T.J. Sullivan

The Gay Fraternity

This is from the greatest hits file.  Originally ran in 2008, but I’ve had two requests about it this week, so I thought I’d rerun.  Enjoy.  - TJS

New fraternity chapters typically have a lot of gay men in them. Because it’s part of my own personal fraternity experience, I watch for the phenomenon. While I won’t say it’s always true, it’s true pretty often.

I’ve had lots of people ask me about it, and here are my thoughts.

New fraternity chapters typically don’t haze, and this is attractive for young men facing sexual orientation issues. Hazing among presumably straight fraternity men has a markedly homosexual character. Lots of nudity, dominance, sweating… you get the picture. It’s kind of hot on DVD, but not so fun if you’re the hazee of an established chapter, petrified that you’ll be “called out” by actives who might then hurt you.

New fraternity chapters are very busy trying to get noticed on campus, and this appeals to the gay overachiever who’s very busy proving his self worth. I won’t get all psychological on you here, but young gay men are starving for approval, closeted or not. Plus, young men have a lot of sexual energy. While my straight brothers were pouring that energy into chasing and bedding young women, guys like me were pouring it into Homecoming activities. You should have seen our Homecoming banner – grown men wept.

New fraternity chapters seek good looking, popular guys who know a lot of women. Nobody brings as many hot women to a party as a gay guy. Yeah, yeah… it’s a stereotype, but half of my straight brothers only got dates for formal because I made phone calls. I’m just sayin’…

I asked my friend Michelle if that’s too stereotypical of a statement. She said, “No way. I loved the gay guys in fraternities because they were the most fun and at the end of the night, all they wanted to do was have a drunken make-out session and cuddle.”

As someone who lived through it and has seen it in action countless times, I’m standing by my belief that having some gay guys is absolutely critical to the success of a new fraternity chapter, particularly at competitive campuses. We are an essential factor of the winning equation. Whether or not we’ve come to terms with our sexuality, guys like me bust our asses to achieve, gain acceptance from other brothers, make a good impression with administrators, get girls to parties, and belong to something during a time in our lives where a big personal struggle is raging in our brains and hearts.

When I look at my own national fraternity, I see it. There are chapters of my fraternity that have won all the national awards in the last 10 years, and in the years since their chartering, lots of gay men who played important roles in those success stories have come out. Three of the first five presidents of my chapter are gay, for example. From Washington to North Carolina, Texas to Indiana, the astute observer in my fraternity has noticed the phenomenon. I can’t believe that other fraternities are any different.

But here’s the part of the story that bugs me and motivated me to write this blog entry.

After the chapter is established, after the awards come in, after women on campus have crowned the chapter their favorite one to hang out with… the backlash begins. Inevitably, some men in the chapter start worrying that they are getting known as “the gay fraternity” on campus.

Other, less successful chapters on campus love labeling the successful new group as “the gay fraternity.” In spite of all the awards, the positive reputation, the leaders in every campus group, the new fraternity falls into the trap and starts having an organizational self-esteem issue.

Heterosexual men in the new fraternity become very worried that they are members of the so-called “gay fraternity.” They begin pushing for recruitment themes that emphasize heterosexuality. Their t-shirts stop saying things like “leadership” and “brotherhood,” and start showing pictures of busty women. They sit in recruitment meetings and start voting against potential new members who seem gay.

Maybe these men fear that they won’t be able to meet women, or that their manhood will be called into question because of their association with gay men. They generally love and appreciate their gay brothers, and would likely defend their contributions to the chapter’s success. But they really, really hate being part of the “gay fraternity.”

Dependably, the successful young fraternity that benefited tremendously from hard-working gay brothers at its conception becomes very homophobic as it seeks to shed the label. Without really intending to do it, the chapter becomes a tough place to be a gay brother. Brothers who might be gay can’t win elections. Their ability to be effective in the chapter depends on their ability to be “less gay.” This, of course, is very damaging.

They might drink more to fit in. They might put themselves in multiple sexual situations with women at formals and after organized parties to demonstrate their “manhood.” They push their homosexual activity further off campus to protect the reputation of their chapter.

One young gay fraternity man I know would road trip at least every other weekend to a city four hours away so that he could have fun away from his chapter. At first, he did it willingly because he didn’t want to contribute to his chapter’s “gay fraternity” label. But eventually he grew to hate his chapter because of its homophobia. He pulled away from his fraternity during his senior year because the subtle homophobia felt very personal.

I’m writing this blog today because a friend of mine advises a chapter that is currently going through the “gay fraternity” phenomenon. They are a couple of years in, they’ve won dozens of awards, they’ve become a force on their campus, and sure enough, they’ve been labeled “the gay fraternity” by other groups on campus. A lot of brothers are unhappy about it, and their backlash process is in its first stages. It’s begun subtly with a heterosexist theme for an upcoming recruitment function.

Fortunately, they are a smart group, and I hear that an honest discussion is scheduled for an upcoming chapter meeting. That’s progress. I don’t know how the discussion will go, but I hope they can at least acknowledge the phenomenon and have an honest discussion about how they want to respond to it.

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