I smirked as I took off my shirt while a houseful of young men yelled at me, tickled by a childhood whim coming to fruition. It would be several months before I was allowed to smile again.
“YOU THINK THIS IS A FUCKING JOKE?!” a relative stranger shouted as he pressed his forehead against my temple, and I fought back the urge to laugh.
My understanding and expectations of college life were shaped almost exclusively by movies like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “School Daze.” As the first person in my family to pursue higher education, I knew next to nothing about campus culture, other than the certainty that I would join a fraternity, because that’s what you did when you went to college.
My junior year, the first year of eligibility to pledge a historically black fraternity or sorority, I attended informational sessions and interviews for several organizations, and it was in the middle of one of these gatherings when I was told to take off my shirt and the yelling commenced. Without much warning or formality, the induction process had begun, and I envisioned myself soon participating in step shows, intramural leagues and whipped cream pie-eating contests. But before enjoying the glories of greekdom, I had to cross the burning sands.
Initiation into black Greek organizations is the ghost story of college campuses – unconfirmed horrors whispered and re-told, with everyone having a friend-of-a-friend who was hospitalized due to a ruptured spinal cord or being forced to drink a gallon of dog piss. It is a sacredly guarded process, which makes it ripe for speculation and rumors, the worst of which seemed to be confirmed by the recent release of Netflix’s “Burning Sands” (featuring Trevante Rhodes of “Moonlight”).
Without betraying the details of my process or dropping any spoilers, “Burning Sands” felt familiar enough for me to overlook whatever artistic exaggerations the filmmaker, a member of a black Greek organization, included. Shortly after I took off my shirt, as in almost immediately, I was consenting to rituals and relationship dynamics I never imagined I would tolerate, and I continued to do so every night for the next two months, motivated as much by pride as a sense of brotherhood.
No matter how surprising the onset of my initiation was, once I started the process, it was unconscionable for it to end in any way other than with Greek letters across my chest. During the most difficult stretches, I would see diminutive members of other fraternities and convince myself, “If they survived this, there’s no way I’m going to break.”
I was desperate to affirm my manhood while allowing it to be violated on a nightly basis. There is much about the pledging process that is unnecessary and incompatible with my notions of healthy relationships, so I don’t discount its many critics.
However, on the night I was to tell my fraternity brothers I was gay, as I sat in the chapter meeting and reconsidered my decision while listening to the homophobic jokes that peppered our discourse, I drew upon the same stubborn resolve that saw me through pledging: having started the process, it was unconscionable for it to end in any way other than sharing my truth.
That night, that chapter meeting, with those young men, remains one of the most empowering moments of my life, and the compassion and solidarity my fraternity brothers showed has sustained me many times in the dozen years since. We might have experienced that bond without the aspects of the initiation process that I consider senseless; but that was not how we arrived at that moment, and whatever I went through to get there was worth it.