— Callum Tresnan is a junior studying comparative literature
With the end of fraternity rush this weekend, some Stanford underclassmen have received a “bid” — an offer accepting them into a supposedly desirable elite and exclusive social community. When I received a bid to a fraternity my freshman year, I felt a burst of excitement; the social life I wanted seemed possible — good housing (the organization, Sigma Nu, was and still is housed) with good food and good parties. I quickly learned that frat life would not live up to these expectations because I, as a queer man, would never feel wholly comfortable, welcomed and celebrated in the fundamentally heteronormative space. Following the summer of 2020, amidst a national reckoning with racism and oppression, fraternities paid lip service to inclusivity and reform. It is now 2022. How have they done?
Last Friday, I received an email with the subject line: “LGBTQ x Fraternity Life Q&A.” I was struck that these fraternity members didn’t invite any queer members of Abolish Stanford Greek or non-fraternity queer students to talk about their experiences with fraternity exclusivity, heteronormativity and violence. This is especially significant because the 2021 ASSU Greek Life survey revealed that respondents who identified as LGBTQIA+ reported the highest levels of support for abolishing Greek Life. To me, this neglect of outside opinions — and outside opinions of queer folks specifically — is characteristic of insular fraternity life and demonstrates a desire to manipulate narratives even in their attempts at reform.
This desire is central to fraternity culture. On May 21, 2021, the organization formerly known as Theta Delta Chi (TDX) leaked detailed information to alumni and the Fountain Hopper about the events leading up to a late member’s death in January of 2020. The leak was an attempt to rewrite the narrative about the student’s death and to put public pressure on Stanford to accept TDX’s appeal.
The members of TDX thought it was perfectly acceptable to share detailed information (albeit false information, according to the University) about a so-called brother’s last minutes on Earth with the FoHo. This was uniquely sick behavior that traumatized those who are grieving. It revealed an attitude of disregard for human life, for the bereft and for the wider Stanford community. While this event is specific to TDX, it belies an attitude that extends to all fraternity life, including attempted reforms like last Friday’s LGBTQ x Fraternity Life Panel.
From these examples, it is clear that fraternities believe that they have the right to control the narratives that shape how the public perceives them. They do this by denying criticism and gatekeeping conversations of reform. For TDX, this meant refusing criticism of organizational failures and rejecting pursuant accountability. For this panel, it meant ignoring potentially critical opinions.
There are only two tools that can elevate critical perspectives that counteract the narratives fraternities pedal. The first is personal experience. The more people experience fraternities, the clearer the picture they have. As we learned in the ASSU Greek Life Survey, each year students are at Stanford, they become more likely to dislike Greek Life. First years have a Greek Life net favorability rating of -9%, and fourth years have a net favorability of -36%. However, because of the pandemic, half of Stanford’s undergraduate body has not been on campus and has not had time to experience frat culture. This means that right now fraternities have near-total control of the narratives about themselves. As rush this year is happening during winter quarter, one quarter earlier than usual, those who are rushing haven’t had the same opportunity to determine if fraternities are right for them or if joining is even ethical. They have to take fraternity members at their word.
The second countercurrent to frat power is Abolish Stanford Greek (ASG), an organization of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni working to de-house IFC fraternities and ISC sororities (i.e. historically white fraternities and sororities). ASG posts student testimonials about experiences with and in Greek Life. ASG is vocal on social media about the reality of fraternity life and its impact on Greek and non-Greek students.
It is for these reasons that I was struck on Saturday when the Phi Kappa Psi’s DEI-VIP Committee neglected to invite a single member of Abolish Stanford Greek to the LGBTQ x Fraternity Life Q&A. They ignored ASG voices even though multiple members of ASG — myself included — have spoken publicly about our experiences navigating queerness in fraternity life and rush. The panel no doubt stems from the acknowledgment of very real problems of inclusion in Greek Life, and I greatly respect any fraternity’s efforts to speak honestly about queer experience in frat life. However, the recent panel made me realize that fraternity men are controlling who can talk about queer experience in Greek Life. By not inviting ASG nor opinions from other communities such as co-ops, the fraternities demonstrate that they are not interested in giving up narrative power and hearing critique. How can they pursue true reforms without critique? What’s striking is that in both TDX’s attempts at self-salvation and queer fraternity members’ attempts at reform, they clutch onto narrative power and end up doing harm to vulnerable populations in the Stanford community — the bereft and the queer. Even when they’re trying to be better, fraternities end up doing worse. If this isn’t clear evidence that reform is not worthwhile, I don’t know what is. The Omicron variant has Stanford students even more anxious about social life than ever. But joining a fraternity will not solve your social life. It will not heal Stanford’s community.