just non-judgmental and not thinking about it, they do get my heart racing sometimes (this happens especially when I don’t know them that well). Perhaps some of them do not touch me because they are homophobic, or maybe they are not the touching type, or maybe they don’t want to give me the wrong impression. It doesn’t really matter to me. I think it makes a lot of sense. It is something that I am continuing to recognize and differentiate. I think I can usually successfully tell the difference between platonic touches and flirting. Nevertheless, the male touch, that bond, was something I didn’t really experience until college.
One of the first friends I made here on the swim and water polo team was very unafraid of showing me physical affection. I immediately recognized it as platonic and was so happy to have met someone who was so comfortable around me. Later my freshman year, I met another friend in the spring term. This guy and I, we got along. When I met this person, I thought to myself, we have the potential to be friends. This excited me. Unlike the first friend I mention, I found this friend to be extremely physically attractive. More than that, he was very forward and nice to me. I could tell he really wanted to be my friend and I do not think he came on too strongly at all but nevertheless it completely freaked me out. I think on one hand, I was so happy to have found a friend but on the other hand I was repulsed at myself for being initially attracted to him and I hated that I was capable of some sort of friendship sabotage.
Andrew Sullivan touches upon this through his locker room metaphor in his book Virtually Normal. He describes how every adolescent boy dreams of being invisible in the girl’s locker room to gaze with wonder at the body of the other. Gay adolescent boys get this wish granted except it becomes a cruel cosmic joke. The objects of our desire get hung all around us but we cannot touch them. We shouldn’t stare either. From a very young age, every gay person learns the rituals of deceit and repression. Some people may call this dynamic oppressive; I refer to it as a harsh reality of being a minority in terms of sexual orientation. Most people are not gay. Unfortunate for me, but that is the truth. It is a cross that I will always bear and I deal with it just fine most of the time. My developing new friendship was not one of those times. I was afraid my new friend would know my secret feelings. Combined with my pre-existing daddy and abandonment issues, the friendship was too much for me to handle. So I pulled away. I invented every reason to justify my backing away from him, even though it was complete and utter self-projection.
I have grown a lot since freshman year. I have recognized the issues I have and worked on them. I consider both of these individuals my friends to this day, and I feel comfortable showing them physical affection. We all have problems. Some of us just have different problems to have. While I am a cuddly person, I think I show a healthy, regular amount of physical affection and I owe my ability to do that to the friends I have made here. Both of these individuals I have described so far are brothers of Psi U.
I lived in Psi U this past summer and had an opportunity to get to know some of the brothers that were staying there as well. That summer was a really spiritual experience for me and I grew up a lot. I overcame a lot of my abandonment issues and some of my daddy issues as well and I really felt like a mature person at the end of it. I also developed a friendship that is particularly important to me. This brother in particular is an extremely non-judgmental person and isn’t afraid of showing physical affection. The way he communicates with everyone is physical. It’s little things, a slight touch on the arm, a head scratch, a pat on the leg. Sometimes he puts his foot against yours if you’re sitting next to each other. I don’t think he does this on purpose but he does do this to everyone he is friends with. We even shared the same bed a couple of nights. It was awesome. It took me right back to the fourth grade— my dad was still alive so there were no abandonment issues and I hadn’t hit puberty yet so there was no awkward chemistry. It was really great. Even better, it gave me the confidence to show other friends more physical affection. It was a ripple effect in the best sense. Once I was drunk and was resting my head against another Psi U brother’s shoulder for a second but I immediately picked my head up. I did it partially out of habit and out of respect— I didn’t want him to think I was getting too touchy-feely with him. He immediately got pissed and demanded that I put my head back where it was. I eagerly dug my head back into his comfy shoulder. I remember feeling so happy that he was so comfortable with me. That I was just like one of the boys and that this very basic, and essential human interaction, was finally accessible to me.
When the administration decided to co-educate the fraternities, I had such a visceral reaction. I was pissed. I believe the reason it affected me so much, is because fraternity culture literally improved my mental health. Every person I have described so far is currently an active member of Psi U. I could tell similar stories about a DKE brother. Fraternity culture was able to do this and there were no girls involved. In fact, I would say that fraternity culture accomplished all of this because there were no girls involved. While I have made some incredible friendships with women at Wesleyan, girls here have done next to nothing for my abandonment issues, and I do not think the members of Psi U would have been able to do this if girls had been present in the society.
Before I explain, I need to make a couple of points. First, I would never pledge a fraternity. It doesn’t interest me, not even a little bit. Secondly, if Psi U was a co-ed society my freshman year, I think I would’ve been more interested in pledging (I know freshmen cannot pledge anymore but bear with me), but I do not think I would have had such a positive experience with it if it were co-ed. Some people at Wesleyan may think its sexist to say that guys and girls act differently around one another. I think it’s realistic and true. As a gay guy, I have a lot of girlfriends. I also have a good number of guy friends. I almost never hang out with them at the same time. I am not suggesting that they are incapable of being friends with one another. In fact, some of them are rather close to one another. But different people bring out different sides of you. I connect to my guy friends and girl friends in different ways. It’s part of that connection I talked about— that sense of recognition and belonging. That sense you get when you’re talking to one of your good friends and you have one of those moments. Those moments those say “Hey! I’m like that too. I understand. This is why we’re friends.” I am not saying that guys and girls are incapable of having these moments, they surely are. But my friendships with men are complicated by my sexuality, and heterosexual friendships are no different.
Furthermore, this wasn’t something I initially bought into. I always pictured my guy friends and girl friends getting along but when I would bring one of my girlfriends to Psi U or a guy friend to lunch with my girls, it never really worked out the way I pictured it. They weren’t totally themselves. Not even the most down-to-earth of my friends were. Not quite. Perhaps it was just that they were not showing the side of themselves that they show with me. As I’ve said, people behave differently around different people and that’s ok. It’s fun to be a boy or be a girl; just because gender is a social construct doesn’t mean there is no value in “playing the role” society gives you. I am much more effeminate around my girl friends than I am around my guy friends and vice versa but I am not being fake. I am being social. Judith Butler calls gender an “agent of freedom and expression.” So while she warns about the dangers of oppression (which are all too real and scary), she touches upon something I have already brought up. She recognizes that we are social creatures. We look and crave that connection. That recognition. That moment that says, “this is why were friends.”
Some of the friends I have made, specifically the ones in Psi U, have given me this connection in a way they could not have possibly done so had they been co-ed. I believe this to be true because I was on the swim team and water polo team, both of which are co-ed. While I have shown and will continue to show my male teammates physical affection, the friendships I have made with my teammates have not affected me in the same way. I believe this partly has to do with the constant presence of girls on the team. The first couple of away tournaments, I spent the night in the hotel room with the girls, not my male teammates. I became friends with the female members before the guys. At the time, I still had trust issues with men, but I didn’t with women. It was easier for me. When I started hanging out in Psi U, I didn’t have this convenience but I am a more stable and better person because of it. This isn’t to say that I do not treasure and cherish the friendships I have made on the swim team. I have made friendships that I hope last a lifetime. But that’s not what this is about.
This is about the death of my father, my life since, human connection, and the co-education of Wesleyan’s fraternities. The absence of fraternities on this campus, for me, would’ve meant the absence of such significant life experiences. I consider this journey I have described as essential to my development as a person and I am not even a brother. Recognize how important the presence of an all-male group on campus was for me and then think about what it must mean for a member of one of these societies. While I have friendships with some brothers that I hope last a lifetime, I am still not a brother and never will fully understand what that bond of brotherhood must feel like. They have a connection to each other that I do not. I remember clearly when the WSA was having meetings discussing co-education and a girl I know was laughing when she told me about how some of the brothers were visibly upset that people wanted to take their fraternity away from them. How one was almost teary eyed and how “stupid and overdramatic” she thought he was being. Because after all, “It’s just a stupid frat,” she jeered. “Get over it.” I do not think she meant any harm. I think she viewed fraternity culture as exclusively having to do with parties. She couldn’t see why it was so important to him.
I fear that now that co-education is mandatory, students won’t be able to feel that connection that I found. They won’t be able to feel that recognition, that moment that says, “This is why were friends,” all of which that is so essential to the human experience. Now the experience I have had with fraternity culture certainly does not reflect the norm. Most members of fraternities on this campus probably cannot relate to my personal experience, but the point of this article isn’t to talk about my life as a gay person. The point isn’t to play the dead dad card. The point is, unless I tell you about my life, there is no way you would ever know what the presence of an all male group means to me. The human experience is complicated. When you say that a group of guys cannot live together, you are potentially robbing somebody of a truly special and consequential experience and nobody should have to describe their life at length and in detail to justify being in a fraternity.
Joseph Nucci is a member of the class of 2016.