Nothing takes me back to college like the smell of stale piss mingled with pot and PBR. Many were the nights, heaving, wiping the dripping vomit from my face on my Abercrombie T-shirt, I picked myself up off the cold linoleum, stumbled into walls and down creaky stairs, grasping the rickety handrail in a vain and dangerous attempt at balance, before passing out on the sofa in the living room. I'd wake up early, SportsCenter or porn or whatever the boys had been watching still blaring on the big screen television, before making my way up College Street toward Cherry Hall and my women's studies classes.
Alternately, there were the mornings I left another fraternity house before dawn, climbing out a window or slipping out the side door, and made my way up the hill our campus was built on, with mussed hair and the same clothes I'd had on the night before, dodging the judgmental looks of good students on their way to their 8 a.m. class, and the odd professor, on his way to teach it, who all knew I'd just “shacked,” a term usually reserved to slut-shame sorority women but which was applied just as egregiously to me, the out gay man who wasn't Greek but desperately wished he were.
I rushed twice. The first time I sat cross-legged on the floor of a fraternity house living room, listening to the president give a speech about the history of the fraternity and the alumni who had gone on to be movie stars, CEOs and senators. “So why do you want to be Greek?” he asked.
I raised my hand. “Brotherhood.”
The president stood still, my eyes focused on the gold trim of his stitch-lettered shirt. “Good answer,” he replied, before we were given a tour of the house. I was invited to a party the next night, where I chugged my first beer and mostly hung out with a group of sorority women. I overheard another brother saying, “Faggots can't join fraternities.” I never went back and was not surprised when, come bid day, my card had no stamps. Faggots, after all, can't join fraternities.
But we can fuck the men who do. Over the next two years, I made it my mission to sleep my way up and down fraternity row. If I couldn't be one of them, at least I could be with them. For each fraternity man I slept with, I bought a shot glass with their letters on it, the only way I had to get letters. My girlfriends, most of whom were in sororities, were baffled by the number of closeted men in their ranks.
Meanwhile, I picked up a minor in women's studies, where I lived by the mantra of Audre Lorde: “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Every time I entered a fraternity party with the sole expectation of scoring with that one bicurious brother, I did so with a fifth of vodka in hand and Lorde's words in my mind. I was dismantling this patriarchal house, I'd tell myself, one shot glass at a time.
It was validating. When I came out in my Appalachian high school at 15, my male classmates provided a daily crucible of homophobia. I was called “cocksucker,” “fudgepacker” and “homo” more often than I was called by my name. Those men wouldn't fuck me or fuck with me, and I graduated high school without a single male friend.
But the story changed in college. I hung out with gorgeous women and could shotgun a beer faster than any guy around me, which provided me a patriarchal currency I'd never had before. It was this currency that ingratiated me to a second fraternity, and it was because of them that I again rushed.
The results were similar. Only this time, I cried along with the men who actually liked me. It only takes one member to deny you a bid, I was told, among platitudes and assurances that most of them actually liked me. So two nights later, I was back at the house. These men were still my friends, despite the fact that they weren't my brothers. I may have been blackballed, but I still had balls.
I kept going back, and I quickly found that even though I wasn't Greek, hanging out with a fraternity gave me the clout I needed. My social life was transformed. There were sorority dances, there were keg parties on the back deck, and there were plenty of men who could give me a shot glass.
It was fucking amazing. Every time a fraternity man came inside me, every time he told me he had to be “discreet” so his girlfriend wouldn't find out, I felt a sense of empowerment I'd never felt before. These men were affluent, entitled, swaggering, good-looking and supposedly straight, and being around them felt like a victory in and of itself. I was subverting the system by sleeping with them, I thought, all the while silently congratulating myself on being just as attractive and enticing as the girls in pearls on Chestnut Street, our unofficial sorority row and home to the ideal construct of American femininity.
That was always the caveat. Despite the fact that I was sleeping with fraternity men, I still had to prove not only my sexual superiority to women—“dude, you suck dick better than a girl” was a common compliment—but also my sexual prowess with women. Fraternity life is about gross displays of masculinity, and when boiled down, that means men oppressing and objectifying women. The Greek men liked me not just, or not even primarily, because I was willing to be an object of experimentation, but because I brought hot women around. They were young, they were pretty, and they were often as eager as me to prove themselves worthy of the attention of these Adonises. But I had to make it clear that I not only had sexually attractive female friends, but that I had sexual control over them.
It's why, one night, I made out with four different women. I still remember carrying a petite young blonde around, her legs wrapped around my torso, as I made out with her. There was nothing sexual about it to me, yet it was overtly sexist. I was using her to prove a point to the other men; I could get more women than they could. Such a display raised me in their esteem, even as I posed no threat. I could bring the hot women, and I had the ability to score the hot women, but I “chose” not to. Even as a gay man, my sexual currency was defined through heterosexuality.
And not just with women. These men I slept with had an entire Greek alphabet to choose from, yet they were disproportionately alpha males. The sex was either boringly heteronormative, like the top-tier fraternity man who wanted me to lie there silently as he thrust in and out of me, leaving $50 on my nightstand as he left because he thought I “needed” it, or violently homophobic, as with the man from the “date rape fraternity” who liked to smack me in the face and spit on me, reminding me what a little queer I am.
But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn't talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he'll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.
Yet so much of my acceptance by these fraternities was on patriarchal terms. Through all of this I had befriended sorority women, who saw me as a non-threatening male presence in the midst of this sexist world they were navigating. To the men, though, I was a purveyor of sexually available women. It was a stark juxtaposition — to be someone these women could confide in, a rare male ally to their concerns about sexual assault and misogyny, and to also be someone the fraternity men trusted to bring around beautiful women.
White heteropatriarchy is one helluva drug to kick. My college years were defined by feminism and fraternities, and while intellectually I knew they were incompatible, I did shot after shot of Patron and male privilege, with a chaser of intersectionality. It made it go down easier.
My own fraternity days didn't go down so easily, though. I fell in love with the wrong person—a pledge in the fraternity I had befriended. In their book, this was nothing short of a party foul; I had ruined the “good times with the gay boy” by involving feelings, something they could never forgive. I spent months trying to make sense of this push-and-pull relationship as he struggled to define his own budding sexuality, before it ended in a violent altercation that made me realize whose side they were on. It wasn't mine. My friends, but his brothers, turned on me. And I was alone.
Except I wasn't. An old friend suggested I move to Chicago. “You need to get out of that toxic environment,” she said. I sold everything I had, booked a Greyhound bus ticket, and 10 days later was in the Windy City. I moved into a house full of activists, one of whom went on to become a point person in the Occupy Chicago movement, and I never turned back.
I didn't need to. My circumstances have changed a lot since college, but the men I date are largely the same. The stitched-lettered shirts have been replaced by Ralph Lauren suits, and they've traded fraternity houses for homeowner's associations, but they're still the aggressive, dominant, slightly cocky men I longed to be with and be one of in my collegiate days. They are, at the very least, open about and comfortable with who they are, having reconciled their sexuality and masculinity years ago.
I don't talk about my college years with these men, though. The rush of adrenaline I felt sleeping with fraternity men has been replaced with a quiet shame. The number of men I slept with in college was higher than the number of classes I took. The moment I made that discovery was a particularly hard one, requiring an even harder liquor. Try explaining that to the man you hope is your future husband.
But mostly, I don't talk about it because I'm still making sense of it. I look back on those times at the fraternity house, at the parties and the dramas and the cagey sexual dealings, with both fondness and regret. I see Greek life as a system that upholds these oppressive structural forces of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, and in my head I can deconstruct exactly why fraternities and sororities are such pernicious institutions.
But when I talk to girlfriends who lived through it with me, we find ourselves laughing uncomfortably at who we were.
“God, I miss those days,” I found myself saying to a female friend not long ago.
“Me too,” she said, wistfully.
I put down my wine. “I'm glad they're over.”
She let out a small laugh. “Me too.”
Maybe it was not brothers I needed all along but sisters — the woman who convinced me to move here, who now teaches women's studies and has been by my side since I got off the bus; the lesbian artist and her wife, whose family have adopted me as their surrogate brother; the black filmmaker and journalist who has tutored me and supported me and opened my eyes; and a close circle of sorority women whom I've remained in touch with, sharing the mystic bond of coming-of-age in such a noxious world. These are the women who have shown me the measure of true friendship. It doesn't revolve around beer bongs or banging bitches or even brotherhood, the notion of male camaraderie on patriarchal terms. It has everything to do with mutual respect, admiration, love and loyalty.
I've barely spoken to the men of this fraternity in the three-and-a-half years since I left Kentucky. They turned their backs on me.
But I haven't turned my backs on them. Last month, someone posted in a private feminist Facebook group to which I belong about a “Pilgrim Bros and Navahoes” party, thrown by a different chapter of the fraternity I once hung out with. My fellow feminists were threatening to go to the media to expose them. True, these weren't my boys, but even after all this time, those letters mean something to me. Old loyalties die hard. Instead of feeling glee, I felt panic, and spent the entire day tracking down the number of an alumnus of this other chapter and trying to get the party canceled so they'd avoid any backlash.
“Who am I texting with?” the guy asked at one point.
I told him I was a friend of the fraternity.
White heteropatriarchy is a helluva drug to kick.