When senior Paul Samaha first walked into the Phi Delta Theta house three years ago, he sensed an openness that set it apart from many other fraternities on Greek Row.
“I remember during rush, there were some houses that you walked into and it was just so cookie cutter,” Samaha said. “If you weren’t a certain type of person then you weren’t going to get in, and they kind of let you know that with their attitude when you first walked in. Phi Delt was one of the few that I didn’t feel was like that.”
Samaha, who pledged the fraternity in the fall of his freshman year, said Phi Delt’s inclusiveness is what made it feel different. Samaha is gay, a fact that he says he never tried to hide from his fellow pledge group or fraternity brothers, but which still has not achieved full acceptance in all areas of Greek life or USC student life in general. Now, as a student leader on campus, Samaha is working to make USC a more inclusive community through his role in student government as well as his determination to stay true to his identity.
“At USC, I felt like I didn’t need to change who I was, or try to fit a mold,” Samaha said. “Even though as a freshman everyone still plays into that, no matter how confident you are, I was still able to feel at home here.”
He’s sitting on a bench in the front yard of the house he now calls home. Behind him, the front windows of the house open up to show a living room crowded with fraternity members — eating dinner, playing music and just talking and laughing together.
For Samaha, the home represents a microcosm of the USC community he worked hard to become a part of over the past three years. Along with taking on a leadership role as the Phi Delta social chair, he is also an Undergraduate Student Government senator, a role that he said made him passionate about politics and nurtured dreams of one day becoming the White House press secretary.
Being a senator also allows Samaha to effect change in areas he is passionate about, such as making the Engemann Health Center more inclusive for members of the LGBT community. He described the difficulties LGBT people face when making a routine doctor’s visit, including health workers not knowing the proper terminology to use and test results unintentionally “outing” someone when they are sent to a person’s home. Samaha hopes to solve this by educating staff members at Engemann on how to address sexual health of LGBT people.
However, Samaha’s influence goes beyond the campus initiatives he creates, and can be seen in his very presence in the Senate.
“He’s been very outspoken about his identity, and I think it makes people feel comfortable to be in different leadership positions,” said Student Body President Edwin Saucedo. “If you can see someone who looks like you, who might identify the same way that you do, who might have the same experience as you, in a leadership position…that would make you more likely to run.”
Discrimination, Samaha said, is still pervasive, despite the diversity of the USC community and its efforts to become more supportive of LGBT people. Although he has rarely experienced open hostility because of his sexuality, he said he knows gay men who have — and that everyone, himself included, has experienced microaggressions, or daily comments and actions that discriminate against LGBT people.
“Everyone thinks that because we’re in California, that it’s really easy [to come out], but it’s not,” Samaha said. “An insecurity is instilled in people, and that doesn’t go away just because of your geographical location.”
Samaha said he never felt comfortable coming out as gay to more than a few close friends and family members in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia. But once he came to USC, he said he found an accepting community that made him feel comfortable being open with his identity from the start. He’s had fraternity brothers stand up for him when others have made discriminatory statements, and in his fraternity house, he not only feels accepted, but respected. He hopes USC can embrace diversity in a way that helps other LGBT students feel the way he does.
“I do encourage [students to come out] because I’ve been in that place,” Samaha said. “You don’t know how all these different people are going to react … but I think students would find so much more comfort in being out and finding that acceptance from others.”
Despite this acceptance, Samaha said the university needs to make more progress before it is considered a truly inclusive place for members of the LGBT community.
“So many times, professors are the ones making microaggressions or putting down certain identities, and the best way to [change] that is by hiring diverse faculty,” Samaha said.
Those who know Samaha, however, say he has already made USC a more open campus.
“He has always relentlessly been himself in a community that has a lot of work to do,” said Tyler Matheson, Samaha’s “little brother” in his fraternity. “The way that he so passionately stood up for his beliefs during the campus climate movement last year…was a moment that I thought was particularly impactful.”
Samaha said that being an openly gay member of the Greek community is helping to encourage an attitude of inclusivity on a campus that he says is still largely heteronormative.
“I think being present is a statement in itself,” Samaha said. “A lot of times people’s acceptance comes from knowing someone, and that can make all the difference.”
Photo provided by Paul SamahaShare: