Houston’s inclusive sororities and fraternities help build positive community for LGBT people of color
by David Goldberg
It’s time to start packing up that collegiate-era trauma. Frats and sororities are no longer just gendered bastions of rampant partying and party drugs—at least, not all of them. Houston is home to three Greek organizations that serve the needs of LGBT people of color, all established to foster inclusion, service, and self-acceptance. As Houston becomes a battleground for LGBT rights legislation and civil-rights activism, these three local orders are mobilizing to do the unlikely and bring two disassociated communities together.
It’s no secret that little visibility exists for LGBT people of color, and especially for those in the tight-knit fraternity and sorority world. The sense of community that Greek organizations offer could be a tremendous boon to queer people of color—one of the country’s most marginalized groups—but many black LGBT Greeks are made to feel that they are on their own. Often, Greek groups do not celebrate—let alone recognize—same-sex partnerships within their ranks.
Tamira “Augie” Augustine was involved in collegiate and professional sororities for 16 years before she defected. “The organization I belonged to didn’t stand for me,” Augie says. “It didn’t stand for the LGBT community; it didn’t stand for the service projects I wanted to do; it didn’t stand for the community that I was a part of.” So, in July 2010, she and fellow Greek Apryll Allen founded Epsilon Xi Gamma, a professional and military order with a mission to include women of diverse colors, genders, and orientations. After all, Augie argues, why support groups that don’t fully recognize you? “It’s a travesty to me,” she says. “You’re actually paying someone to ostracize you and mistreat you, when you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Fortunately for men of color, Houston has decades of history of queer Greek life. Delta Phi Upsilon, a fraternity with the mission of improving the public image of the black gay male, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, and is joined by Gamma Mu Phi, a 16-year-old service fraternity dedicated to promoting positive representations of same-gender-loving men of color.
Nathan Maxey, the current Gamma Mu Phi Houston vice president, saw a fraternity of this kind as a positive alternative for gay men. “I thought it would be great to be a part of something that promoted brotherhood and community—something different besides the lifestyle that I was currently involved in,” Maxey says. “All I knew about were gay clubs.”
By giving members a space to explore their identities, these organizations create a path back from social exile to communal pride. “We face being a part of two types of marginalized classes,” says Brandon Mack, former Houston president and current national secretary of Delta Phi Upsilon. “People think that you can’t be cohesively a black gay male. We show that you can cohesively exist in both aspects of your identity. You don’t have to choose. You don’t have to only be black and accept my gay side, or only be gay and accept my black side.”
Over the last six months, the African-American community has needed unity more than ever, and Houston’s Greek orders of color have taken on that challenge, regardless of how they are received. Delta Phi Upsilon members could be seen protesting on the steps of the Harris County Courthouse in the wake of December’s Jordan Baker grand jury decision. Epsilon Xi Gamma members rallied in the wake of Eric Garner’s death. “What it shows the heterosexual community at large is that we’re not too afraid to help you, because we feel wronged, too,” Augie says. “And wronged is wronged.” At a recent protest, members of the National Urban League shook hands with Xi Gamma members, and the order has started to form more bonds with local black churches and organizations. “It’s because we’re showing up,” Augie says. Local churches were impressed this year when Epsilon Xi Gamma wrote letters of dissent when Houston’s 2015 Pride events were scheduled to conflict with the annual Juneteenth celebration. “They didn’t think we cared,” Augie says. “No, we care. The first thing we can’t erase every morning is the fact that we’re black. That’s not going anywhere.”
Just as gay Greek organizations of color have assembled to lend their voices to the recent civil-rights protests around the country, so too will they be gathering to support the battle over Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (or HERO) that was passed in May and bans discrimination in city housing, employment, and contracting. With a jury trial over HERO’s repeal fast approaching and conservative and religious organizations organizing against it, the Greeks are moving—and have been since before the ordinance passed.
Kendrick Clack, the national president of Delta Phi Upsilon, says that Delta’s organizing last spring helped give desperately needed representation to black Houstonians who would be affected by the ordinance. “Had we not gone or been a part of that process, the black faces [speaking in front of City Council] would have been those that were against the ordinance,” Clack says. “For us, [appearing at City Hall] validated our existence in the community. It let our voices be heard and let our faces be seen as a part of the movement.”
For Epsilon Xi Gamma’s part, Augie hopes that allies within the black community will show their support. “We’ve always supported you,” she says. “Where’s your support of us?” Maxey and his Gammas are also attempting to show members of the black community that the Houston ordinance transgresses gender and sexual orientation. “Everyone will benefit from this ordinance,” he says. “It’s not about transgender people and gays; it’s about having our civil liberties that are guaranteed to us.”
Beyond HERO, Delta Phi Upsilon has its eye staked on the 2016 elections. Clack and Mack said that educating their members on voter registration, local and national politics, and grand jury selection is a priority. “People assume that the president makes all the changes in our country. They forget that local legislative bodies impact our communities,” Clack says. “That’s where we need to become the most involved to effect change when it comes to discrimination.”
Epsilon Xi Gamma is looking to not only educate its own members, but also to help local LGBT youth in desperate need of guidance. This year, they’ll launch an innovative program with the Harris County Juvenile Justice Department that brings LGBT mentors to young offenders. Volunteers are desperately needed—from students to professionals.
While Houston’s Greek orders for queer people of color are galvanizing the wider intersecting communities, their greatest achievement may be in fostering their own members’ awareness of their cultural identity. “One of our biggest issues is self-acceptance,” Mack says. “We don’t see many gay people of color openly in the community doing great things. Coming out and being open and proud about who you are can be very hurtful if you don’t have people to support you. But we Deltas have each other for support.” Apryll Allen, the co-founder of Epsilon Xi Gamma, stresses the importance of being universally welcoming. “We don’t want to pigeonhole anyone: whether you identify as more [masculine or feminine], or if you say you don’t have a label or are bisexual, that’s okay. You can express yourself however you want to.”
Besides the occasional gem in the far reaches of cable TV (House of Lies and, fittingly, Greek), few positive representations of LGBT people of color exist. While the present reality may be one of exclusion, these three LGBT Greek organizations here in Houston have committed to a future of unity in the face of societal threats.