Ariel Chesler was proud of the good works his fraternity did, but he believes any “test of manhood” is a bad one.
I was saddened to learn of the death of Chun Hsien Deng, a 19 year-old student at Baruch college in Manhattan who died because of a fraternity hazing ritual. As reported by the New York Times, Deng and three other pledges of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity stayed in a rental house in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania with a larger group of fraternity members. During a hazing ritual known as the Gauntlet, the pledges were blindfolded, made to wear backpacks weighted down with sand, and were tasked with making their way across a frozen yard while trying to avoid tacklers. Deng lost consciousness after being knocked down into the frozen ground. The fraternity members then waited nearly an hour and a half without calling 911 and before they decided to bring Deng to a hospital. The next morning he was pronounced dead from severe trauma to the head.
This is but the latest example of a hazing ritual gone wrong. But I must ask whether such rituals ever go right? Even when all the participants survive their tests, there will always be more. That is the nature of masculinity, of any social construct.
While in college, I stood in a field once in a line with my fraternity brothers. We each held eggs which we were supposed to throw at our pledges, who stood in their own line across from us. As the pelting began, I held onto my egg and looked down, shuffling off to the side of the battle. I could not do it and so I tossed it in the grass. I had no desire to harm anyone or test anyone’s masculinity.
I once watched pledges blindfolded and given things to eat that they were told were goldfish, among other things. I once saw them eat a pot of noodles soaked in hot sauce. I once saw pledges wear ridiculous costumes for a week and parade around our college cafeteria.
I am glad to report that my fraternity chapter never forced anyone to consume alcohol or any other dangerous substances and never engaged in violent or extremely risky hazing rituals. However, I question any ritual that causes pain or embarrassment. I question the constant testing of masculinity by pointless tasks.
The aspects of brotherhood, of fraternity, that I was proud of were the loyal friendships, the feeling of family, and the good work we did. We took part in community events and raised money for charities. We had the best damn parties and brought people good times. We also supported each other in hard times. When my maternal grandmother died, I was whisked to the airport – no questions asked. When a brother had a medical emergency he was brought to the hospital immediately and watched over. When the Gay and Lesbian Students’ Office was vandalized, we sent a letter of support and solidarity.
It was these moments of support along with the moments of intimacy and honesty I had with certain individual fraternity members that made us men and brothers. The pledge tasks were meaningless.
There are other models for strenthening bonds between men. When I was given the opportunity to design a pledge task one year, I invited our group of pledges to my dorm room. I then egaged them in an open conversation about sexuality, nuclear family models, and feminism. This was 1997 – eons from where we are now in terms of acceptance and understanding of these issues. We all listened to each other. No one was demeaned or humiliated. No one’s life was put at risk. And, I believe we all walked away from the conversation feeling a little closer to each other.
Manhood is not something that needs to be proved. Brotherhood is and it should be proved by absolute love and acceptance. Outside of the context of actual war, proving brotherhood should certainly never require risks to one’s health or life. Sadly, in Deng’s case the members of his fraternity did not understand this to be the case.