No longer the domain of alpha males, college fraternities have come a long way since a toga-clad John Belushi smashed the guitar of an effeminate folk singer while on "double-secret probation" in the 1978 movie classic "Animal House."
Just this week, New York University became the latest college campus to create a chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, the only national fraternity founded by gay men for all men, according to the organization's Web site.
With 24 chapters nationwide and 10 more colonies waiting in the wings for official status, Lambda is the fastest-growing fraternity in the United States with about 2,100 members, according to Randy Hubach, Delta Lambda Phi's national vice president for outreach.
Lambda offers all the rituals and tradition of a classic fraternity -- including restricting the membership to men -- but with what its members say is a socially open mind. Membership is open to "gay, bisexual and progressive gentlemen," and also straight men.
The term "gentleman" does not conjure up those puerile Hollywood fraternity brothers Bluto Blutarsky and Otter Stratton, who waged a drunken war against Dean Vernon Wormer as he tried to shut down the fictitious Delta House -- the "Animal House." The movie, set in 1962, was based on screenwriter Christopher Miller's experiences at Dartmouth College's Alpha Delta Phi fraternity.
Lambda's legacy, on the other hand, rests with an elderly gentleman with a distinguished moniker -- Vernon L. Strickland III, Esq. -- who founded the fraternity in 1986 with 24 members, pledging to create a Greek organization that did not discriminate against sexual orientation.
Breaking Boundaries by Welcoming All
The NYU chapter, with 11 members, forbids hazing and incorporates an "education" rather than a "pledging" process that requires new recruits to know the fraternity's mission, memorize the Greek alphabet and learn Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure. By offering fraternity brotherhood to gay men, it "breaks boundaries," according to chapter president Matt Maggiacomo.
The fraternity's mascot is the centaur, adapted from Greek mythology as the essence of masculinity -- the Lambdas' version depicts a younger, clean-shaven man-horse with short hair. The fraternity motto is "Lambda men are making their presence known," and the Toast Song is "Once There Was a Mighty Man."
"When I came to NYU the last thing I thought I would ever do would be join a fraternity, never mind start one," said Maggiacomo, now 21 and a senior from Rhode Island. "There are so many negative stereotypes. If Bluto Blutarsky is the absolute ideal of the model frat boy, we are the antithesis."
Maggiacomo got involved in fraternity life two years ago. He and his fledgling brothers spent 18 months proving to the national organization and to the university that Lambda would be a productive and progressive organization. It was finally promoted from colony to fraternity chapter status in March after submitting a 60-page document that outlined its mission, created a budget and undertook several community service projects.
During its trial period, the fraternity volunteered at the Ali Forney Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender homeless youth. It also tutored students at New York City's Harvey Milk gay high school, ran an auction to benefit abused women and children, and organized oral HIV testing in the dorms.
"The heart of our mission is to foster brotherhood through service, recreation and academic activities," Maggiacomo said.
As Greek Membership Drops, a New Presence
A gay fraternity might be viewed as an oxymoron, in light of criticism that has been lobbed at the Greek system in the last few decades. National membership has been on the decline, and fraternities have been accused of everything from excessive drinking to racism and homophobia.
Last year at the University of Vermont, the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was suspended for allegedly serving drinks to underage students and making prospective members wear cowboy outfits while they were taunted with homophobic language during a party that had a theme on the gay-based movie "Brokeback Mountain."
Criminal charges against the fraternity are still pending, but the university took swift action against the students, hitting them with monetary fines and educational requirements, according to UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera.
Only about 10 percent of the student body participates in Greek life, he said.
"The University has no tolerance for behavior that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment based on someone's perceived or real identity," said an official statement released in December 2006.
Maggiacomo regards the UVM incident as an aberration.
"This is typical of a fraternity that makes bad choices," he said. "We've heard all the horror stories, and I think that is why most people are under the assumption that all fraternities binge drink, wear stupid costumes and jump out of windows."
Can a Fraternity Change People's Perceptions?
As for homophobia, "a gay fraternity does not have the power to efface it completely from campus communities, but Delta Lambda Phi's presence has certainly changed opinions and misconceptions about gay college men," Maggiacomo said.
Nationally, Delta Lambda Phi has seen "amazing growth," he said, and only accepts five requests for a colony per semester. The fraternity even has a chapter at Southern Methodist University in Texas, where fraternity and football are king.
National spokesman Hubach confirms that this year 75 groups have shown an interest in joining the fraternity, but many colleges have waiting lists because they are "cracking down" on Greek life. The University of Southern California, for example, is not accepting new fraternities until 2010, he said.
Hubach got involved after being "blackballed" by a conventional fraternity at Southern Methodist University several years ago when he began dating a brother. He liked the goals of Lambda to serve and lead in multicultural communities.
"A lot of gentlemen rushed and got turned off when they didn't fit in," he said. "Our fraternity fits a different mold. It has brotherhood and helps others. We don't just throw parties."
Delta Lambda Phi is not a gay activist group or a sex club, although its "ideal" members are "sophisticated and politically minded," said Maggiacomo.
Still, he says, "we are gay men and knowing what decisions are taking place in Congress and how it affects our lives, we would not be doing our jobs if we didn't discuss what is happening in the news."
NYU Inter-Greek Council President Heather Kortholl told the New York Post that forming a gay fraternity was "a natural step" at a diverse city college like NYU.
But, Maggiacomo said, "There are challenges at other universities where the fraternity culture is huge, but the acceptance of gays is not so high."
NYU's Campus Embraces Lambda
According to the North-America Interfraternity Conference, 350,000 undergraduates join fraternities and sororities in 5,500 chapters on 800 campuses around the country.
At some Southern schools, membership reaches 70 percent, but at NYU, only about 4 percent of the student body pledges Greek, according to Marybeth Johnson, coordinator for fraternities and sororities.
"For years, there have been concerns nationally about membership in fraternities declining," Johnson said. "We hear comments that NYU is not a likely place for Greek life, and I would say it's the complete opposite. You come to a huge university in a city that is incomprehensible to them, and they are looking for some way to make it smaller. The fraternity becomes a home for them."
Delta Lambda Phi has already made its mark on the NYU campus, Johnson said, and other fraternities have "embraced them with open arms."
"They have helped change perspectives on what it means to be in a sorority or fraternity and what it means to Greek," Johnson said. "They aspire to the same leadership, scholarship and service. They have been a joy to work with, and they will do really great things for this university."
At Dartmouth College -- where "Animal House" draws an "Oh my God" response from deans who know the inevitable comparisons to Dean Wormer's Faber College are inescapable -- an inclusive view of fraternities is also afoot.
There, about 60 percent of the students join fraternities and sororities, and the number is rising.
"We have made huge progress," said Deborah Carney, the school's coordinator of fraternities and sororities. "You hear about the old stereotypes, but the demons [of] alcohol, hazing, homophobia and racism happened in all colleges and are not just centered on the Greek letter organizations."
In the last two years, three Dartmouth sororities have had presidents who were "out lesbians," and the national Lambda 10 Project, unrelated to Delta Lambda Phi, is helping the entire community make Dartmouth a self-described "welcoming community" for students of all sexual orientations.
Still, NYU's new gay fraternity hopes to provide more than acceptance with a strong "support system" for its members, who are at "all levels of discretion with family and friends," said Maggiacomo, meaning not all of them have gone public with their sexual identities.
"Some are coming out, and others have never thrust themselves out of the closet. Yet we share the same experiences," Maggiacomo said.
Over spring break this year, the 11 NYU Delta Lambda Phi members traveled to Puerto Rico together and found their vacation a bonding experience that might not have happened had the students been part of a conventional fraternity.
"We had some unbelievable conversations," said Maggiacomo. "We talked about our future and what are our lives would be like as gay dads in New York. This fraternity is really different, and I get all sentimental and emotional about it. They give me assurances that when I am of age and have kids and have someone I love, I will have a group of friends who have gone through the same situation I have, and I can call them brothers."