FORT COLLINS, Colo. — If it is possible for one horrible incident to raise the consciousness of an entire community, it seems to have happened in this sleepy college town. In ways that no one could have predicted before the death of Matthew Shepard in October, town residents, students and faculty at Colorado State University are confronting their notions about tolerance and about college traditions.
The latest act of healing came last week, when the college formally welcomed a chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, the first gay fraternity in Colorado. Many here say that since the death of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was attacked in part because he was gay, Fort Collins has undergone significant soul searching.
"Definitely there is a heightened awareness," said Lisa Phelps, director of the campus' Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered Student Services office. "The conversations I've heard on campus are amazing. Whether that leads to tolerance or acceptance, I don't know if I can make that kind of correlation."
That awareness emboldened Ethan Cordova to organize the fraternity, one of 19 chapters nationwide. The atmosphere was much different a year ago, he said, when his campaign to start the group led to death threats and a dead rat left at the door of his dorm room.
"It's totally different now," he said. "The faculty and the Greek community on campus have been very supportive."
Shepard's death at Poudre Valley Hospital, about 60 miles from Laramie, Wyo., resonated here: Shepard was also a college student. The closest gay bar to Laramie is in Fort Collins, where Shepard had many friends.
To the rest of the country, Colorado State is remembered for an ugly incident during homecoming weekend, while the 21-year-old Shepard still lay in a coma. The homecoming parade, with a "Wizard of Oz" theme, featured a float sponsored by a campus fraternity and sorority. On it, a scarecrow had been spray-painted with a vulgarity and "I'm Gay" on its face. Shepard was found tied to a fence in a position resembling a scarecrow.
The effrontery of the float was immediately decried by many people on campus, who were also mortified that the school had been branded as homophobic. As the moral compass of this town of 110,000, the university felt obligated to act. The fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, and sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, lost their charters. The school moved to educate by sponsoring seminars and sensitivity training.
Mark Koepsell, Colorado State's director for Greek life, said the transformation among the 2,000 members of fraternities and sororities has been palpable.
"What happened with Matthew Shepard made these students think about things they haven't had to," he said. "They have opened their eyes. There are gays in fraternities, I know it. They accept it now. I'm proud of them."
While change was afoot in the university's rarefied air, the town of Fort Collins was still organizing its thoughts. In November, the townspeople voted to not extend an anti-discrimination ordinance to include homosexuals. (In Wyoming, a move to pass hate crimes legislation was scuttled Wednesday by a legislative committee.)
"Wide streets, narrow minds," said Jerry Bigner, a Colorado State instructor who is Delta Lambda Phi's faculty advisor. He said Cordova's story of harassment brought back a flood of memories from his own experience as a closeted gay man at a University of Georgia fraternity.
The five members of the new fraternity nervously introduced themselves to a group of about 30 students on a recent evening. Cordova, whose father renounced him when he learned of his son's sexual orientation, was so nervous about his brief speech that he was sick.
"This is so important to us, this night," said Cordova, 21, a social work major from Pueblo, Colo. "I'm really nervous, but I'm so much stronger now than I was a year ago. Things are so different, and I am too."
The new fraternity, called a colony, will undergo an 18-month probation. Peter Colohan, a vice president at the national office of Delta Lambda Phi in Washington, said the fraternity can expand after this first "class." "We see ourselves as traditional fraternities," Colohan said of the group, which was founded in 1986 and has chapters at UCLA, Penn State, Purdue and other schools.
For the men of Delta Lambda Phi, this fraternity is a chance to redefine the experience. "We can make it whatever we want to," said member Tim Daugherty. "I'd like to be in an environment where men could talk about issues like ethics and philosophy and Socrates and not have a beer can thrown at your head."