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According to fraternal historian Nicholas Syrett, America’s fraternity culture has thrived on a fear of homosexuality since the 1920’s. All-male fraternal organizations, Syrett writes, “compensate for what might be perceived by outsiders as either feminine or gay behavior by enacting a masculinity [of] aggressive heterosexuality.” In order to preempt homosexual interpretations of the fraternal bond, the brothers employ ritualistic paddling, frat house sex, and homophobic epithets to fight their way back to straight.
The Syrettian fraternal tradition poses some pre-professional problems for the young men on the campus of George Washington University.
After all, GW’s fraternity brothers are the nation’s future congressmen, investment bankers, and CEOs. They won’t reach those positions if their Google profiles turn up associations with homophobic and misogynistic fraternities. So GW’s frat boys—and don’t call them that!—are straining to undo the legacy of “aggressive heterosexuality” and gay-bashing forged by their predecessors. It’s an effort that involves a good deal of re-education, some new alliances, and a compensatory vice or two.
RUSHING. Each September, GW’s potential pledges navigate a monthlong schedule of university-sanctioned rush events. The activities provide a brief introduction to each fraternity’s social reputation. Will the future fraternity brother enjoy s’mores at Kappa Sigma’s “acoustic jam” or feast upon Kappa Alpha Order’s steamed Maryland crabs? Will he chat up Sigma Chi’s favorite sorority ladies or help Sigma Nu launch a frozen turkey down a Slip ’N Slide? Will he scarf Lambda Chi Alpha’s Chipotle burritos or watch the brothers of TKE take a sledgehammer to a car?
This year, Beta Theta Pi decided to trade the food porn and the masculine displays of destruction for a more meaningful approach. “The events that I rushed into initially were food-focused,” says Stephen Molldrem, the fraternity’s vice president. “This year, we’re trying something completely different. Other fraternities will pick men who share their values out of the ones who show up for the Maryland blue crabs. We attract men of values, and we then just happen to serve them Maryland blue crabs when they show up.”
Beta Theta Pi Vice President Stephen Molldrem That formula—values first, crabs later—helps weed out the homophobes with the hungry. In Beta Theta Pi’s first rush event this year, titled “Frat Versus Fraternity: Myths Debunked,” Molldrem and his brothers discussed popular misconceptions about “frat boys” with potential pledges.
William Zelenty, the fraternity’s rush coordinator, says the strategy had helped establish Beta Theta Pi as an organization of principle. “In the past, the fraternity was about upholding the status quo and letting the sexist and homophobic stuff fly,” he says. “Now, we’re dealing with it. If you’re the kind of person who goes around and says that kind of stuff, you’re not the kind of person I want involved in our chapter. Not everyone is perfect, but if any homophobic comments arise in a meeting or on the Listserv, I can tell you right now that it’s quelled immediately.”
Also not welcome at Beta Theta Pi: stereotypical comments about sexist and homophobic “frat boys.” “It’s just patently offensive,” says Molldrem, who is gay. “Even using the words ‘frat boy’ together can connote a bias.”
HAZING. When one GW sophomore pledged an off-campus fraternity last year, he was relieved that the hazing process did not involve the “grotesque display of homosexual actions and physical pain” he had heard rumors of back home in Alabama. But what the hazing lacked in homophobia, it made up for in Kentucky Gentleman.
The night he officially pledged the fraternity, the student and his pledge class assembled in the frat house. “A trash can was brought out and put into the middle of the floor, and we were told to stand around the trash can,” he says. “We were then asked to drop our pants, but to leave our underwear on,” he says. The light homoeroticism—and the trash can—proved red herrings for the main event. Once the pants were dropped, the student says, “a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman bourbon was introduced to the circle, opened, and passed around among the circle of pledges.
As the pledges drank, the brothers sang. “You would have to drink until they stopped singing,” he says. “The first time, it was not that bad—they didn’t sing for that long,” he says. “The second time, they sang for maybe 10 to 12 seconds—an extremely long time.” When the bottle was finished, the pledge pulled up his pants as a newly minted member of the fraternity. “Shortly after that, I blacked out,” he says.
The student awoke in Georgetown University hospital to learn that he had left the post-pledging party, entered another student’s dorm room, and urinated all over his possessions. The student called the University Police Department, which administered the pledge a breathalyzer test. He blew a .24.
All hazing activities—from “paddling” to “scaveneger hunts”—are banned on the GW campus, and many fraternities honor school rules. When GW frats do haze, the activities—low on the homoerotic domination, high on the blood alcohol content—comport with the campus’ progressive nature. When fraternity brothers don’t fear associations with homosexuality, they’re a lot less likely to turn their hangups into a good paddling. But chugging alcohol is universal. Stereotypically, “frat boys are thought of as sexist and homophobic, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really heard that at GW,” says Josh Brown, rush coordinator of Zeta Beta Tau. Brown, who doesn’t drink, says that even GW’s wildest frat parties involve only “drinking to prove yourself,” not “drinking to get a girl drunk.”
PARTYING. Todd Belok, a GW sophomore, was a member of the school’s Naval ROTC program when he decided to pledge Beta Theta Pi. Belok wanted to make sure his potential brothers “didn’t hate who I am,” so he casually informed a couple of brothers of his sexual orientation over the course of the pledge process. “I was taking a course with one of the brothers who happened to be in my class,” says Belok. “I asked if I could bring my boyfriend to [a fraternity] party, and he said that would be completely fine.” Later, inside the Beta Theta Pi house, another brother “pulled me over and told me it was totally OK, and they didn’t have a problem with it here.”
The fraternity house quickly became a safe haven for Belok. A few weeks later, Belok was again partying with his boyfriend in the Beta house when a couple of Belok’s fellow NROTC midshipmen saw the couple kissing and reported the infraction to their superiors. “I had seen the guys at the party, and I was a little bit concerned,” says Belok. “But I thought it was really wrong to keep on hiding.”
The incident, which led to Belok’s dismissal from NROTC under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” revealed a growing rift between two of the nation’s most masculine traditions—fraternity life, which embraced Belok’s sexual orientation, and military life, which rejected it. Belok’s dismissal hasn’t prompted Beta Theta Pi to take a more discriminating approach to its guest policy. “What are you going to do? Stop everyone at the door and ask them about their thoughts on various social subjects?” says Belok. But it has renewed the house’s commitment to its idea of fraternity culture. “A lot of the brothers were really angry that it happened,” says Belok. “And they were really angry that it happened here.”
Photos by Darrow Mongtomery