by Rob Rosen
Emory University, Georgia
CW: explicit language, alcohol use, strong sexual content
Emory University, nestled deep in the heart of the Southland, was difficult enough without having to worry about getting laid. Anyway, it was a moot point. I was not any more ready for gay sex in college than I was in high school. That’s not to say that I was in denial about my sexuality or anything. I knew who I was. I just did not know yet how to act on my desires. Instead, I studied hard and concentrated on other less prurient matters, namely rushing a fraternity.
Back in the mid-eighties, fraternities were going through a sort of renewed renaissance. Young men all across the country were pledging. I already knew that all the guys in my dorm were planning on joining up; so who was I to buck the trend? Oh sure, I was well aware that fraternities were not exactly bastions of homosexuality. My decision to rush, and possibly pledge, was to see what all the hoopla was about, and perhaps get some insights into the age-old tradition of fraternity brotherhood.
As it turned out, rush was an amazing experience; especially for someone who had little-to-no experience interacting with large groups of people. Surprisingly, that whole boys club mentality had a strangely intoxicating effect on yours truly. And while I expected the guys I would meet to more closely resemble those characters from Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds, either party animals or jockish simpletons, what I found instead was that the majority were more like me: somewhat raw around the edges, but well educated, nicely mannered, handsome – in a teen-agerish sort of way, and probably just as nervous to be talking to complete strangers as I was. The similarities made me less of a basket case then I had predicted.
I found the typical rush interaction to be something like a cross between speed dating for men and a job interview: Hunky brother #1 would approach, shake my hand, smile, and proceed to the standard line of questioning: “So, where are you from? How are you enjoying Emory so far? Do you know what your major will be? Do you play any sports?” And then I was passed off to hunky brother #2 and the scene was repeated. Multiply this by a few dozen hunky brothers and a dozen or so fraternities and that is what Rushing was all about.
First impressions of each other were all any of us had, and it counted for everything; much like that job interview where you only have a short amount of time to impress your potential boss. Of course, I was later to learn, that for many these acts of kindness and civility were merely a PR ploy: a necessity in order to increase membership. Though at the time I was glad for the attention. I thought to myself: “These guys were interested in little, old me and wanted to hear what I had to say.” And, more importantly, wanted me to be a member of their ranks.
So I rushed with boyhood glee and vigor. I mixed and mingled and presented myself as if I was destined for fraternity life. That whole macho, straight boy approach was not exactly new to me. I understood well what these guys wanted to hear.
“What sports do you play, Rob?” usually came from the jockier types, the taller, more casually dressed, beefier brothers. “I played football in high school. And I kept the clock at all the home basketball games,” I would respond, perhaps lowering my voice a few octaves to butch it up a bit. It seemed to do the trick. My answer always elicited a knowing smile. Of course, I would omit the part that I usually stayed on the sidelines cheering with the cheerleaders.
“What was your GPA in high school, Rob?” was asked by most everyone I met. “Middle threes,” I would say. “Graduated fourth in my class.” This they definitely liked to hear. Apparently, you could not get initiated or stay in the fraternity if you did not maintain your grades. Again, I omitted the fact that there were only twenty-eight people in my graduating class. It was easier to let them think of me as a boy genius. Anyway, I did do really well on my SATs, so it was not too far from the truth.
I desperately tried not faking it or anything. I really and truly did want to pledge; to be a member of a group of like-minded individuals; to become a brother. Though at the time the word “brotherhood” was still a vague notion in my head. I did not yet have a concrete idea of what the term meant, other than the fact that it involved a group of men living, working, and playing together. Perhaps that is what kept driving me forward: the desire to find out what I might be missing.
And when rush week was over, I knew which fraternity I wanted to join: Phi Gamma Delta, more commonly referred to as “FIJI.” I had a sense that these guys liked me. I already knew that I liked them. They were not too big or too small in numbers. They were not too jockish or brainy. They had a nice mix of nationalities and religions. In short, they had that “Goldilocks Quotient” I was seeking: they were “just right.”
And the house itself was a perfect fit as well. Not the big mansion of Sigma Chi, or the run down hovel of AEPi, or the single floored, tiny Beta house. No. The FIJI house made me feel like I was home, with its white exterior and simple Doric columns, it rolling green front lawn, and comfortable wooden back deck. This was like the house I grew up in: simple and unpretentious.
The whole gay thing got pushed even farther back in my head. Truthfully, I did not give it much thought. I made it through high school without being found out, why not college? What was four more years in the larger scheme of things? Besides, wasn’t simple male bonding enough, perhaps even more important than the act of physical love? These were the unsettling questions I did not have an answer to, or at least not yet anyway. I would first have to become a brother.
The big night arrived. I showed up at the house in my nicely pressed slacks and Polo shirt and chatted with the brothers. They were a great bunch of guys: casual, outgoing, and personable. I knew that I had made the right choice. Now my future was in their hands.
My heart was beating a mile a minute. The sultry Atlanta heat had soaked through to my clothes, forming wet spots beneath my pits and lower back. Looking around I felt the tangible nervous atmosphere and saw similar perspiration stains. That’s when I also noticed that many of the brothers were taking some of my freshman peers into rooms and closing the doors. I nervously fidgeted as I stood there waiting for my turn.
Eventually, a couple of the brothers found me. I had met these two brothers before. Both made good impressions on me and were part of the reason I decided on FIJI . They were, I imagined, exactly the kind of guys I wanted to be my brothers.
“Hi Rob,” one of them said. “Would you mind joining me and some of the other brothers in one of the bedrooms?”
In my head I was thinking, “Please be gentle, I bruise easily.” But what I said was, “Sure,” as even more beads of sweat saturated my armpits.
Two other brothers were already in the room when we got there. No one was smiling. Maybe I had gotten the wrong impression after all. The urge to flee came over me, but by then I was already seated in the exceedingly claustrophobic room that was now crammed with men. It looked like your common, average dorm room, except that being surrounded like that made it seem much more menacing. I smiled anxiously and nodded to all of them, trying hard to imagine what it would be like to call each of them “Brother”.
The one who escorted me into the room started by explaining the order of events to get a bid to join the fraternity. “The entire fraternity votes on all prospective pledges by passing a box around. Each brother drops a white ball in if they like you, and if they do not like you a black ball. Just one black ball means you’re eliminated.” He stared down despondently at the rug. Things were not looking all sunshine and roses anymore, but he continued. “The night we vote always results in many heated exchanges because it’s difficult to get all the brothers to agree on certain people. A presumably terrific guy could rub one brother the wrong way and make a great impression on all the rest, and easily might not be made an offer to pledge.”
As they told me this, I scanned the room and watched for any telltale signs; to see which way they were leaning. They all looked miserable. Their earlier smiles had suddenly vanished. My stomach sank, and the room closed in tighter around me as I listened to my heart beat a tense, little samba in my eardrums.
One of the other brothers picked up where the first one left off. “Before we vote, anyone that met you stands up and says what their impressions were. The discussion about you, unfortunately, caused a lot of arguments.” I nodded that I understood and prepared myself to hightail it out of there. Perhaps I would join the chess club, or somewhere else that did not require a vote for membership.
They each reached out to shake my hand and told me that it was nice meeting me. I stood up on shaky legs and returned their handshakes. ”Oh well, no harm, no foul,” I thought to myself. The last brother to shake my hand looked really glum at having to deliver the final blow. I actually felt sorry for him. He held on to my hand as he said, “They passed the box around for you, Rob, and one by one the balls were taken out.” I knew I was pale as a ghost by that point, but I kept his gaze and prepared to take it like a man. “Sorry,” he said, “but they were all white.”
I stared up at him and wondered if I had heard him correctly. “All white? Wasn’t that what I had wanted?,” I pondered. Once again smiles returned to their faces and, one by one, each guy patted me on my back.
“Congratulations, Rob, the brothers of Phi Gamma Delta would like you to pledge our fraternity. What do you say?,”
Holy shit, these guys really fucked me over but good. I was almost in tears as I shook each of their hands again. “Yes,” I nearly shouted. I had never wanted anything so badly before in all my life.
Then the guys apologized for being so cruel. It was just part of the rite of passage into their brotherhood. Each had experienced the exact same thing. It was one of the many bonds they shared with each other and were now sharing with me. I understood. Besides, it was worth it.
Thinking back, it was one of the happiest and most important moments in my life. It was certainly a turning point. If that dreaded black ball had been dropped into the box, I am sure my life would have turned out differently. The term brotherhood had slowly started to cement in my head. We were all bound together by shared experiences and emotions. The routine was passed down from year to year, but it was no less special each and every time.
Many of my fellow pledges dropped out before they were initiated as full-fledged brothers. They concluded that fraternity life simply was not for them: that it cut into their study time, or that they did not get along with enough of the other brothers to make it worth their efforts. It’s difficult to live and co-exist with a large group of young men.
But even with all the personality clashes and ego battles, I still found that, by and by, we all got along. Perhaps I would even go so far as to say that we loved each other–like brothers do. We thought of each other as family, as people we could count on and turn to in times of need. These feelings are what propelled me through those first few months and kept me from dropping out. For me, it was ultimately worth the effort, the brotherly love.
The pledge process lasted my entire first two semesters of college. By the time initiation rolled around, I was ready. Truly, I had earned the right to become a brother. I gladly wore the royal purple and white fraternity colors and my pledge pin as badge of honor. No prouder FIJI was to be found in my pledge class.
Initiation is the stuff legends are made of. Most of us have seen enough movies to lead us to believe what fraternity rituals entail: paddling, sex with animals, consumption of a fair amount of alcohol, degradation and humiliation. And yes, to a certain degree, some of these things occurred. Though I made a solemn oath never to reveal the exact details.
Of course, I did survive initiation and managed to receive only a fair bit of hazing. I can still vividly remember standing in line with all my pledge brothers as, one by one, we all swore our loyalty to the fraternity. I looked down the line of men, flushed with joy and pride, and happily gave my oath of brotherhood. Finally, I was a member of a fraternity that would usher me into, what I considered, manhood.
I lived in the fraternity house from my sophomore year through the end of my senior year. The fraternity house truly became my home and the brothers became an integral part of my life. Most people only have one or two brothers in their lifetime; I had over a hundred there for me everyday. My fraternity involvement consisted of all the sporting and social functions one could possibly handle; plenty of food and booze. I fulfilled all the brotherhood expectations including every chance I got to make out publicly with sorority girls. It was expected of me to at least go through the motions. I thought it was a small price to pay to maintain the ties of brotherhood. Looking back, I suppose this is what many of us do with our real families, until we are able to be who we really are.
There was no doubt that fraternity life was for me. The brotherhood bonding absorbed me and I truly tried to be the best brother possible. I thought the act of brotherhood itself would be enough to keep my sexual orientation at bay. Still, I was taunted regularly by my impeding sexual desires for men. Imagine lots of hunky, handsome and frequently naked to nearly naked men running about the house at all times. Actually, it was the communal showering that was the most difficult. I never did pop a boner, but boy was I close a few thousand times.
There lies the only crux to my problem; my unexplored sexuality. I loved my brothers. I trusted my brothers. But the possibility of making love with one of them was a definite no-no. Or at least that’s what I figured. Twenty-one and still a virgin. I had waited long enough. Unfortunately, that’s where living in the fraternity house had its drawbacks. “Was it right to try to cross that line in a sexual way with another brother? Was it even an option?,” I would chastise myself for even thinking such a thing. The questions continued: “How was I to meet a guy and have sex with him while I was surrounded by presumably straight men?” These questions became the bane of fraternity life my senior year. My gay mind was finally catching up with my gay body.
Luckily for me, one does not need to be actively gay to have a functioning gaydar. Over Christmas break I decided to stay in the fraternity house rather than venture back home to see my family. Only a few other brothers made the same decision. Paul, one of the brothers who I had suspected might be gay, stayed behind too. He was an astounding 6’2” tall, impossibly thin, dark hair, brown eyes, with nerdish glasses and a wide, warm smile. His overtly sensitive demeanor is what clued me in to his possible fondness for men. I assumed, and prayed I was correct. My gaydar had indicated that Paul and another brother Ted were boyfriends possibly. At the very least, I thought they might have some kind of sexual relationship. I would watch them around each other; sitting close together on the couch or passing knowingly glances. Their interactions always seemed different compared to the other brothers and made me wonder.
That’s where fate stepped in. I was corresponding secretary for the fraternity and I was miraculously given the keys to the fraternity house that Christmas break. One of the keys opened all the bedrooms. The president handed them over to me before he left. To my surprise, I had my chance to find out if I was the only one. The master plan was now unexpectedly laid out before me. These keys held the answer to all my question.
Turns out, I did not have far to look for an answer. I was alone in the fraternity house. I traipsed up to the second floor to Ted’s room. With my hands shaking, I unlocked his door and crept inside. I knew it was wrong, but I desperately wanted to know if these brothers were gay like me. Underneath a large pile of clothes in his closet was a large, heavy gym bag. My breaths rapidly increased as I unzipped the bag. Out of the zipper sprung dozens of gay porn magazines–enticing photos of glistening men on the covers of magazines like Inches, Honcho, and Blueboy. I never would have been so bold as to keep these sorts of things in the house. I was thrilled that Ted had done so. I had never seen gay porn before and I reverently flipped through each one. Naked, hard men on every page, and all, presumably, were gay. Jackpot.
Porn was no substitute for the real thing, though. And I would never be able to tell the owner that I had found his stash. I doubted he would be thrilled at the illegal entry into his private domain. Still, my gaydar was on target about Ted, “Bulls-eye!” And, that night I was even more determined to find out about Paul.
Paul had stayed behind at the fraternity house for Christmas break too. We frequently drank together and were already good friends. This is why I was positive my assumptions were correct about him being gay. Paul and I were alone in his bedroom watching a movie. The possibility of what might happen made the small room seem even more confining, especially with the door closed tightly. Luckily, I brought a bottle of tequila and some lemons and salt. Something about Paul set my bells and whistles off.
His phone rang halfway through the movie and most of the way through the bottle of tequila. I had no idea when or even if I would have the balls to make a move on Paul. I could not even begin to imagine how I might pull it off. Fear was getting the best of me. I could imagine the consequences to the brotherhood if I was wrong about Paul. Actually, by that point, I was starting to write the whole thing off.
Paul stayed on the phone for something like twenty minutes, which was pissing me off. I could not concentrate on the movie while he blithely chatted away. I mouthed to him to get off the phone, but he kept talking. Emboldened by the alcohol we had consumed, I preceded to nudge him repeatedly in the leg. I figured he would get mad and hang up. Nope, he just nudged me back and smiled at my annoyance. “The fucker,” I thought.
Then I got daring and figured I could play this up. I began stroking his leg going up and down to his calf pretending to come onto him. I winked at Paul for extra measure. I always did like his taut, hairy legs. I overdid the whole thing so I could laugh it off if Paul got mad at me. He didn’t, though. He kept talking, but managed to mouth a “What are you doing?” as held his hand against the phone receiver. “Trying to get you off….” I paused unexpected as I replied, “…the phone.” I quickly downed another shot of tequila.
Paul responded by flipping me off with a quick hand gesture. Okay, all is fair in love and war. I took my hand and went further up his leg. I would, of course, not grab his crotch or anything. I knew better than to risk it all. To my pleasure, Paul was not stopping me and was slowly returning the favor. I had no idea if we were playing around or if Paul thought I was serious. Then he did something that threw me. He said to whomever he was talking to that, as he put it, “Rob’s hitting on me and I have to go now.”
“Uh-oh,” I discerned to myself. I may have let my sexual desires get the best of me. My heart was already palpitating heavily. It started doing double time at this last remark.
“What are you doing?” he asked, once he finally hung up. He sat there and stared at me with his big, brown eyes. He did not appear angry, but he did not seem happy either.
“Fucking with you so you would get off the phone. I want to watch the movie in peace,” I answered as we sat next to each other on the couch.
He looked nervous. Then he asked, “You sure you weren’t hitting on me?”
Caught by surprise, and pretty tipsy by that point, the answer to his question blurted out of my mouth without a second thought.
“Yes, I was.” I didn’t take my eyes off of Paul.
“So you’re gay?” he delved further.
Another surprise question I was not ready for.
“Yep, I am,” I blurted drunkenly out without restraint. “Holy cow, I just admitted I was gay,” my mind jolted. So many emotions were running through me. It is one thing to know your gay inside your head, it is quite another to actually say your gay out loud. I could not believe what I had said.
Paul look puzzled. “And how do I know you’re not just trying to get me to say that I am too?”
“A strange question to ask”, I thought to myself. “Why would he ask me that question if he wasn’t gay too?” I went for broke after that one.
“I can prove that I am,” I said, nudging closer to him on the couch, our legs tight against each other.
“How?” he asked, not moving away, and still staring directly into my eyes.
“I’ll kiss you,” I said.
I was surprised by my bravado. All those years without sex had finally caused a boil over.
“You’ll kiss me?” he asked, this time with a distinctly lustful look in his eyes.
“Yes.” I sat there waiting to call his bluff.
“Fine. Kiss me then,” he said, perhaps more of a dare than as a desire to actually want to kiss me in return. He removed his glasses and waited for my next move.
There was no turning back. Besides, my gut feeling was that Paul wanted me to kiss him.
I leaned in closer to Paul and tenderly planted a kiss on his lips. And, thank goodness, he kissed me back. I was scared out of my mind, but his lips felt so warm and inviting. I ached for more of Paul. And now, for the first time in my life, I actually knew I was gay, not just in theory, but in practice. There I was kissing another man, and a fraternity brother.
“So I guess you’re gay too,” I said, once we unlocked our lips from one another.
Paul nodded and went back to kissing me. This was obviously not his first time with another man, but it was certainly new terrain for me. I figured that Paul’s signals meant less talk, more action. And yes, that first kiss led to a first caress, a first stroke, a first suck and other firsts for me. Despite all this, that was also our last time together.
Turns out I was right about a lot of things. Ted was his boyfriend. When Paul told him about our night together, he was obviously upset with good reason. I apologized to Ted and explained that I had let my needs outweigh my concerns. I was deeply sorry. Thankfully for me, Ted was not too mad for too long and years later, Ted and I became roommates, though never boyfriends. Perhaps the connection of our being fraternity brothers, or perhaps more realistically that we were both gay men, allowed him to forgive me.
This story does not end with a fully-fledged, highly sexed, twenty-one-year-old gay man. But, it does end with a young college guy rushing toward manhood. Brotherhood may have taught me how to love my fellow man. Sleeping with a brother taught me something more. Perhaps that is why I did not feel guilt about the way I felt or what I did with Paul. He showed me what it was like to love and trust another man on an emotional as well as a physical level. I did not think I was overstepping the boundaries of brotherhood. This was consensual sex between two gay men. We had both made the choice to be there together that night. Brotherhood and my desire to sleep with another brother were entirely two different things. There was nothing wrong with us being both lovers and brothers. The fraternity, my brothers, and Paul in particular, had started me on my path of manhood, finding myself and understanding my sexuality. The questions I had asked myself repeatedly had begun to receive answers.