It was not the most effective public relations strategy. When a Vanderbilt fraternity alum talked openly on a student orientation video about being gay, the Zeta Beta Taus weren’t exactly enthusiastic about trumpeting their association with the former “brother.” Too bad. After the edited film was shown to incoming freshman last Wednesday, both The Tennessean and talk radio reported the fraternity’s timidity, instantly giving the local Zeta Beta Tau chapter the kind of publicity it was hoping to avoid.
But this is not just a story about a fraternity’s macho closed-mindedness. Instead, it’s a more complex look at how an all-American group of guys accepted one of their members being gaybut weren’t ready to brag about it. Basically, they practiced what they still weren’t comfortable preaching.
When Tim Bunch, a recent Vanderbilt graduate, began telling his fraternity brothers that he was gay, most of them shrugged it off. “We told him we would support him as a brother,” recalls Fernando J. Suarez, the current president of Vanderbilt’s Zeta Beta Tau chapter. “I can’t speak for everyone, but it did seem like everyone was fine with it.”
Bunch certainly felt that way. Being interviewed for a film on diversity for incoming students, he talked openly about being gayand acceptedin a Vanderbilt fraternity.
“They treated my boyfriend just as one of the dates,” he said in the video. “It was a positive experience.”
But when his own fraternity brothers heard about the film early last week, they demanded that Bunch’s appearance be edited out of the film. The reason: The fraternity’s gold “ZBT” letters were in plain view in the video, and they didn’t want to be regarded as the “gay frat.” Pressed up against a deadline, university officials acquiesced. “Right or wrong, I decided I didn’t want this message to be lost,” says Rhonda Venable, the university official in charge of the film.
So when Bunch speaks in the video about how open-minded his fraternity brothers were, the screen fades to black.
Venable says editing out Bunch’s faceand keeping his wordswas a relatively small compromise. She says the only other alternative would have been to nix the film altogether.
“To me, it was an image of blatant homophobia,” says Loree Gold, of GoldPitt Productions, the company that produced the film. “It looked to a lot of people that Tim wanted to hide his face.”
The fraternity president, however, says rather matter-of-factly that they were worried about what students seeing the film might think. “Freshman are new to campus and, as a result, may not be very open yet,” Suarez says. “A lot of freshmen may be so homophobic, they might be turned off by it.”
The fight to recruit freshmen into the Greek system, often called rush, can be intense at Vanderbilt. If a chapter has a weak pledge class, it might lose prestige on campus. Simple as that.
But the natural question for Suarez is, if a freshman is truly repulsed by the image of a fraternity openly accepting a gay brother, is that really someone you want in your group?
“That’s just where the University is right now,” Suarez says, essentially adopting the “Real Politik” approach to pledge wars. “It’s a slow, gradual process.”
The same goes for the fraternity, others note. Annette Brieger, who also helped produce the film, suggests that while fraternity leaders were willing to accept the sexual orientation of one of their own, they are not quite ready to make a universal statement about homosexuality. “Maybe you’re looking at shades of homophobia,” she says.
For her part, Brieger notes that she was surprised at how open Vanderbilt’s campus actually was to people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations. But she shudders when she thinks about the voice of Tim Bunch, talking about being gay at Vanderbilt, with the screen fully darkened. “It sends a mixed message. Is it OK to be gay or not?” she asks. “The black hole would surely suggest that it’s not.”
Trying to put their spin on the controversy, university officials have talked about how the famously conservative Vanderbilt is willing to tackle tough issues of diversity and tolerance. But the university’s attempts to improve its image sometimes achieve the very opposite, often with comic effects. Vanderbilt actually has some very open-minded policiesbenefits to employees’ same-sex domestic partners, for example. But what many people will remember is the university editing out a segment of a gay student talking about how accepting an environment Vanderbilt is.
“I do not feel like that part should have been edited,” says professor Sharon Shields, who teaches diversity classes at the university. “Tim was saying ‘we have an inclusive campus,’ but now the real tenor comes across that we are exclusive.”
Tim Bunch, who now lives in Cincinnati, could not be reached for comment. A friend of his who knew of his reaction to the edited film says only that he was “very disappointed.”
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