The room really was much too big.
Wearing a surprised expression, Delta Lambda Phi president Jake Aebly walked tentatively into the Red Gym's On Wisconsin room, which is as spacious as a basketball gymnasium. His eyes were wide as he looked around.
'This is not the room I requested!' he said to fraternity brotherhood director Michael Balen, who had been sitting alone in the room, waiting for eight or so of his brothers to join him. They had more space, comically more space, than they needed for their business meeting that Sunday night last December. Balen looked amused. Aebly did not.
Such are the travails of a fraternity without a house. But in that regard, the University of Wisconsin-Madison branch of Delta Lambda Phi is like all the other outposts of the national fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men. Because the fraternity is so new ' it was founded just 20 years ago ' local chapters do not own mansions like the Greek houses that line Langdon Street.
So usually a Memorial Union conference room is the meeting place of the Delta Lambda Phi colony (as a newly activated group, it is a colony, not a chapter). Asking Balen to wait, Aebly strode briskly out of the Red Gym and toward Memorial Union, next door on Langdon Street.
On the sidewalk, coming from the other direction, were brothers Derek House and Ryan Long, as well as Eli Judge, who was elected alder of the 8th District on April 3. The trio followed Aebly into the union, where he approached the impassive student employee at the information desk.
'Are you going to ask them for a room in the union?' a brother wondered.
'Better than asking them is telling them,' said Aebly.
But there were no rooms, and so Aebly and the others returned to the On Wisconsin room, where four more young men had joined Balen. Thinking quickly, Aebly led the group through the Red Gym's maze of aisles and catwalks to an unoccupied, tastefully lit conference room on the third floor.
There was much to discuss and plan, since the activities of the winter rush season were just weeks away. It resembled any fraternity's business meeting.
Except that all the brothers were openly queer, a fact that doubtless would surprise fraternity brothers of just two generations ago, though perhaps not one generation.
Now a gay fraternity is remarkable for being ' almost ' unremarkable. Gays and lesbians are, after all, accepted into mainstream American life as never before. They marry. They work at Fortune 500 companies. They are even increasingly active in traditionally conservative bastions, like the Christian church and the Republican Party.
And the college Greek system. Skeptics might wonder why openly gay men would even join a subculture known for its cultural conservatism and exclusionary attitudes if not, in its worst moments, for outright misogyny, racism and, yes, homophobia.
Certainly much has changed at the University of Wisconsin since 1962, when gay UW employees were dismissed. The purge was an ugly episode whose details were told by a former UW student to Ron McCrea, now the senior news editor of The Capital Times, in a 1978 issue of the Midwest Gay Academic Journal. The student singled out Dean of Men Theodore Zillman, who said, 'We can't allow admitted homosexuals on this campus. It's not good for the campus.'
Zillman and officials of the university's Office of Protection and Security questioned students suspected of 'homosexual 'misconduct,'' the student said. Students were told they could remain enrolled if they named other gay men on campus, including employees.
Hundreds of names were compiled, including that of a university hospital employee, who resigned under duress. The university's 'McCarthyistic' tactics created a climate of fear in the campus' already tentative gay community, the student reported.
The university community became more accepting of gays amid the society-wide changes of the late 1960s, recalls Dick Wagner, the former Dane County board chairman who received his doctorate in history from the UW in 1971. Particularly galvanizing, he notes, were the Stonewall riots of 1969, when gay and transgender people clashed with New York City police.
'Shortly after Stonewall there was a gay group ' both campus and community, but mainly university-based ' called Renaissance,' he says. 'It was small compared to anything today, but one was aware there was a campus group, and more visible kinds of house parties. Ten Langdon on frat row was known for having lots of parties with gay folks.'
Now a host of gay men and lesbians live their lives openly at the University of Wisconsin, one of the schools receiving high marks in the 2006 Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students (even as the UW is the only Big Ten school that does not provide health benefits to domestic partners).
Sexual identity is in the university's nondiscrimination policy, and queer student groups proliferate on campus, including the Ten Percent Society, founded in 1983, as well as Q Law, Q Grads and the LGBT Social Work/Welfare Group ' and, now, Delta Lambda Phi.
Says fraternity president Aebly, 'We truly believed there should be a Greek institution on campus where one could assume they would not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.'
Formally launched last October with 13 initial members, the Delta Lambda Phi colony here joins nine other colonies and 23 chapters on both coasts and in the Midwest. Groups in the South and the mountain states are few.
The Madison colony has its roots in the UW's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally Leadership Institute, an annual retreat at Wisconsin Dells. As Aebly and others drove home from the winter 2005 retreat, they reflected on the experience and wished there were more ways for gay students to lead, and to make friends.
'Someone jokingly threw out, 'We should start a fraternity so we can do this all the time,'' says Aebly, a graduate of Luxemburg-Casco high school, near Green Bay, and today a junior majoring in music. 'It was like, 'Ha ha, that's a great idea.''
But the idea stuck with John Alaniz, then a junior genetics major. He had already worked with gay groups on campus. Still, he says, he realized he was looking for a different kind of gay organization, one not based solely on advocacy and support, like the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transgender Campus Center, or on socializing, like the Ten Percent Society.
Alaniz is the grandson of a migrant farm worker. 'Having a strong Native American and Hispanic background combined,' he says, 'she taught me a lot about who I am.' He is the first member of his family to graduate high school, much less college. (He got his bachelor's degree last year.) After he came out in high school ' he identifies as genderqueer ' the Austin, Texas native was left homeless after his aunt and uncle threw him out.
He felt a sense of brotherhood with his colleagues at the 2005 leadership institute. 'I had never known that, except with my own brother,' he says. And so even the joking notion of starting a gay fraternity inspired him.
Founded in 1986 in Washington, D.C., Delta Lambda Phi went through a period of furious growth in the late 1980s and 1990s, when about 25 branches were formed. Only a few survived, though. Recent years have seen renewed interest across the nation, and renewed growth.
The resurgence was noted by Erik Trekell, executive director of the gay campus center. Trekell, 46, was a Phi Kappa Tau at Texas A&M University and says the Greek experience has much to offer anyone, gay or straight.
'I had been kind of shopping around, looking for students to try to start it up,' he says of Delta Lambda Phi. 'John came to me, and I encouraged him to do it. I thought it was a great idea.'
Along with founding members Chris Daniels and Jon Raffesberger, both juniors now, Aebly and Alaniz began talking to people and holding events, including what has already become a tradition, a twice-yearly bonfire at Picnic Point.
As they worked with the national organization, which is based in Washington, the founders learned that a UW chapter of Delta Lambda Phi had been started in 1991, but had fizzled out.
The members get together once a week, alternating business and social meetings. Social meetings generally take place in the apartment of one brother or another. 'One of our big brothers told us to have as many social gatherings as possible,' notes sophomore acting major James Carrington. Because the group is so new, Madison colony members have big brothers, or mentors, from chapters on other campuses.
Carrington, who grew up in Wauwatosa, says the brothers often watch movies at the apartment gatherings, or play party games. They also go on outings, like a recent trip to a brother's cabin. In the works is a Six Flags visit, come summer.
As a matter of fraternity policy, the socializing is platonic. The Web site of the national fraternity has a page of frequently asked questions, including this one: 'Is Delta Lambda Phi a 'sex club'?' The answer: 'No, no, no.'
Like most social fraternities, Delta Lambda Phi promotes charitable works. Carrington is the colony's service director, and he is planning a day of planting trees and cleaning up at the UW Arboretum.
'Service should be, resoundingly, the more powerful message we promote,' says colony treasurer Eli Judge, who will be sworn in as District 8 alder next Tuesday. The sophomore history and political-science major also chairs Students for a Fair Wisconsin, which fought the gay-marriage amendment Wisconsin voters added to the state constitution last November.
Judge, who is from River Forest, Ill., suggests that with all this activity he is making up for lost time. 'I'd come out of the closet only two weeks before I came to college, and then got involved in fighting the ban,' he says. 'I wanted to be involved in LGBT groups in high school, but the fact that I was in the closet made that difficult.'
Before he heard about Delta Lambda Phi, Judge never contemplated joining a fraternity. 'I always thought there was a stigma against the Greek community,' he says. 'But through DLP, and working with the Greek community as a candidate trying to fix campus safety, I've started to gain respect for them and see that in many ways, they're incredible leaders.'
But although their advocates emphasize positive values, like brotherhood and service, Greek organizations have an image problem. That is plain from Chronicle of Higher Education headlines of the last few years: 'Victim of Assault Can Sue Fraternity,' 'Fraternity Pledge Death Prompts Alcohol Ban,' 'Fraternity's Cross-burning Ritual Stirs Debate.' And recent events at Indiana's DePauw University, where a sorority purged overweight members and members of color, are a reminder that Greeks have a reputation for intolerance.
'Fraternities have long had a problem with accepting diversity,' says Shane Windmeyer, editor of Out on Fraternity Row and other books about the gay Greek experience. 'That's the reason there are Jewish fraternities. [Jewish people] were not allowed in 'Christian' fraternities.'
Nevertheless, the Greek system is changing, says Windmeyer, who also is executive director of Charlotte, N.C.-based Campus Pride, which promotes queer-friendly colleges and universities. He notes, for example, that Delta Lambda Phi is not the only queer Greek group. Others are the fraternity Sigma Phi Beta and the sorority Lambda Delta Lambda.
What's more, at the University of Wisconsin, Delta Lambda Phi has support at the highest levels of the Greek system. The new fraternity could be 'a great asset to the community,' says Eli Gratz, Delta Tau Delta member and president of Madison's Interfraternity Council. Each fraternity has its own style or culture, he says, and Delta Lambda Phi simply represents another culture.
Gratz notes that fraternities besides Delta Lambda Phi have openly gay members, including his own. 'We had a brother come out,' he says. 'It was a pretty emotional thing, that they trust you enough to say that. There were a lot of handshakes. It was like, 'Dude, don't worry about it, it's just you.''
Still, not every fraternity can accommodate openly gay members, says Delta Lambda Phi national spokesman Christopher Newman. When it comes to traditional fraternities, he notes, gay men often 'join and either stay closeted, or deal with a lot of crap. DLP lets you join and be comfortable, and get a social experience you can't find anywhere else.'
Of course, Delta Lambda Phi has its critics, as fraternity officials acknowledge on the national Web site. Another of the frequently asked questions goes, 'Aren't you being assimilationists?' To which the answer comes: 'We simply feel that any thing a straight man can be able to do, a gay man should be able to do ' that includes going Greek.'
By late January, Delta Lambda Phi's winter rush activities were in full swing. Keen to welcome a new class of brothers, the 13 original members held information sessions and sponsored a laser tag bout and an evening at the Madison Ice Arena, where the new Madison Gay Hockey Association holds its games. Delta Lambda Phi member Brian Johnson plays with the association, so his brothers ' and potential brothers ' came to support him.
At the end of rush, the brothers invited six men to join them. They will induct another class of new pledges at the beginning of the fall semester, and they hope to become a full chapter by the end of 2007. That process involves much filling out of forms and is 'a ton of work,' says national fraternity spokesman Newman. 'It's ridiculous.'
In the meantime, the Madison brothers of Delta Lambda Phi will finish up their activities of the spring semester, including an appearance at Humorology. That is the pan-Greek event at which teams of fraternities and sororities mount 20-minute, miniature musical comedies.
On their team, the brothers of Delta Lambda Phi are collaborating with the fraternities Acacia and Pi Kappa Tau, and the sorority Delta Delta Delta.
'The title of our show is 'Phantom of the Talent Show,'' says Carrington. He adds, devilishly: 'It's a spin-off of Phantom of the Opera, High School Musical and The Devil Wears Prada.' Public performances are in the Wisconsin Union Theater on April 19 and 20.
Humorology 2007 will be something of a coming-out party for Delta Lambda Phi, whose brothers are participating for the first time as full peers in a UW Greek event.
In the meantime, the brothers are learning about the traditions of their fraternity, and trying to build a structure that can endure. That last task is critical for any Greek organization, since membership turns over so quickly.
And the brothers are getting to know each other better, which arguably is the greatest function of fraternities. Says Out on Fraternity Row author Windmeyer, 'They offer close friendship with a group of men you can count on the rest of your life.'
Indeed, says Delta Lambda Phi cofounder Alaniz of his fraternity brothers, 'I love my family, but these people can provide something else. Deep down, I really do love them.'