At the Beta Theta Pi house in Chapel Hill in the 1980s, the brothers typically focused on academics, sports, parties and girls.
Except some of the brothers were thinking about guys.
Terry Bowman was one of them. By his senior year, he had come to terms with his sexuality. Bowman started coming out shortly after graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1985 and told some of his closest fraternity brothers in the year or two following graduation.
Each was straight. Their reaction was mixed. One told Bowman they could no longer be friends. When Bowman told another friend that he was gay, the confused brother said, “In what way?”
Bowman’s closest Beta friend immediately told him that he loved him just as much as he had five minutes earlier. “His reaction was pretty advanced and evolved for that time period,” Bowman told me.
Bowman, now 51, is executive director in the New York region for a nonprofit that encourages low-income kids to become entrepreneurs. Bowman and I are fraternity brothers and lived in the Beta house on South Columbia Street in 1982 and ’83. Bowman, a prestigious Morehead Scholar, was thoughtful, curious, good-natured and well-liked.
I thought of him when the spring edition of the national Beta Theta Pi Magazine reported on a survey of 2,250 undergraduate Betas across the country. The survey included questions about race, religion, politics, economic background and sexual orientation. “To be clear, this article isn’t about creating or obstructing diversity,” the magazine wrote. “This is about brotherhood.”
In the national survey of Betas, 60 percent said at least one of their brothers is gay or bisexual, and 6.5 percent reported being gay or bisexual. Chase Furr, a junior from High Point who is president of the UNC Beta chapter, told me that none of the current brothers is openly gay. How would the chapter react if a brother came out? “There might be a little shock, a little question at first, but I think we would completely rally around him,” Furr said.
A need to belong
Bowman, who is from Winston-Salem, was the first in his family to go to college. He joined a fraternity because he felt a need to belong. “My desire to be in a fraternity was as much about being a working-class kid as anything else,” he said.
He lived at the Beta house for three years. Many of the brothers from more affluent families had experiences he hadn’t had, such as traveling. He embraced fraternity life, which he said was “just a hell of a lot of fun. I never looked back and never regretted it. It was a very valuable growing experience for me.”
While some of his fraternity brothers turned away from him in the 1980s, that has changed. The brother who told him they could no longer be friends eventually wrote him to apologize. When Bowman sees his straight brothers now, he is greeted warmly, as he was at a gathering in Chapel Hill a few years ago. “The world has changed in ways that are so much more dramatic than we ever could have imagined,” Bowman said.
Nearly 30 years since graduation, Bowman remains close to some of his fraternity brothers. For so many of us, the friendships we formed as young adults are among our deepest, most enduring alliances, the relationships that help carry us through a lifetime of joys and disappointments.
“There was something about some of the friendships from those days,” Bowman said, “that prevailed through everything.” His old friends realized he’s the same guy he always was.
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