Frat Formals and Gay Clubs. What’s the Difference? 

I know. I know… This is one of a million articles about homoeroticism in fraternities. But this one is different because it happened to me. I saw it and I need to talk about it. Plus, the comparison is just too obvious to pass up.

*Trigger warning: If you identify as male, heterosexual, and are part of a fraternity, you may interpret this piece as an attack. It isn’t meant as one. It’s meant to stimulate conversation about how we all sometimes condemn others for actions that we permit ourselves. I welcome opinions on all sides of the matter.

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Recently I went to a fraternity formal, a celebration of brotherhood, shared memories, long and short friendships, community, and commune at an open bar. I witnessed all sorts of people connecting in all sorts of ways around me. I have read a lot about open relationships and the porousness of relational boundaries. I’ve become fascinated by how we parse out kinds of relationship and by how we delimit proper conduct for each. At the frat formal, men navigated these limits adeptly, assumedly straddling sexuality with other men without feeling sexual or effeminate, or homophobic.

At a gay club, men flaunt their sexuality in choreographic displays of virility, aggression, and power. It’s the mating ritual of the gay community. Men dance with each other and with women, stepping onto podiums, prancing across the dance floor, liberated and free to showcase their pride. It’s a celebration of brotherhood, shared memories, long and short friendships, community, and commune at the bar and on the dance floor, and sometimes, these brothers take each other home for some nookie.

Frat formals and gay clubs don’t just share a similar pathos, they share many homoerotic appeals. Shirtless and muscular men sweating on the dance floor to house music. Awards and competitions for juiciest butt. Ass slaps and waist grabs. Pantless pictures. Women as fixtures and not protagonists. Drugs in the bathroom and peering over bathroom stalls. The shining difference, the aegis behind which frat brothers can do all this without compromising their heterosexuality or masculinity, is comedy. They laugh, they hoot, they holler, they touch, they look, and any intimation of sex is hidden behind comedy.

Outside of the intimate setting of the fraternity, that behavior would probably receive the same kind of homophobic criticism endemic to some fraternities. That’s the disheartening dissonance. Why condemn others for behavior we too engage in? It isn’t prevalent in the particular fraternity that I was invited to; although it certainly is in others.

It’s unintentional contradiction that I am all too familiar. I have spoken to a number of closeted and formerly-closeted gay men who’ve refuged themselves in homoerotic cultures to release their sexual energy without fear of rejection. It’s a tragic side-effect of the oppression still alive in our culture. And I don’t think they are wolves in a hen house. They are gay men in a gay club that doesn’t realize or accept its own gayness.

Historically, the institution of ancient Roman fraternity housed all those connotations and activities. Sex was tied up in virility, aggression, power and the attitude of conquest. This attitude dictated comportment, norms, and the very concept of masculinity. Not to romantically harken to the past. I’m just saying that fraternities today still house those attitudes, but with some caveats. And gay clubs do too, with their own caveats, it’s just that sex or sexual behavior with a man isn’t one of them. You can still lose your power in other ways at the gay club.

As Frank Underwood resurrecting Oscar Wilde once quoted: “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”

All of this isn’t to say fraternities are gay havens or secretly homosexual. I differentiate sex from sexual behavior. A child can be sexual. That doesn’t mean they are thinking about or wanting sex (see: Lolita). Rather, it is to say that the concept of masculinity should not be threatened by homoerotic or homo-sexual behavior. I don’t see these brothers as any less masculine—and apparently neither do they. That they need comedy to transfigure the undercurrent of sexuality in their fraternity says a lot about the fragility of masculinity. I think that’s lamentable.

Ultimately, there is love there. So much love and fidelity and solidarity. That all those powerful emotions clamor to express themselves in physical affection is an attestation of their brotherhood, not a subversion of it.

*Thank you to the people on both sides of the argument who shared their insights and feedback.

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