By: Supreme Master Scott Knapp (Florida State, 2002)
Last summer I was installed as the 76th International President of Alpha Epsilon Pi. Since I was an undergraduate member at Florida State University in the early 2000s, having the opportunity to lead AEPi had been a dream. But, the impact that AEPi has had on me, and my ability to provide back to the organization, is nowhere near what I anticipated.
Almost a year ago to the day — just a few weeks before our international convention and leadership conference – I wrote and published an article on the AEPi International website about something deeply personal that I thought that all of my fraternity brothers needed to be aware of: I am gay. In that article, I detailed my own journey of discovery and, most amazingly, that, quite by accident, I found my soulmate (and soon to be husband) along with realizing my identity.
While I was confident that I would be accepted by the staff and lay leaders of the fraternity, people who had known me for much of my adult life no matter their political persuasion or religious perspective, I still grappled whether to allow the article to ultimately be published. Despite the encouragement to do so, I couldn’t predict how the rest of the fraternity and all of our many supporters would view the issue. I recognized that our fraternity is a representation of the pluralistic Jewish community, and I knew that some in the Jewish world have differing viewpoints in accounting for homosexuality in their own community. Beyond that, I had concerns about what would our current and future undergraduates, alumni, parents, partner agencies, foundation contributors, and the many others that we interact with say about the organizational fraternity president being gay? I worried that my being out could somehow negatively impact AEPi.
I shouldn’t have worried.
From the moment that the article was posted last June, I received message after message of support and pride in AEPi. Undergraduates, alumni, parents, supporters, sorority and other fraternity leaders, and friends have messaged me from across the country and around the globe to express their support, not just for me, but for our fraternity. Most of the communications that I have received have started with two words: thank you.
For decades, AEPi has told the Jewish community that our fraternity is a home for Jewish men when they are away attending college. It certainly was for me when I moved to Tallahassee as a freshman in 1998. And, for more than 150,000 other men, we have provided a safe place to be a member of the Jewish community, to learn leadership and advocacy, to grow as individuals, and to educate campuses and communities about Jewish traditions and values. Regardless of what we do in our own lives, AEPi is our collective home that is built and maintained by our roots in Judaism and brotherhood. What a great lesson to teach our undergraduate brothers and the Jewish community’s emerging leaders!
Without a doubt, I can state that my undergraduate brothers wholeheartedly understand and appreciate that home AEPi provides each of them. Countless times, our undergrads have expressed that having the lay leader of the largest Jewish fraternity in the world being open about his sexuality has given them the courage to be proud of who they are and of the organization they have surrounded themselves with. And, almost to a man, many multiples have told me tales of their own – sometimes surprising – acceptance they received from their undergraduate chapter brothers upon coming out. Similarly, alumni have shared stories of encouragement for them to reconnect with their fraternity brothers and to revel in their shared experiences and rally around the AEPi mission: to develop the future leaders of the Jewish community.
As heartening as every one of those personal messages were, I cannot think of a more gratifying moment than experiencing what transpired at Supreme Council (AEPi’s annual meeting) last August when several undergraduates came to the microphone to share their stories and express their support for me. The story of one young man, however, stands out in my memory. (I won’t identify him here to preserve his privacy). He nervously approached the microphone, and in front of several hundred other AEPi men, who he had never met until two or three days before, admitted to us that he had spent much of his college life struggling with mental health issues as he wrestled with his own sexuality. As he shook and began to cry, he told us that he had never been open about being gay. He paused for a moment to collect himself, and then said that now he knows without any doubt that he has a safe space to be true to himself and will always have his fraternity brothers’ support to be able to live his life as the man he is.
In a room of almost strangers – connected only by our shared Jewish experiences and commitment to AEPi at many diverse college campuses – he recognized and stated that his tears were now tears of joy and pride. And, then, throughout the meeting room, his brothers rose to their feet and applauded his courage, recognized his struggle and cheered him on. Chills for everyone in the room. And, hopefully, not just one man saved, but many others who understand that the brothers of AEPi are our brothers’ keepers.
We continue to recognize that mental health is a paramount issue facing our undergrads. To that end, we provide educational resources and link our undergraduates to programs, including speakers focused specifically on mental health. While sexuality may be only one issue triggering such problems, it is an important one.
The next night following Supreme Council, in front of close to 1,000 undergraduates, alumni, and guests, I was installed as Supreme Master. As I looked around the room from the dais, I saw my friends, my co-workers, my brothers, my family and my soon to be husband. They all accepted me. They cheered for me. They chanted my name. And, they knew who I was, and they loved me not just regardless, but also because. They loved AEPi, and what it stood for. They embraced our fraternity because of what it provides to our members and for the Jewish world.
And because of all of that, I again knew.
I was home.