Wednesday, September 02, 2009
KEVIN KAO, ARTHUR HUANG and EZRA EVANGELISTA:
Behind the Scenes at the Gay Fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO, L to R: Kevin Kao, Ezra Evangelista, Arthur Huang
“In Washington, D.C. in October, 1986, three elderly gentlemen established a trust to create a social fraternity that wouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation,” says the description of the origins of Delta Lambda Phi on its Web site, http://sites.dlp.org. “The donors regretted such an alternative organization did not exist during their formative years. As trustee, Vernon L. Strickland III administered the founding of Delta Lambda Phi National Social Fraternity, creating its crest, selecting its mascot and designing its rituals. In April 1987 Strickland initiated 24 men into the fraternity’s Alpha chapter. Delta Lambda Phi was born!”
Today, that little fraternity has grown to 26 chapters, 13 colonies (including one in Canada) and several interest groups at various campuses. One of the group’s most active and committed chapters is the San Diego branch, Alpha Delta, which operates at several local community colleges as well as the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and San Diego State University (SDSU). Delta Lambda Phi will be something of a surprise to people whose idea of fraternity life was shaped by the movie Animal House; they don’t do all-male drunken parties — in fact, they’re not allowed to serve alcohol at their official events at all — and it has policies in place to discourage people from hanging out just to pick up other guys. To hear its local participants describe it, it’s mostly a networking and social-service organization, though the guys also do events for good, clean fun. Because Delta Lambda Phi is only 22 years old, it doesn’t have the extensive alumni network of older, more established fraternities — but they’re hoping that will come with time.
Zenger’s ran into the men of Delta Lambda Phi at the end of the Pride parade, where they fielded a float. Three of them agreed to do an interview for the magazine. Kevin Kao is a recent UCSD graduate who’s continuing studies at Mesa junior college. At UCSD he started out studying ecology but now is involved with art. He’s the current outreach director for the fraternity in San Diego, and after a bit of hemming and hawing he agreed to allow us to publish his phone number. Ezra Evangelista, whom Kao replaced as outreach director, is also a recent UCSD graduate; he studied mathematics and economics. Arthur Huang, the youngest of the three, is currently attending UCSD and majoring in theatre; he’s also got a pending application to the school’s economics program. We discussed what drew them to the fraternity, how it was different from what they expected, and what they hope to get out of it not only now but throughout their lives. We also talked about how young Queer people see issues of sexuality and activism differently from community veterans.
Zenger’s: Can you tell me a little about how you got interested in Delta Lambda Phi, and what made you join a so-called “Gay fraternity”?
Ezra Evangelista: Actually, one of the members of Delta Lambda Phi had approached me at some time. I was a transfer student at UCSD, and I was just looking to meet some new people so I could have a better network in San Diego, Juan Vasquez, whom I met at the UCSD LGBT student group, invited me to go to rush. At the time I was really busy. I didn’t want to be involved with any kinds of groups. I just wanted to meet people.
He said, “Oh, if you want to go, just to meet some people, and you don’t want to commit to anything, you can.” I went there. I loved every single person there that I met. Everyone just had a great personality, and the events were great also. Since then I just got active, and I fit it into my life. I’ve definitely reaped many, many benefits out of it.
Arthur Huang: For me, when I first came to college, I had no idea the frat existed. But some of my friends from high school ended up pledging the frat. At first I thought that was a really stupid idea, because from high school I had a very negative image of frats, like it was all about partying and hazing, and people being horrible to each other and that stuff. So I thought they were really stupid for pledging.
But then I spent one and one-half quarters hanging out with them, because they’re my friends, and I got to know some of the frat people and thought they were actually nice people. So I started rushing spring quarter with Ezra, We’re a frat with a no-alcohol policy and no-hazing policy, and we actually hold to it. I’ve stayed with the frat, and I’ve loved them so much.
Kevin Kao: I’m actually a UCSD alumnus too. My first four years were pretty dull. I knew about the fraternity, because I was dating one of the brothers for a long time, but it never crossed my mind that I should actually join. Nobody ever approached me about joining. There seems to be some taboo about not having a relationship with a brother per se. But after I graduated, I was at a point in my life where I felt it was time to do something more active, both on a personal level and on a community level, I guess. So naturally I turned to the fraternity. I’m actually the newest in terms of membership.
Evangelista: For me, when Huang first introduced me to it, I didn’t want to join it. I didn’t want to be part of anything that big. But going to these events and meeting these people, and them just telling me what they did, gave me a sense of ownership and pride of being part of something that big that went out and helped the community, that went out and was there for each other with rides, or in times of need.
It’s different from any other group. Other groups, you see them — you don’t have to go through a process to get there. You just kind of go in when you want to, leave when you want to. You can feel tied to them in some ways because of the people in them, but you really don’t invest anything real in them. The process of a fraternity, where you have to go through rush, you have to pledge to it, all of us know exactly what it is that each of us went through, is different. A lot of us went through the same experiences, and for some of us it’s different, but you can always find someone who can help you out and grow.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve heard from a lot of young people is that people are now coming out as Gay or Bisexual at a much younger age than previously happened. When did you guys come out, and what made you aware of your sexuality?
Kao: I guess I’ll go first, because it goes hand-in-hand with why I joined the fraternity too. I didn’t come out until my sophomore or junior year in college. It was like a self-realization. I’d always known; I just never really acted on it. It wasn’t until my first relationship than I realized, “Hey, there’s more to the world than trying to hide it.”
Huang: For me, I’d been having inklings about it since middle school, but I didn’t acknowledge it to myself until sophomore year in high school. The only reason I came out then was because my best friend in high school just happened to be Gay, and he came out first. So I said, “Actually, I’m Gay too.” In coming out that early, we were like a really, really small minority at our school.
Even though I knew I was Gay, I didn’t have like a Gay base other than my friend. It was just us two until we came here to college. I had not had any Gay friends other than him. In college I felt, “I kind of want to meet more of the Gay people.” And the fraternity happened.
Evangelista: I had known at a young age. I was searching online for something and some Gay things came up, and I realized that I took a liking to them a lot quicker than I should have at the time. I went through trying to realize what exactly that was, and exploring my sexuality in that way. But I never really told anyone until my junior year in high school, and that’s also when I had my first boyfriend. Then it was really easy to say, “O.K. I’m Gay, I have a boyfriend, let’s go.” I came out really quickly.
Zenger’s: Another thing I’ve heard is that younger people are much less likely than those of our generation to feel they have to make a hard-and-fast choice between being Gay or being straight; that bisexuality, or even not defining yourself at all, is, I’ve been told, much more an option for people your age. Is that true?
Kao: I think it depends on the person, really. For me I think it just came naturally. I never had an affinity towards women per se. But I have friends who are Bisexual. They’ve done both, and it really does depend on the person.
Huang: I think so, too. For me I never really had a doubt, but I also have friends who consider themselves gender-fluid, or they say, “I’m just open to all possibilities.” That’s perfectly fine.
Evangelista: But I think that with our coming generation, especially with all these new things coming up today — I mean, Gay marriage was never really an option before until just recently. Younger people are growing up in a world where things are becoming a little more accepted. I think that once we’ve broken the taboo against being Gay, it’s easier for us to break other taboos, such as not having such a binary idea of sexuality: having more of an open view of everything, whether sexual or educational or social.
Zenger’s: Nothing to do with the fraternity, but do you think you will live to see the day when same-sex marriage will be accepted throughout the United States?
Huang: Oh, yes. I firmly believe that it will happen. We will get there.
Kao: Older people will die.
Huang: Was it, like, 20 years ago that it was a really large margin?
Kao: It was a really large margin, but now it’s closing fast.
Huang: Proposition 8, even though it passed, was closer, so I have hope. Another 20 years.
Kao: Twenty — I think it will take less than that.
Evangelista: I think it will be 20 or more. I’m a little more conservative on that one.
Huang: I do think TV really helps, though, with shows like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. If kids grow up watching those shows, in their minds they wouldn’t see Gay as something weird or different. It would be in their lives.
Evangelista: I don’t like Queer Eye, because I think it’s stupid.
Zenger’s: I noticed the mission statement of Delta Lambda Phi defines itself as for “Gay, Bisexual and Progressive” students. What does “progressive” mean in that context, and do your chapters have any?
Evangelista: We’ve had “progressives” in the past. Basically, our definition of “progressive” is someone who doesn’t consider himself Gay or Bisexual — it could mean straight, it could mean anything — but someone who definitely believes in our mission statement and in the full equality of everyone.
Kao: Do we have any “progressives” right now?
Evangelista: As far as the chapters in the nation, I don’t believe there is. We had one last year. And once a brother, always a brother.
Zenger’s: Our generation of Queer people has had a great deal of difficulty accepting the idea that sexual orientation can change; that just as you can live a straight life for a couple of decades and then come out as Gay, so you could at least conceivably lead a Gay life for a couple of decades and then come out as “straight.” People like that get dissed as “traitors,” and then the radical Right comes and says, “You see? See? People can change. It’ s not inborn. It’s not determined. It’s not this, that or the other. You can change, and therefore you should.”
Do you think those kinds of tensions are going to dissipate as we old fogies die and your generation and those to come take over; that it’s going to be more accepted to move back and forth, and the Gay-to-straight transformation will be as accepted as the straight-to-Gay one in our community?
Huang: I think it will, actually. With the coming generations, as people become used to the idea of “Gay” as something natural, I don’t see why not. Right now I think people see the whole Gay-to-straight thing as a betrayal because it seems like the only reason you would go from Gay to straight is you’re just caving in under the pressures, like you can’t handle it anymore. Straight-to-Gay is accepted, because you’re admitting that you’re a minority. But as being Gay becomes more accepted in our society, I don’t see why people can’t go either way.
Kao: There’s also that whole idea of sexuality being a “choice” at some point. The whole Gay-to-straight thing seems to reinforce the idea that it is a choice. I think it’s not so much a choice as people are just born fluidly, attracted to both sexes; or being mostly straight. I don’t think anybody is 100 percent straight or 100 percent Gay. Barring a certain percentage, I think it just depends on your mood.
Evangelista: I strongly agree with Kevin on that one, because I think that sexuality is fluid, for the most part. I consider myself Gay because for the most part I like men, but I’ve really cared about women in the past also. I’ve been attracted to women in the past. That doesn’t make me completely straight, but it doesn’t make me completely Gay either.
Kao: But the majority [of your friends] are men.
Zenger’s: What exactly does Delta Lambda Phi do? You’ve already mentioned that you have a no-alcohol policy, so the idea that you guys are just doing drunken frat parties like every other frat, but without inviting women, is wrong.
Evangelista: We do have women at some of our parties!
Kao: They’re welcome always.
Evangelista: Everyone is welcome to party with the Lambda men.
Kao: Yes, party with the Lambda men.
Evangelista: For two years I was actually the vice-president of outreach. I do a lot of events with Delta Lambda Phi, and I’m trying to do recruitment. I had to explain this to new recruits. Delta Lambda Phi does a lot of different things. First and foremost, though, it’s a social group. It’s a safe place to gather as individuals, express ourselves in the way that we choose to, and just have a lot of fun. My closest friends are those I’ve met in my time with the fraternity.
Aside from that, though, we do community service. One of the main things we do right now is with Family Health Centers, a program there called “In the Mix,” doing HIV prevention and outreach. We’ve helped out Mama’s Kitchen. We’ve done beach clean-ups. We do fundraising through car washes and other things like that. Also, with the networks we actually get through doing all these works, we’ve actually been invited to different events. We’ve done Pride, of course, and that’s where we met you.
Huang: It’s really great just for networking in general. We have our twice-a-year Western convention, where all the chapters of the West Coast get together at a designated area, so you get to meet people all along the West Coast and you build friendships and start networking. We’ve had brothers from up North call one of us up and say, “Hey, can we stay the night” And we would say, “Yeah, sure, come on over.” Then we have the national convention, where once a year all the chapters get together at one place.
Evangelista: Along with that one, there’ve been times where I’ve gone on trips up the West Coast, and we’ve stayed with brothers. I also visited Chicago one time, and I was able to hang out with some of the brothers from there. Our networks are limitless in that sense. You can definitely build more bonds, not only in San Diego but all over.
Kao: We actually have a new chapter in Canada. I think, above all, we offer the Greek fraternity life to Gay, Progressive and Bisexual men. I find that when you’re Gay and you want to be in a fraternity, if you truly want to build a bond of brotherhood, it can be difficult, especially when your straight brothers are homophobic or uncomfortable with it. So we really offer an open and safe environment for people who want to share that ideal of brotherhood with men who will fully accept them without any repercussions at all.
Evangelista: In the cases where we’ve had progressives who’ve pledged or become brothers, they’ve joined for that reason: because we were open, and also that it wasn’t just a drunk-fest. It was having a good time with brothers doing just everyday things: going to the beach, going to the park, museum trips, road trips, barbecues, that sort of thing.
Huang: That’s not to say that we don’t drink! We’re just not allowed to drink when we’re doing fraternity stuff.
Kao: It seems weird, because I think that we have a lot of other inhibiting factors written into our policies.
Evangelista: But even though we’re inhibited in that way, we still maintain the same level of fun. And even more. There have also been brothers who joined because they wanted to get active in the community, because they were just coming out. In that sense the support group has really helped them become comfortable with themselves and with being Gay or Bisexual or anything related to that.
Zenger’s: You mentioned that the group discourages members from having relationships with other members. That’s an interesting dynamic in that you wouldn’t have that problem of the members falling in love with each other in a straight fraternity. How do you handle that, and what kinds of problems does it create?
Huang: Well, we have a rule: HOP, “Hands-Off Policy,” which is to say that any of the rushes or pledges can’t be in a relationship with any of the other brothers or alumni, unless it started before you started rushing or pledging you’re a brother, you could like be free to date among brothers, among alumni, we don’t care. But in those two weeks of rush and 10 weeks of pledging, you can’t have anything beyond fraternal between you guys. That is to protect the rushes and pledges, because we don’t want any of the brothers to be able to use relationships as emotional blackmail or anything like that. That’s just a whole lot of trouble.
Evangelista: Obviously, in a completely [straight] male fraternity that’s not going to be a problem. But there are co-ed fraternities out there, and they have similar rules that govern that, where during their pledge period they’re not supposed to be dating other brothers or sisters.
Kao: I think it’s natural, when you’re meeting all these new guys, to have some sort of interest, especially when you’re Gay. That’s why the rule is there, to stop that from happening. Generally, when you get to know each brother, you don’t want to be in a relationship with them, because you get so close, it would be like dating your brother.
Evangelista: It really would. After 10 weeks the bond is really, really strong, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love every person that has pledged after me. I love every brother who has been there before me. And I won’t date any of them.
Kao: That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. I mean, there are instances where brothers have fallen in love and gotten married.
Evangelista: In fact, two of my best friends just got together.
Huang: We think if you can’t even handle waiting 10 weeks before actually being with each other, your relationship really is not meant to be.
Zenger’s: I’ve noticed that Delta Lambda Phi has been in existence nationwide for 22 years. Do you see the organization growing and providing support and networking to its members throughout life, as other fraternities have a reputation for doing?
Evangelista: It’s still relatively young, compared to all the other ones, but they’re trying to do as many things to make it a bit more competitive to other fraternities, adding more of an alumni network. I definitely think that with that kind of structure, we will get to a point where we’ll have a huge network and really help our brothers that way.
Kao: It’s interesting that you should mention that. I met with some alumni yesterday, and they were telling me how really interested they were in helping us out. I feel like, across the nation, if you combine us and the alumni together, they’ve had really good experiences too.
Zenger’s: I noticed that the last national convention was held last month [July 2009] in San Francisco. Did any of you go?
Kao: I went. I really liked it. It was life-changing, I’d say. It’s one thing to say you went to nationals, but when you’re there you feel all the people who are dedicated to each chapter. It’s really moving to see that, because all the dedicated people are there. You don’t get the slackers — all chapters have those — but you get the people who are in leadership positions, and they really care about the fraternity and really want to do something. All this great potential in our fraternity. You can really feel the energy, to know that there are all those people there who care about it as passionately as you do.
Zenger’s: So where do you think all of this is going? How much time do you have left in college, and how much do you plan to be involved during it?
Kao: For me, probably about a year. I’ll see how things go in terms of my school, but I would definitely like to continue as much as possible in the time I have left.
Huang: I think I’m in school for another year also, so I’m just going to see what I can do to help out, and hopefully bring along another generation of people who can carry this on.
Kao: One of our challenges right now is finding dedicated people for the next generation who’ll carry the torch.
Evangelista: I just graduated. As an active brother, I was involved for 2 1/2 years, so I’m an old man now. But I still want to help out in the field as much as I can. I’m interested in all of the events that they’re telling you about. It’s weird being outside where you’re not helping out from a prime place, but anywhere I can offer my support.
Kao: And I will always appreciate any help that comes to us that way.
Contact Information for Delta Lambda Phi/Alpha Delta Chapter
Delta Lambda Phi
Alpha Delta chapter
P.O. Box 3520
San Diego, CA 92163
For Rush information, contact our V.P. of Outreach, Kevin Kao, at (714) 261-0778.