I’m rich and white; I went to a boarding school and I’m from New York City. I’m a survivor and I’m queer; I’m transgender and four months on testosterone therapy. And I’m a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority. I ask the question anyone with contradictory identities stumbles upon: How can I possibly hold all these truths in my hand?
On a Saturday night this month, I met members of my pledge class to walk to a mixer at 11:30 p.m. A sister and I walked into the fraternity house; we were stopped at the door. “Dude what are you doing here? This is a mixer.”
“But I’m in Theta!” I said.
Wait for it — the incredulous look. Next comes the dawn of recognition, the “you’re that one, the trans one” moment. “God, I’m so sorry, man. My bad, my bad!” The conciliatory-yet-cautious bro tap ends the interaction. Over the span of an hour, I was stopped six times. Each time a brother demanded why I was there. Each time I had to explain that I was a member of Theta. In one of the more physical encounters, a brother pushed himself into me and toward the door. I left at 12:30 a.m.
This night exposes a fundamental problem in male-oriented spaces. Consider this my amateur police report. Transgender people rarely get the chance to take the law into our own hands.
My first indictment: Fraternities view femininity as subordinate in all its forms. Women are sexual objects to fraternity members; femme men are rendered fundamentally at odds with frat culture. The possibility of trans women is not even entertained let alone talked about.
My second indictment: Men and masculine people are cast as competitors “hunting” women whose bodies they feel entitled to — and it’s more than just sexually. The moment sorority members enter a frat house a power dynamic as old as the original sin rears its ugly head.
Here are some facts relevant to the case. I joined Theta my sophomore year. At the time the world understood me as a lesbian. I knew that I was going to transition, but I also knew that I really liked many of the women during Theta’s rush rounds. So I joined. I did not like all of Theta. Many of the women were conventionally — read: white and feminine — good-looking in ways that allowed them to easily forgive the bad behavior of frat guys. Yet women in Theta motivated by the promise of a female-oriented space aligned with my sense of self as someone who had grown up identifying as a lesbian.
When I started taking testosterone, things changed drastically. My voice dropped noticeably in a three-month period. I started shaving my face. I went from getting friendly nods from queer women at the bar to gay men throwing smiles my way. And so I went from being the “friendly lesbian” to encroaching on cisgender masculinity and maleness. While frat guys had tried to kick me out before — shout out to the brother at the door of my first-ever mixer — those moments were relatively few and far between. Transitioning altered my relationship to frats permanently. I began to resemble the very person that had oppressed me for a sizeable portion of my life: a gender-conforming man.
Here is where I anticipate the defense’s case. Any of the frat guys who exchanged words with me that night would say that it was an honest mistake. That it had nothing to do with my trans identity or any systemic failure of fraternities. I think they are simultaneously right and wrong. They could not fathom my place in Theta because they could not imagine gender-nonconforming people in Greek spaces.
However, it is also true that my experience that night, and every night I have been in a frat as an out transmasculine person, is about more than transness. Those incidents are about masculinity and power, about the fraternity brothers viewing other “men” as competition in the strictly policed heterosexual and gender-conforming spaces that they have desperately carved out for themselves as the world changes around them.
I struggled with whether or not this piece needed to be written. I think it does. Frat behavior exposes norms that influence far too many world leaders. Frat behavior creates norms that, at best, halfheartedly condemn sexual assault, heteronormativity and sexism. In these spaces to which I have been granted fragile access, I have witnessed a system of power that ends up disadvantaging everyone but gender-conforming fraternity brothers.
Greek life was made for me in every single way but one. I pay money to have the entitled ability to say “No, I’m in Theta,” as I correct a cisnormative fraternity brother and confidently demand my portion of that elite space. The ability to interrupt the script comes with a steep cover charge and I know that to some it will seem like a nasty variety of assimilationist politics. Yet it is the world I was born into and so it is the world I can influence best. My Theta sisters have grown emphatic to my proud gender-nonconformity over time, changes I have never seen in fraternities. I’m not sure I ever will. While I know the verdict is “guilty” for the behavior I witnessed that night, I wonder what the punishment ought to be. “Bro”, what do you think?
Nat Wyatt is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org .