Not your average frat

by Jennifer Nault

It’s a Thursday night in January, and a jocular, fresh-faced group of McGill fraternity members are blowing off steam after the winter holiday break. This is Delta Lambda Phi: Beta Omega Chapter’s first big outing of 2014. Brothers have marked their calendars for “Heatwave” at the Royal Phoenix Bar, an event with the handle, #NotYourAvgFrat. These fellows have torn themselves away from their books for a few hours to hook up and go out on the town, living up the Montreal scene with customary joie de vivre. Not unlike a glorified Heineken commercial, the night involves some serious conviviality: partying, beer drinking and dancing into the late hours. Picture this scene, minus the part where they’re chatting up the girls.

In many respects, this exclusion is the only difference between the brothers of and the other fraternities at McGill – or, to this date, fraternities anywhere else in Canada.

The McGill chapter is Canada’s one and only social fraternity for gay, bisexual, and progressive men; their founding purpose is “to develop dignified and purposeful social, service and recreational activities for men, irrespective of sexual orientation.” Transgendered members are welcome too, but so far, “nobody identifying as transgendered has pledged to become a member, but they certainly wouldn’t be denied,” says fraternity founder Sam Reisler. Sexuality matters, but does not matter at the same time, at least not to the exclusion of any male who embraces progressive views around sexuality. The chapter’s mandate is to be inclusive.

Well, yes and no. Women are excluded, as is the tradition of fraternities everywhere. In fact, the omission of women became a sticking point when Delta Lambda Phi officially became a chapter in 2012. Back then, the fraternity made headlines for complaints received not from other fraternities or their (mainly) straight members, but from some irked activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities who felt the fraternity was being hypocritical by not allowing women.  “We were being held up to different standards [than other fraternities]. We were being judged based on a lack of awareness of how fraternities operate – there was some misunderstanding,” recounts Reisler.

As an affiliate of an American fraternity (the U.S. boasts 40+ similarly progressive fraternities), McGill’s Beta Omega Chapter is marking its second anniversary this February. The kernel for the fraternity dates back to 2009, when an interest group was formed. “There are several stages to navigate before becoming a full-fledged chapter,” says Reisler, who now lives in Toronto, and works in advertising. “It wasn’t just the politics; it was the administrative side of setting up the chapter where issues arose. We were pioneering in bringing Delta Lambda Phi over to Canada, which involved some finicky legal language changes and updates to the charter. The national directors and the New York City’s chapter’s mentors visited us a few times to ensure we held up the values of the brotherhood – they were very supportive.”

In a Toronto Star interview two years ago – on the cusp of achieving the full chapter designation, Reiser explained, “We want to give students an opportunity for a gay social environment without the political undercurrent.”

Arne Nelson is a first-year McGill student from Seattle who already has his university future well mapped out. An outdoorsy type attired for the harsh Montreal winter in Canada Goose, Nelson intends to major in international studies, with a second major in history and a minor in environmental science. “I had other options [besides McGill], and no, I wouldn’t say that the fraternity was the deciding factor, but it certainly played a role in my decision to come here. I did my research and I knew about the chapter well before I applied.”

Events and community outreach make up the bulk of their activities. “There are internal events, designed to promote bonding and brotherhood, such as study groups, but also bowling, movie nights, and just hanging out,” says Reisler. “We partner with other groups to raise money for charitable organizations, and we’ve done things like hosting bagel fundraisers… only in Montreal!” Chapter members recently volunteered at the L.G.B.T.Q. Youth Centre on the West Island, a resource centre for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.

While the chapter offers its members ample opportunities for bonding, “we have a hands-off policy,” says Reisler. Nelson also makes a point of mentioning the hands-off policy, yet contends that while physical relationships are not the norm, and while it is very rare for a romantic relationship to develop [between members], it can happen. “It’s rare; it’s just not promoted. Plus, there is the pledgemaster who is like our ‘mother hen’ watching things.”

Nelson recalls this past winter exam period: “I went through a stressful period in terms of academics and life in general. I had an argument with my significant other, and I just texted our president, Paul Stewart, who had also been my pledge master. He invited me to his home, and when I arrived, there were a few other brothers hanging around. It was the fact that they were guy friends who knew what it was like to have an argument with a boyfriend. The president gave me honest relationship advice and in that moment, I realized that there is a support structure for me through the fraternity.”

So, who is a Delta Lambda Phi man? “We walk our talk," says Nelson. "We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind. We are not just ‘gay.’ We are not self-limiting in that sense – we are progressive. We strive to embrace tolerance and understanding. For instance, there is a strict ‘no hazing’ policy. That is one tradition we simply do not uphold.” When asked if there are any secret rituals specific to the fraternity, Nelson begins to speak, then quickly checks himself and becomes tight-lipped. “I think we’re less secretive than other fraternities.” When pressed, Nelson says, “Well, yes, there are some [rituals], but if I told you, then I’d have to…,” tracing off with a shy smile.

“It’s a healthy, inclusive atmosphere,” says Nelson. “For Canadian Thanksgiving, I stayed in Montreal, because as an American, a visit with my family was not feasible. But the chapter had a potluck for all those brothers like me, who were feeling a little homesick. It was so nice to have somewhere to go and to feel welcomed into that space.”

Reisler concurs, and reflects further: “One of the best advantages of the fraternity is that it’s very friendship-oriented. After almost three years [after graduating], I can say that some of my closest friends are my brothers. We visit each other frequently, even those who don’t live in the same city. We really stay connected.”