Masculinity has such a bad rap these days that even us frat bros have taken to performing it with a touch of irony.
We add the obligatory “bro” to the end of our sentences with a satirically deep voice to mark awareness of our douche-baggery. When we make attributions of manliness according to traditional criteria (success with females; number of beers shotgunned), we chuckle, but cheer nonetheless. Anyone who has ever heard a chorus of dudes shout “frat!” in response to a tale of day-drinking and/or responsibility-avoiding can testify to the profound ambiguity of masculinity worship in the twenty-first century.
Why are we suddenly so embarrassed to be men? The evidence against us abounds. In the last few decades, women have worked tirelessly to shine light on the myriad injustices propagated by the (mostly white/heterosexual/cis) males who have long held power in the West. As history is re-written to tell her side of the story, we men can no longer ignore our complicity in perpetuating the systemic disenfranchisement, workplace discrimination, and sexual violence that women continue to face. As women take charge of their own narratives, they are increasingly willing to call us out on our bullshit. Women are demanding the respect they deserve.
The tables are beginning to turn on patriarchy, and nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, where the phrase “white heterosexual cis male” commonly evokes a collective eye-roll. As queer and feminist ideals take root in the academy, their tendrils grow out the windows of the ivory tower and snake their way into community centers, dormitories, and student houses. At co-ops like Stanford’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a new generation of guerillas rally against sexual assault and aim to live beyond gender norms. To the sound of Beyoncé and bass, they dance ecstatically to declare their independence.
Meanwhile, at the fraternities, we continue to bump the misogynist lyrics of Jay-Z and ask sororities to compete for exclusive access to our pre-parties. We host events at which it is common practice for men to approach women from behind and start grinding on them. We talk about sexual assault but rarely show up at the rallies; we admit to institutional issues but take no personal responsibility for their persistence. We cling to structures whose inadequacies we are well aware of. So long as we do nothing to improve them, we allow our houses to slide slowly toward irrelevance in the emerging post-patriarchal order.
Fraternities serve as incubators, liminal spaces in which (certain) boys learn to be men. As we peel back the veils of secrecy which have long shrouded these institutions, we’re learning that their training rites are, and always have been, disturbing.
Fraternities were designed to reproduce the conditions of male domination by forcing patriarchal values down their members’ throats. This is achieved by cultivating an ideological obedience to the indisputable god of “tradition.” Tradition demands the repetition of rituals, themes, and chants which tend to be archaic and discriminatory in nature. Tradition wants us to continuously revive misogyny and white supremacy so we can keep partying with their ghosts. When tradition isn’t fun, it is mandated under the guise of “pledge education,” strictly enforced by officers with titles like “Magister” and “Eminent Archon.” It’s tradition that justifies your older brothers pouring beer on your head until all self-worth has been dissolved; it’s tradition that ensures that pledges are rebuilt from the ground up, taught to behave with confidence, loyalty, and an unflinching allegiance to the values of the forefathers, no matter how old, white, and racist they might be.
These institutions are intended to produce men, but with the proliferation of feminism, queer theory, bromance, and metrosexuality, none of us is exactly sure what “men” are supposed to be anymore. In the twenty-first century, some fraternities are becoming less concerned with indoctrination and more interested in experimentation. If fraternities serve as training grounds, then they can also be laboratories, sites where we develop, contest, and play with the performances that are ultimately classified as “male.”
Let us first note the diverse array of multicultural fraternities. While far from curing the malignancies of masculinity, which seem all but inherent to single-gender fraternities, these institutions have historically served as centers of empowerment and political engagement for minority groups. The maintenance of a fortified space for bonding and mobilization doesn’t seem nearly so problematic when it works in service of a group who is not already in power; don’t forget that men of color were not always considered “men” at all. Organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha and Omega Psi Phi list not only manhood but also community service, advocacy, perseverance, and uplift among their official values.
Historically white fraternities have undergone significant transformations according to the progressive tendencies of recent generations. When Stanford’s chapter of Theta Chi began to allow women to live in their house in the early seventies, they were disowned from their national charter and became Chi Theta Chi (known as 576 Alvarado today) the quirky co-operative we know today. While 576 retains a number of secret rituals which speak to its fraternal roots, it is today considered a welcoming space for men, women, and queer people who confound the binary. Their community is more diverse than a fraternity by almost any metric, and their regular parties provide an attractive alternative to the typical Greek events.
There are also seeds of change scattered among the decaying structures of organizations which still identify as traditional “fraternities,” but it seems they only take root through ruptures in the historical continuum of patriarchy. The boys can only play when Dad is legitimately away.
I see this in the history of my own fraternity. After Stanford booted Theta Delta Chi from campus in 1993, it returned two years later in a very different form. Owing in part to the relative chillness of its national organization (which today oversees less than thirty charges, in contrast to the two to three hundred chapters which make up SAE, Sig Ep, and Sigma Nu), Stanford TDX was able to reconstitute itself on its own terms. In order to attract more new pledges, Eta Deuteron charge broke with tradition by banning all forms of hazing. The new leadership re-organized the pledging process to be less about endless drilling and more about bonding through hijinks. To demonstrate that all pledging activities were truly optional, the new TDX leadership would require one pledge to sit out from each event, and drinking was never required.
Over the years, these simple changes gave way to more profound shifts in the way that Theta Delt operates as a fraternity. Never asked to obsessively internalize the history of the organization, members of TDX (we rarely call ourselves “brothers”) seem less attached to a patriarchal structure and more willing to adapt to the imminent challenges of each new era. The progressive breakdown of tradition is evident in photographic composites which hang in our hallways. Through the end of the nineties, every Theta Delt in every photo is dressed in suit and tie. Beginning in 1999, early renegades challenge this formality by donning baseball caps and t-shirts. By the time we reach 2006, every single Theta Delt is dressed casually, if not in outlandish costume.
The subversion of tradition has become our tradition par excellence. Recent years have seen themed composites and meta-references to prior photos. Some forego using their real names, and it is no longer novel to have another person (even a girl, or three) stand in for one’s photo. The Eta Deuteron charge of Theta Delta Chi has relinquished whatever pomp and circumstance was originally meant to be conveyed through the framing of the fraternal composite. We have given up on ceremonial obedience in favor of individuality, freedom of expression, and the postmodern drive to play. The spectrum of guys who today call Theta Delt “home” is broad enough to include poets and basketball players, musicians and engineers, future politicians and guys who just chill all day long. There is a smattering of more traditional fratstars, and we all perform that way once in a while, but nobody conforms to a stereotype. I feel that we strive to create a culture of respect, for women and for each other.
This is not to say we have relinquished our power. Nor have we given up our exclusivity, our maleness, or any of the other things that make us a fraternity. Though we Theta Delts pride ourselves on being somehow “different” from most other frats, I remain wary of an overly exceptionalist mindset. For one, we are not the only fraternity demonstrating a willingness to adapt. Sigma Nu works hard to cultivate a welcoming vibe while remaining conscious of their position in the larger campus community. They recently hosted a series on gender issues, around the same time that Kappa Sig held an event about respect. These efforts attracted some critique, but at least they, like many of us, are trying. I would venture to say that strains of reform exist in every fraternity at Stanford. But we are all working within institutions that have a lot of regressive inertia. We have a long way to go if we want to transform the structures of privilege which distinguish our houses from other communities on campus.
If we really want to rise above the pitfalls of fraternities, we should think about the biases which play into rush, our recruitment and selection process. We should think about the high cost of membership in Greek life and other factors which limit access to mostly those with class privilege. We should think about the glaring lack of ethnic diversity in our houses, the way that even as the TDX composites become increasingly colorful, the faces remain predominantly white. And we should interrogate our preconceptions about gender, the way we immediately preclude half the student body from joining our communities and often write off any male who doesn’t appear masculine enough to fit in.
I am a queer man, and I know that I was only offered a bid to join Theta Delt because I have the ability to perform as masculine. This is not my only mode, nor is it necessarily the one I prefer, but I learned at a young age that my interest in dolls and dresses was not conducive to forming bonds with other boys, and I adapted accordingly. In third grade, I started playing football at lunch even though I hated it; in high school, I learned to throw my voice until I forgot which octave it was supposed to be at (I’m still not totally sure). It wasn’t until college that I realized I was only wearing snapbacks and taking handle pulls to compensate for the “effeminacy” I perceived in my own queer sexuality. I consciously began to tone down the bro, but not so much that I didn’t pass for straight at rush. I did not come out explicitly until I was residing comfortably within the halls of Theta Delta Chi.
As fraternities go, Theta Delt is a pretty safe space. When I finally did share my story with the house, my brothers offered me nothing but support and admiration. Since then, I have sought to perform my queer identity with more insistence. I display rainbow flags on my door in a militant ‘X.’ I bring guys to date functions and kiss them on the dance floor. When I performed in drag at 576, it was alongside another Theta Delt, and a huge contingent of the fraternity turned up to watch us get down. Like any good brothers, Theta Delts have been there at every stage in my journey, to love me, affirm me, and, when they didn’t know what else to do, accept me with a smile. It can be kind of lonely to be the only queer person around (several frats at Stanford have more out members than we do), but at least I am not the only one who will call out heteronormativity on our email list. I feel blessed to have spent my college years surrounded by such incredible men, who have never asked me to be anything other than myself.
These years have taught me that men are not inherently problematic. Living at TDX has afforded me the strange opportunity to experiment with masculinity while coming to terms with my queer sexuality and gender performance. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been very rewarding. I have learned that I actually like chugging beer. I have learned that a bro-tank is really the only comfortable option in the spring, just as I have learned that my long hair is best worn in bows and braids. I have learned that there’s a time for trap and a time for Beyoncé (but there’s always time for both). I have learned to be a man in a very queer manner.
I wish there was a way to get more people like me in TDX without the need for them to sneak in, as I did, by Trojan horse; that queer guys and even women could enjoy the benefits of membership without being asked to cloak themselves in the trappings of masculinity. Beneath the bro-tanks and the braids, we are all just people, essentially undetermined. Perhaps if we could come to terms with that, we wouldn’t need to patrol the borders of our identities by appending “bro” (or “dude” or “man”) to the end of every sentence.
The views expressed here represent my own opinions and not necessarily those of any organizations mentioned.