A buff guy with Greek letters on his chest is sauntering about a laid-back south Charlotte club on a recent Saturday, administering spankings with a paddle the size of a small child. Meanwhile, several hundred fit, good-looking guys clutch their Bud Lights and Long Island iced teas, proudly displaying the logos emblazoned on their T-shirts.
It's frat night at the Charlotte Eagle, a leather bar tucked in a small strip mall off South Boulevard. You might guess it's not a real fraternity party. Most of the guys here are gay. More than a few never so much as attended a keg party. Still, many have donned old Greek-lettered shirts that haven't seen college campuses in more than a decade. They're here to celebrate the release of Brotherhood, Shane Windmeyer's new book on gay guys' fraternity experiences -- coming out, being kicked out, being accepted and not left out.
This night, jeans and leather have been replaced with jeans and polos. It's more Tommy Hilfiger casual than S&M chic. The night is as much a celebration of subverting stereotypes as anything else. Correctly or not, the fraternity aesthetic is typically characterized by swaggering, outwardly confident machismo, the epitome of compulsory masculine heterosexuality. But the scene here -- a couple hundred boisterous gay men making raucous jokes and swigging booze -- doesn't look much different than a frat scene.
Except, of course, only about five women are in the room.
And some of the people sporting makeup aren't sorority sisters.
And not many frat parties have a midnight drag show with a high-heeled queen bellowing, "It's sooo good being part of a fraternity of gentlemen."
Yep, it's different.
Still, the parallels are undeniable. "It's sort of a fantasy in the gay world to have fraternity guys who are gay," says Daniel, a guy in his 30s originally from Mississippi, as he surveys the crowd from the bar's patio.
Several men here point out the similarities between the camaraderie among gay men at clubs like the Eagle and the close friendship among fraternity brothers. There is, they say, a thread of homoeroticism stitched through both.
Daniel has straddled both worlds. In his college days he was active in a fraternity at Millsaps College, a private liberal arts school in Jackson, MS. He dated girls and didn't dare reveal he was gay. "To be in a fraternity, you just assumed everyone who was in there was straight," Daniel said a few weeks after the Eagle's frat night. He didn't want to use his last name because he hasn't come out to everyone in his life. "If you were gay, you were better off denying that and not coming out. It just wasn't cool."
He'd already seen fraternity brothers react negatively to even the hint that someone within the organization might be gay. "There were discussions at times about people we thought were gay," he said. "And, 'Should we kick them out of the fraternity?' Those kinds of discussions just made you go underground even more."
Windmeyer, who edited the stories compiled in Brotherhood, agreed the Greek system typically draws the "more conservative element" at colleges, but he said fraternities and sororities are stereotyped much like gays and lesbians are. Greeks, he said, offer more than Animal House-like craziness, homophobic hazing and Neanderthal ideas about women. At least 18 national Greek groups include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination statements, compared to about three or four in 1995, he said.
"Back then, the main story was being closeted and in denial of your sexuality. And then when you're a junior, a senior, maybe you choose to come out. And then the big question was, 'Will they accept you once you're already a brother?" said Windmeyer, who until 2001 was assistant director of student activities at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Those stories still happen. The new story is, 'What if you rush openly gay?"
That's one of the questions explored in his book. Some guys come out of the closet to the surprise of accepting friends; others leave fraternities when their revelations are greeted with anger and disgust. Some guys write about the platonic desire for acceptance, others reveal falling in love with fellow fraternity brothers.
Windmeyer has published several books since 1998 about gays and lesbians within the Greek system. He started lecturing at college campuses across the United States before founding the Lambda 10 Project in 1995 to speak out on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues among fraternities and sororities.
Students Windmeyer knew in the Greek system at UNCC were welcoming of him and his partner, he said. "I'm not (looking through) rose-colored glasses when it comes to being gay in a fraternity these days, but we have made progress and we should recognize that progress over the last ten years," he said.
Windmeyer threw similar book-release parties in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago. The Charlotte event is popular: While a traditional night at the Eagle draws about 200 people, frat night draws 450 people. And a few other clubs in other cities are having similarly themed parties unrelated to the book.
Several guys at the Eagle's frat night said they now wish they had come out during college -- or they wish they had been able to. Rich, a 35-year-old Sigma Alpha Epsilon man who wouldn't give his last name, says in some ways he regrets not coming out to his frat brothers. "Your wonder if they think of you in the same way," he says. "I didn't like deceiving anyone."
Says Ron Moser, a player for gay rugby team the Charlotte Royals, "I wish I was (out then), because I missed so much of life. . ."
Since graduating, Daniel has talked to two of his fellow frat brothers who also have come out, including his best friend. The two had confided in each other, but never told Daniel because they weren't sure of his orientation.
"Looking back," said Daniel, "I probably could have been more out and said, 'Screw it.'"