What my fraternity taught me about masculinity
My fraternity holds a special place in my heart. I’m aware that to most the idea of a fraternity and especially those greek letters bring to mind sexual assault, hazing, and widespread alcoholism. Not to mention the fraternity stereotype of white, privileged, borderline chauvinistic males being their only members. They’re not wrong. Fraternities have been the poster child of college rape and have the statistics to back it up. Not to mention several hazing deaths in recent history (see Pennsylvania State and Louisiana State). I’m not here to defend fraternities, only to talk about my experience in one.
I’m a member of a national southern fraternity. The kind with secret passwords and handshakes. Our house is centered in the middle of campus and features giant greek pillars. We wear those fraternity shirts that parade our membership in Greek life. We’ve got chapters on over 120 campuses with over 110000 members and alumni. But unlike many of those chapters, our chapter has taken a different approach to “being a fraternity”. Approaches that might be seen as fragile, to feminine, to even flamboyant in the Greek community.
No hazing. Instead, the incoming class works together to raise money for charity and to complete a hardware project that adds to the house. I never had to drink anything I did not want to and many incoming members had moral obligations to alcohol which were respected and even applauded. I never had to run around and go on road trips for a scavenger hunt or any of that nonsense. No incoming member was pit against another. But removing hazing isn’t progressive. No organization should have anything of the sort. The idea that it still exists is medieval. Mental, physical, or psychological damage should not be the result of any fraternity experience.
Secondly, incoming members must take both sexual consent education and LGBTQIA ally training conducted by a third party (an LGBTQIA campus org). This was a rule we created ourselves, not by some higher power in the Fraternity. We strive to remove any sort of collective mentality towards sexual assault and rape. It is an attempt to prevent any attitude that comes with rape culture. Of course, the ally training is to address homophobic and transphobic attitudes in fraternity culture as well as educate members about queer, intersex, and asexual peoples. And on a less serious note, it is rather hilarious how ignorant people can be about LGBTQIA peoples (“How do gay people even have sex?”, “What does QIA even mean?”, “Can transgender people still have sex?”) and kind of heartwarming that their ignorance is being addressed.
Finally, my fraternity works to address mental health. A very real aspect of toxic masculinity is an inability for men to express their feelings in a productive way. Men are less likely to talk about their feelings and seek help. Men make up over 75% of suicide victims in the US. At the university I attend, anxiety, stress, and isolation are in the majority. In a survey of our fraternity, 100% of members reported feeling more than average amount of stress in the past year. 80% had felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. 20% of members said they had thought about suicide. Recently outside our fraternity, two students committed suicide within a single week on our campus. As much as I feel for those affected by their tragic deaths, it puts an anxious spike of fear into my mind. Are my friends okay? Am I okay? How do I find out?
No solution right now is perfect. But there is no doubt we’re trying. Our fraternity has a “G”. He is a designated mental health advocate that can help with finding resources and guiding those with mental illness. He is also available to talk during set “office hours”. The “G” also conducts research within the fraternity and schedules events or information sessions inside our fraternity. We have a chapter each week where all the members of the fraternity come together to discuss business and happenings. At the end of the meeting, we have a segment called “pass the gavel”. In this time a gavel is passed around and whoever has it can talk indefinitely about whatever they want. We must “respect the gavel” and be quiet and listen intently to what they have to say. Often this is used to tell funny stories or bring up personal news, but it’s often used to address mental health. As a lead for the younger members, older members will often intentionally reveal vulnerable parts of themselves during this time.
However, my favorite tradition in our fraternity is “pass the gavel” at the semesterly brotherhood retreat. After a long day of eating, playing sports, and going on hikes, we all gather in one room and find a cozy spot in what is often a cabin. We then pour out our hearts. We talk about the troubles we face intermixed with the successes we enjoy. We talk about exciting career prospects and new relationships. We talk about the melancholy and depressing parts of our lives. Someone talks about their journey recovering from rape and sexual assault in an abusive relationship. Another talks about their debilitating terminal disease and how he tries to come to terms with his own mortality. A senior talks about their best friend’s recent suicide and how he felt ultimately speaking at his funeral. The depth of emotion and tragedy contained in each person is incredible. I tell my story about depression and anxiety and my struggle to find help. In vulnerable tears and joy, I learn to respect my fellow fraternity brothers.
I’ve learned since then that masculinity and brotherhood should not be what is taught by society. Though the artificial aspects may remain the same. Sharing a beer on a hike or watching a football game while eating wings are great pastimes. I love playing pool with my good friend Josh Jacob (his name is two first names) in between classes. However, the core of masculinity remains to be able to lean on a shoulder when you need it and to be that shoulder when it is needed. Being hateful, abusive, and ignorant has no place in masculinity.