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Remarks from the Chicago Society Reception at the 58th Grand Chapter Conclave

Thank you for coming out to our reception this evening. We are incredibly humbled by the level of energy in the room. It's a phenomenal turnout. Before we resume the cocktails and music, we each wanted to offer a few remarks on how the Board of Directors team is thinking about the work of the Chicago Society.

I think it can be summarized as: embracing our past and defining our future.

As you may (or may not) know, the Chicago Society draws its name from the 1999 Grand Chapter Conclave in Chicago, Illinois, where our legislative body finally had the courage to eliminate any questions about the worthiness of gay men seeking membership in Sigma Phi Epsilon.

Next year will mark 25 years since that important milestone in Chicago.

But I want to go back in time for a minute. To 1909. Back in time, ninety years before that resolution in Chicago, Illinois.

Ninety years before that resolution in Chicago and only eight years after our founding at Ryland Hall. Only eight years after all those names we know by heart… Kerfoot, McCaw, Jenkins, … were breathing life into our fraternity.

In 1909, at the University of Denver (Colorado Beta), a gay man was among the founding fathers of Sigma Phi Epsilon. Brother Ted Shawn, who would go on to be a pioneer in the world of dance as a trailblazing dancer and choreographer. As a teacher, his methods would influence names as diverse as Jack Cole, Gwen Verdon, Martha Graham, and Gene Kelley. Despite a demanding schedule, Shawn and his dancers would find time to visit SigEp chapters across the county.

Ten years later, in 1919, a man by the name of Walter Plunkett would join SigEp at UC Berkeley. Friends would recall that while all the major costume designers in Hollywood were gay, Brother Walter Plunkett was one of the few who was comfortable in his own skin. He was at ease with who he was and never found it necessary to pretend to be something he wasn’t.

In 1939, Brother Walter Plunkett served on the conclave committee for the 19th Grand Chapter Conclave in Los Angeles, California, while the film he led costume design for, Gone with the Wind, was being released. In 1951, Brother Plunkett would receive an Oscar in Los Angeles.

Five years after Brother Plunkett’s Oscar, in 1956, Don McCleary would be born halfway across the United States. McCleary would enroll at the University of Texas at Austin and become a member of our Texas Alpha chapter. By 1987, Don McCleary’s years of service to our fraternity would culminate in his election as grand president of Sigma Phi Epsilon.

But the 1980s and 1990s were truly devastating periods.

Two years before Grand President McCleary took the oath of office as Grand President, there was another Don in our hearts. Brother Don Tanner of our Memphis State chapter died at age 40 after suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Tanner had been a member of headquarters staff serving in various capacities, including Assistant Executive Director over Alumni Activities and Journal editor, from 1967 to 1972. Those who attended the 1969 conclave in Dallas had conclave coordinator Don Tanner to thank.

Tanner’s love for our fraternity was apparent. The embroidered Greek letters of Sigma Phi Epsilon on a panel of red and purple were to be found on his section of the AIDS Quilt that would travel around the country, memorializing the horrors of the disease and the disgusting U.S. policy response.

Grand President McCleary would end his term in 1987 and spend years advocating for equality. At age 47, McCleary, like Tanner, would ultimately succumb to the ravages of AIDS. At McCleary’s funeral, amid the telegrams to Don’s family from leaders like President Clinton and the eulogies from the Dallas Mayor and the Executive Director of the HRC, Don’s partner would quietly place the SigEp president’s pin on his chest and the order of the golden heart medallion around his neck before he was lowered into the ground for burial.

John Hartman, Pete Peterson, Don McCleary, Garry Kief, and our outgoing Grand President, Billy Maddalon are just a few of the names that have signed Sigma Phi Epsilon's Membership cards over the years.

While we proudly wear the location of the 1999 Conclave in our name, it was not the first time GBT+ SigEps attended the Grand Chapter conclave. We had often been the ones planning them. Nor was the fall semester following the 1999 Conclave the first time bids were extended to GBT+ men on our campuses.

1999 was an act of bravery in the face of the anti-LGBTQ+ politics of the 1990s.

We embrace the past. The leadership and bravery. The past of Shawn, Plunkett, and Tanner. Our past serves as inspiration as we begin to define our future. A future that in some ways feels uncertain. As we celebrate our brotherhood this evening … we are reminded that our celebration here in San Antonio comes once again at a time of escalating challenges to LGBTQ+ rights. A time when the work of this group feels ever more relevant to the future of Sigma Phi Epsilon.

Thank you again for your generosity and for your support this evening.

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