I hated the thought of joining a fraternity in college. Hated it.
In my mind, fraternities were the worst—bastions of male evil, elitist snobbery, drunken debauchery. The party scene was a huge turnoff to this very conservative 18-year-old. In high school, I only listened to Christian music, never said a cuss word, and certainly had never taken a sip of alcohol. So I certainly wasn't going to join a fraternity. Never.
But sometimes in life, you meet an actual person from a group you don't understand, and it changes how you think about that group.
For me, that was a guy named Deebo . . . well, that was his nickname. Deebo was a member of ATO, short for Alpha Tau Omega. I thought Deebo was a funny fraternity nickname until I met a Beef. Deebo and Beef are pretty much exactly like you'd expect: big tall husky fellas with big, bold personalities. They're great. Beef and I still text about Alabama football on Saturdays and complain about our offensive playcalling. But I digress . . .
Deebo and a few other guys took me out to lunch, and over chicken wings and sweet tea, they explained that ATO was different. The fraternity house was dry (no alcohol allowed), it was based on Christian principles, they welcomed guys of all races, and a lot of the brothers were Christians. ATO had the reputation as being the fraternity the good guys joined. It was a pretty blue-collar chapter too, so it wasn't a bunch of rich kids like you might expect.
I was skeptical at first, but over time, they won me over.
They became my friends and eventually extended a "bid" to me, an official invitation to join. When you accept your bid at UNA, there's a tradition where you pick up your bid card at the university, and then you drive to the chapter house. Then you publicly accept your invitation to join by sprinting into the front yard. All the brothers of the chapter rush over and surround you—jumping and chest-bumping and cheering. For about 30 seconds, you're the center of the universe, and it's an unbelievable feeling. It's very primal and exhilarating and not nearly as weird as it sounds. At the other houses, when you accepted your bid, they would shower you with beer. But the ATO's used water, which I thought was much holier. Those pagan Sigma Chi's can choke on their devil-beer...I thought.
In ATO, you never forget that first moment, that initial rush of being celebrated, of feeling accepted, of having 50 other human beings pressing in from all sides—a mosh pit of happy souls hammering one clear message into your insecure teenage heart:
"You are in. You are welcome here. We see you."
Most men live their entire lives never being celebrated even once. That's really sad to me. People think guys join fraternities for the booze and partying, but that's not true. Men join fraternities because it's the first place where they feel the aliveness of belonging, of being celebrated, of being seen.
Over the next few years, I would get very, very, very involved with ATO.
It was almost like a full-time job for me. We were a small, scrappy chapter—not as fancy as the other fraternities who had big houses with white columns. We were determined to prove ourselves and become the top chapter on campus. I served as chapter president twice, and it was all very fun. I fell in love with ATO.
I now know my hyper-involvement with the fraternity was just me running—running from the pain of losing my dad.
I remember leaving the fraternity house some nights at 2 or 3 a.m. and driving back to my mom's house in the suburbs. And it was alone in that red Isuzu Rodeo, driving through the darkened, lonely streets of Florence where the pain would turn up. People who have lost someone know pain has a volume knob. And when you are alone at night—lying in bed or driving lonely streets—some invisible hand reaches for that knob and dials it up to 10. I remember that happening a lot back then. And I'd instinctually reach for the volume knob on my car radio and turn it up as loud as it would go, trying my best to drown it out—literally trying to make the Nelly or the *NSYNC or the Beyoncé louder than the pain in my heart. Not even Beyoncé can do that, though.
Everybody copes with pain in different ways. My main coping mechanism has always been achievement.
It's a pretty effective numbing agent for a while, and it's a helluva lot healthier than Jack Daniels or Bud Light. I'll talk a lot more about achievement later, but it was in my involvement in ATO where I first noticed it.
Of course, everyone knows the main draw of fraternity life:
The American South is known for having beautiful women, and north Alabama is no exception. Women in that part of the country take care of themselves. They'll get all dolled up for anything. (I know I'm generalizing here, but bear with me.) A 10-minute walk across the campus of the University of North Alabama, and you would see what I'm talking about. The women are amazingly beautiful. Plus, they're very kind and very sweet.
By the time I was in college, I knew I was attracted to guys but was in denial.
I just pushed it to the back of my mind and pretended it wasn't there. I told no one.
Absolutely no one.
I also knew I wasn't into women, though I desperately wanted to be. This bothered me.
Speaking of women, I think they're amazing—better than men actually.
When you look at history, it's typically men ruining everything—blowing things up and killing people. Women are the ones keeping everything going, showing care, leading with temperance, and generally adding beauty to the world. I don't have any research to prove it, but I think women are probably smarter too.
I think most gay guys can see women as beautiful, but not sexual.
That's how I view women. I can appreciate the beautiful, pure, delicate nature of the female form, but it just doesn't excite me all that much. For example, I know straight men get very excited about breasts. But boobs have always kinda freaked me out. They're very scary to me, and the thought of touching one is like the thought of touching a wet bag of earthworms. There's nothing wrong with a wet bag of earthworms; I just don't really want to touch one.
Another burden of being gay and closeted is constantly having to tiptoe around the girl thing.
Being in a fraternity, I was expected to date girls. So I always took a date to our fraternity parties, and the girls I took were A+. We would go and dance and have a great time. But I would feel nothing.
These dates were great still fun though, like going to the fair or something.
But I think I led a lot of girls on in college. Or so I'm told . . . 😱
It wasn't ever intentional . . . I just always thought they were being nice to me, so I'd be nice back. Friends would tell me that so-and-so was into me, and I'd be like, "Huh? Ya think? Nooooo . . . we're just friends." And that's what I honestly believed.
Straight people are very tuned in to that thing that happens between the sexes—romantic vibes, sparks, sexual energy, whatever you want to call it. I just feel absolutely none of that toward women. None. I don't have the equipment to detect those signals. It's like trying to measure the speed of the wind with a thermometer, dig a ditch with a fly-swatter, or hit a baseball with a tennis racket. I'm ill-equipped. My female-romance-vibe-detector is just broke. Or maybe God forgot to install it. idk, really.
I think some closeted guys date women to make people think they're straight. I get why— it's the easiest way to throw everyone off the trail. I feel bad for those girls though. I mean . . . I did it too. I faked interest in women in college. I regret it now, but you do what you can to survive. I regret it now.
If you were one of those girls, I'm sorry. Forgive me, plz. 😬
I also think my spirituality was a smokescreen.
I was very vocal about my faith in college, and I think a lot of people just thought I was focused on God instead of girls. My faith was real, and I was authentically doing my best to follow God. I guess I was creating a distraction, maybe.
I kinda hate all this now. Looking back, it just feels like one big deception. Being gay forces you to lie a lot. But that's not an excuse. I participated in the lie.
Girls were a big challenge for me in college. And it was then when I first felt that some part of me was broken. Something in my biology was haywire.
And I began to discover the very soul-crushing nature of waking up every day feeling like a broken machine . . .
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.