Days after I first came out to my fraternity, one of the boys asked to borrow a tie. I should’ve understood the correlation at the time. Instead, I just thought Jared had finally noticed that I am, in fact, among the slim percentage of men who can rock a striped blue seersucker blazer without looking like they’re in a barbershop quartet.
As 18-year-old college freshmen, we were about to embark on a big night. It was our first frat party with a popular sorority: the most important social event of our lives. We were acutely aware that our first impression would set the course of our next four years. If we did the night right, we’d be deemed a “chill” fraternity, able to snag coveted off-campus bars for events. With all this in mind, I agreed to loan out my baby-blue embroidered tie. Making sure Jared was well-dressed was my little gay way of contributing to the frat’s legacy.
That rushed moment in the fall of 2015 would be the first of countless style decisions I’d have to make for over 30 men. As the only out gay man in my pledge class, I’d unwittingly become the source of style advice and clothes to any guy heading out on a date or to an internship interview. I took the job seriously. I spent four years doling out ties, button-downs, dress shoes and, all too often, my jean jacket (FYI, hippie/Deadhead is a popular last-minute costume).
It took me longer than I’d like to admit before I started questioning it. Were my fashion opinions contributing to a culture that already isolated me?
I was thrilled to find acceptance and validation amid a campus hierarchy controlled by Greek culture. But I felt guilty for assimilating so easily. I had the option to reject a system built to uphold American elitism, a system that excluded everyone who didn’t wear Patagonia and Sperrys — that is, much of my own queer community. Instead, I’d chosen social capital, free drinks and personal comfort. I’m lucky to say my experiences were largely problem-free. For others whose queerness is easily detectable — be that intentional or not — Greek life can be much worse.
Thanks in part to Queer Eye, gay cis men — and really only gay cis men — are finding a more public-facing role in frat culture. Netflix’s show about five guys offering style and culture advice to everyday Americans has seeped its way onto college campuses, and gay men are increasingly called upon to be their fraternity’s Antoni Porowski or Tan France.
“Oh, you’re gay. You know.” Jake, a 20-year-old at the University of Massachusetts, hears this a lot when frat brothers seek out his style advice. Initially, he was taken aback by the assumptions — how to tie a tie, iron a shirt or treat a stain — but he’s since embraced the role of style mentor, pushing his boys away from their usual getup of khaki shorts and Patagonia pullovers. Jake mostly intervenes on date nights. “You need to try, too,” he tells them. “She’s probably putting on makeup and doing all this stuff while you just wear the same clothes you wore to the gym. So, change.”
Date events and formals are the high-stakes collegiate versions of homecoming, prom and any social event in which a guy asks a girl to board a bus and get blackout drunk. She’ll typically dress for a cocktail party, while he’ll wear his wrinkled suit from last week’s job fair. But before this moment comes the panic. The guy needs to be on the bus in 10 minutes, but he can’t find his one single tie.
“Whenever I lived with a fraternity brother, it wasn’t uncommon for them to ask me my thoughts on an outfit,” says Anthony, a 22-year-old graduate of George Washington University. While getting ready for events, he’d have to stop and serve as a last-minute Stitch Fix. “Ties, socks, suspenders, you name it” — Anthony’s loaned it all out over the years.
The most random thing a brother asked to borrow: a RompHim for a Luau-themed day party. “He came up to me and told me how everyone loved it,” Anthony says, satisfied his styling was well received. “I figured that would happen, because that’s what happened to me when I first wore it.”
Most straight frat boys embrace a uniform; they aren’t looking to stand out. Usually, their goal is simply not to embarrass their dates. Dominick, a 20-year-old at Arizona State University, received his queer-couture call to action after wearing a suede blazer as a cape to a date event — and winning over sorority girls. “All the guys would be in amazement at how their dates all wanted to take pictures with me,” he says.
These fashion interventions are often entry-level. “The number of people trying to wear black shoes with brown belts… it’s alarming!” says Michael, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Massachusetts. After calling out his first batch of wrinkled shirts and “typical straight-boy-fashion” faux pas, his clientele increased. “When it comes to straight men, they need all the outside help they can get.”
P.J., a 22-year-old who went to school in Boston, found his biggest successes with skin care. His weekly routine includes a GlamGlow face mask, Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal-Extract Toner and Origins A Perfect World Cleanser. But the costly Tatcha Vitamin C serum wasn’t going to play well for frat boys still using three-in-one body washes. “I would never expect them to go to Sephora or shop online at Glossier,” P.J. says.
Instead, he recommended brands his frat brothers could buy at the campus Walgreens. Soon after, Neutrogena, CeraVe and Cetaphil products filled the shower-room cubbies. “Most people caught on to the fact that daily cleansing and moisturizing are essential.”
The Queer Eye role often extends into Antoni’s food lane. On a particularly snowy day in January, Jake and his fraternity brothers were stuck indoors. As boredom sunk in and snow accumulated outside, they became increasingly hungry. Someone shouted, “Damn, I wish I had some French onion soup.” Twenty minutes later, Jake was in their industrial-sized kitchen, showing his brothers how adding red wine to the recipe breaks down the fibers in onions to give the broth more flavor.
“We just sat eating French onion soup for three hours, watching movies,” Jake says. “I think that’s the best response you can get [from frat guys] most of the time. They’re not the whole congratulatory type.”
But being too helpful comes at a personal cost. The gay-adviser role can quickly turn casual friendships into service relationships, feeling like a house cook, cleaning service or pledge kept around solely to serve the hetero boys. “Although the brotherhood and spiritual component of the experiences are invaluable, it was obvious that one thing rang supreme, and that was the meeting girls and having a great time,” P.J. says.
Dominick says he always feels included among his brothers, but their acceptance wavers. He and a friend recently bonded over shopping for the perfect tank top and fitted short to wear at a philanthropy event. Feeling confident, Dominick proposed his chic look to the entire fraternity at a chapter meeting. The boys, most of whom were big on cargo shorts, didn’t bite. “‘Oh yeah, because we’re a sorority and wanna have matching outfits,’” Dominick recalls them saying. “Almost making me feel like my idea isn’t ‘heterosexual’ enough.”
I spoke with some gay frat brothers who felt entirely, 100 percent accepted by their organizations — but they were quick to qualify their experiences as exceptions in Greek life. “Massachusetts culture I wouldn’t say is as traditional as your standard movie-stereotype college experience,” says Jake, who’s now on his second term as fraternity president.
At his rural Colorado high school, Jake avoided the gym, anxious about being around BlenderBottle-carrying fitness buffs and their oppressively masculine grunting. All that changed once his frat brothers got wind of his concerns. “They would just drag me to the gym with them and teach me workout routines,” Jake says. He admits he never expected to find his best friends among a bunch of straight dudes.
Many frat gays like P.J. have since moved to big cities after graduation. These days he can be found romping around New York City, removed from the world of sorority chants and “Saturdays Are for the Boys” flags.
He’s still processing his role in helping straight men dress and impress their girlfriends. At times, he felt he was just contributing to heteronormativity, not dismantling the system. “Being Greek was largely unfulfilling for me, because I felt that no matter what I did I wasn’t getting anything out of it,” he says. But then his brothers would come calling with fashion questions, and suddenly “the perception of being valued made me feel validated and needed.”
It took me four years to unpack why I willingly entered Greek life during my freshman year. As a newly out and scared 18-year-old unable to get into the single gay bar in town (which has since closed) and unsure how to find gay friends elsewhere, I didn’t know how to be gay. But growing up with two sports-obsessed older brothers, I knew how to pretend to be a bro. Joining Greek life was survival by familiarity, even if I knew I was isolated.
I still have that baby-blue tie, though I don’t wear it anymore. It’s too wide; skinny ties are more my thing now. Plus, after four years of frat parties, it’s got a stain I can’t get out. But I haven’t gotten rid of it. It sits in the back of my closest, an occasional reminder that I’m no longer the scared gay teen thinking he’d find friendship in exchange for a Van Heusen suitcoat.