Sean Drimmel always wanted to be part of a fraternity. He wanted a sense of belonging. He researched the Greek university system extensively. In his words, he “wanted to join a fraternity no matter what.”
After searching through the San Diego Safe book during his final year in high school, he found Sigma Epsilon Omega at Berkeley, a fraternity comprised entirely of gay men.
For many freshman, fraternities are the American dream. It’s become a time-honored tradition. The rushes, the pledges and the social events are all appealing for people entering a new world, on the doorsteps of their adulthood.
“I really wanted to develop a close fraternity, a brotherhood and they honestly do it,” Drimmel told 429Magazine. “You make best friends and I can’t imagine college without the experience. I’m very grateful.”
Recently celebrating its sixth birthday, there is a large support system backing the fraternity across the Berkeley campus, and the organization hopes to expand to other campuses including San Francisco State University and Stanford.
In a community known for a rigid heterosexual, “macho” culture, finding a place for LGBT people within the Greek tradition can be a struggle.
In past decades, fraternities have had a reputation of hazing and gay bashing. In 1991, a fraternity was suspended for selling shirts with anti-gay slogans. In 2006, a fraternity was accused of raping pledges forced to wear fairy wings.
But times are changing and with it a new openness, even in the frat culture. In a 2012 Campus Climate Survey, LGBTQ students are experiencing an improved campus climate. Hazing has been banned by all national Greek fraternities, with anti-hazing statutes existing in 38 states. A book has been published and distributed titled “Fraternity and Sorority Anti-Homophobia Training Manual.”
In many ways, the Greek system is evolving to reflect society’s shifting stance on LGBT rights and issues. With marriage equality gaining momentum, President Obama’s support, and more visibility of the community entering mainstream society, fraternities are beginning to embrace the idea of diversification.
Earlier this year, George Washington University’s 20 Greek chapters put on a drag show to raise money for anti-bully and pro-LGBT organization The Trevor Project. Fraternity Phi Alpha Tau raised funding to help a transgender member pay for surgery.
“There’s definitely a change in the Greek system with President Obama supporting marriage equality,” said Drimmel. “The Greek system may not have immediate changes, but we are working on it.”
He also adds that fraternities, like anything else, are diverse with varying degrees of inclusivity. While Sigma Epsilon Omega is all gay, others welcome both openly gay and straight members.
Current University of Pennsylvania sophomore Juan Gomez is a former member of a Greek fraternity and now heads the Lambda Alliance, an LGBTQ political advocacy group on campus, as the Vice-Chair of Internal Affairs. He was one of only a few gay brothers in the fraternity house.
“From rushing, to pledging, and becoming a brother, my experience in my fraternity has been great,” Gomez told 429Magazine.
“I was very open about my sexuality during rush and meeting brothers in quite a few different fraternities,” he said.
“I would just casually say [I was gay] if asked if I had a ‘lady friend’ and nothing ever came about it. It was just another fact about me, and it was great. I don’t think those relationships were affected much by my sexuality. I have very accepting brothers, and the brotherhood progressed as normal.”
And Drimmel doesn’t see a great divide between the diverse breakdowns of fraternity demographics.
“We’re not that much different from other fraternities. We do mixers, dances and pledges like anybody else,” said Drimmel. “The structure’s not that different. We just happen to be comprised of just gay men.”
Though Gomez sees Greek society as being a “very straight-male dominated community,” he doesn’t feel discriminated against or ostracized for his sexuality.
“As far as there being a stigma, I find it to be a very accessible community, but that might be my own take on things,” he said. “I know the Greek community and the majority of the LGBTQ communities have very little overlap, but from what I’ve seen, that is a mutual decision.”
While there is support and awareness for LGBT members in fraternities, both Lambda Alliance and Sigma Epsilon Omega mentioned that they are unaware of any national LGBT policies in the Greek system.
And while the Greek system is making strides in incorporating LGBT issues, there is still some work that needs to be done.
“One thing I can say is that the Greek community as a whole could probably do with some knowledge on Queer issues so the LGBTQ community might feel more comfortable rushing and giving Greek life a chance,” said Gomez.
Growing membership by offering an inclusive environment is also key.
“Sigma Epsilon Omega is large now with 30 active brothers but we still need to work on internal obstacles like membership,” said Drimmel. “There’s also the perception in the Greek System and the LGBT community as it’s not inclusive. We are working towards combating the stereotype and there should be programs that talk about that in the Greek system.”