Tasnim Elboute

Alina Yaman ’17 still remembers walking up the steps of Sigma Nu one night during their freshman year. It was their first time at a frat party at Yale. However, their story diverged from the typical freshman experience when a brother at the door wouldn’t let Yaman — who describes themself as “not feminine-presenting” — enter the party even while others flowed in. Yaman was only able to gain entrance after informing brothers at the door that their own brother was on the soccer team, along with many members of Sig Nu. Yaman left the fraternity soon after getting inside.

It wasn’t the only time. Yaman, who identifies as genderqueer and bisexual and uses “they” pronouns, encountered the same situation at Zeta Psi two weekends ago. That night, they were denied entrance and told it was an invite-only party; meanwhile, brothers were letting in streams of “girls with long hair.”

“[It was] degrading and humiliating,” they said. “I don’t want someone to look at me, say ‘Oh, you don’t look like someone I would want to hook up with, so I’m not going to let you in,’ and then try my hardest to get in. It’s stupid, and what’s the point?”

Through the Looking Glass

In the past few years, issues surrounding sexual misconduct have brought national attention to fraternities at Yale. Some members of the LGBTQ community say treatment of queer students should also be in the limelight. For many, the single-gender nature of Greek-life institutions indicates that queerness does not have a place in the community. They see Greek life as enforcing already rigid gender norms.

Max Goldberg ’17, leader of the YCC task force on LGBTQ Resources and an LGBTQ peer liaison, said that on an ideological level it can be hard for queer and trans people to be involved with Greek life because their identities often defy gender norms. He noted that these differences can lead to conflict, as they inherently contradict the idea of heterosexual brotherhood that underscores fraternity life.

Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17, coordinator of the LGBTQ Cooperative, said some queer women feel that other queer women attach a stigma to Greek life. She noted that she sees a lot of potential for sororities to be powerful groups of women; however, she feels unable to fit in because of the some of the traditionally feminine aspects of sorority life, such as wearing dresses and make-up.

“People come in with the assumption that sororities are about meeting boys. Being a queer woman is so heavily associated with being a feminist and radical,” she said. “There’s this idea that feminism and Greek life are incompatible.”

In addition to the problems posed by pressure to conform to gender norms, both queer and straight students voiced concerns about the heteronormativity of Greek life, especially with regard to formals and mixers, which are typically held between one all-male and one all-female group. The underlying assumption of heterosexuality can make members who are not straight feel excluded from one of the core activities of Greek life.

While most queer students interviewed have had overall positive experiences with Greek life, many of its features make the experience distinct for a queer student. Gabriela*, a queer woman who wished to keep her name and sorority anonymous for personal privacy, noted that in an organization that is predominantly straight it is easy to feel like an outsider.

“No matter how tolerant you are, frats are still heteronormative institutions,” Jacob Woocher ’16, a former fraternity member, said. “I don’t know how to get around that.”

Queer members of fraternities noted that media depictions of Greek life further the perception that being straight is a requisite for participation in Greek life. Recent media reports, keen to highlight problematic heterosexual dynamics, have focused on the sexist culture of fraternity men, but have paid little attention to queer identities within these groups.

Luc Ryan-Schreiber ’17, a gay member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, said he “thought he hated frats” while in high school, but that the realities of frat life at Yale confounded his expectations and contradicted his initial fears.

Sigma Phi Epsilon member Will McGrew ’18 added that he initially had no intention of rushing, as he takes issue with single-gender institutions, but that he found Sig Ep to be especially respectful to people of all genders.

There’s no Place Like Home

While many assume that Greek life is an exclusively straight space, many queer students at Yale have found it to be a welcoming home.

That being said, it is a home that poses substantive issues for its queer members.

“It’s a very hetero space and the assumption is that you’re straight always,” Ryan-Schreiber said.

Other queer students involved in Greek life shared this ambivalent view, noting that they joined the organizations to find a social community of shared interests but did not expect to forge queer relationships.

Sophie Freeman ’18, a queer member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said she was initially hesitant about broaching her sexuality with the group, although that was not a reflection of Theta’s inclusiveness but rather of her own coming-out process.

Ryan-Schreiber agreed, noting that he feels SAE is an inclusive space and has not experience direct homophobia. Still, he noted that the lack of openly gay members sometimes makes it difficult to express their desires for the organization. He estimated there are only around four openly queer members of SAE.

While both found the assumption of heterosexuality at times tiresome, they insisted that it isn’t restrictive. Ryan-Schreiber said he has brought male dates to mixers, and Freeman said she felt very welcome bringing her girlfriend to a Theta formal.

Despite a general attitude of inclusion, some members pointed to certain subtle displays of homophobia that still persist within fraternities.

McGrew says he does not have vivid tales to tell because the general culture precludes blatant displays of homophobia. Still, he said that homophobia can manifest itself in more “tactful” ways. For example, he noted that at parties, a straight man might address only the women in a given group, ignoring the queer men.

A High Street fraternity member, who wished to remain anonymous because he felt uncomfortable speaking negatively about his fraternity, said that open slurs are uncommon. Instead, he said, homophobia is veiled in certain comments. For example, if a crowd at a party included many gays or other minorities, a brother might say, “Wow, this sucks,” and not explicitly, “I wish there were others,” referring to white, straight students.

He added that there is a “thinly veiled desire” among fraternity brothers to hang out with people who share a “rich, white, straight culture.” He alluded to a High Street versus non-High Street divide amongst frats, and believes active homophobia to be more present in non-High Street frats. Those frats are seen as more traditionally masculine and conservative, and while members may be tolerant of a queer population at Yale, they do not like the idea of their “bros” being gay.

Goldberg agreed, adding that Delta Kappa Epsilon or Zeta, which are affiliated with athletic teams, can be more problematic as teams tend to emphasize and police masculinity.

Presidents of DKE and Zeta did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Alex Borsa ’16, former coordinator of the LGBTQ Cooperative, though gay members are present in certain Yale fraternities, they tend to be “masculine gay guys or gay men who can pass for straight.” He said that the type of queer student represented in Greek life is only a small subset of the queer population on campus.

Sorority members were quick to distance their organizations from fraternities, which they see as less focused on tolerance and inclusion.

Those interviewed added that it is often more socially acceptable for women to be sexually fluid without being immediately labeled, while men are often seen as either gay or straight. According to Goldberg, the bar is much lower for men to be labeled as gay in a frat than women as queer in a sorority; he noted that fraternities are more able to identify specific queer members than sororities.

Queer women in sororities noted that they feel little pressure to divulge information about their sex lives. Gabriela explained that in her understanding, open conversations about hookups were prevalent in fraternity chapter meetings, whereas in a sorority meeting one would not be expected to reveal such information.

While they are not unhappy with their positions in the Greek life scene, there was a general consensus amongst queer students interviewed that fraternities and sororities can create a better dialogue around LGBTQ inclusion.

Gabriela said she wished her sorority openly discussed queerness, rather than leaving it as an “unnamed part of life.” She added that the fault lies with both straight and queer members, as straight members tend to focus on interaction with male groups, while queer members do not look to Greek life to provide a romantic outlet and thus do not broach the issue.

Freeman said sororities could take a more proactive role in recruiting diversely, something she feels they are waiting to be asked to do.

Students interviewed advocated for greater discussion within the community about how to make spaces more queer-friendly. Noting the success of recent discussions about sexual assault in fraternities, they hope to expand such conversations to include institutional receptivity to the queer community.

“If [queer acceptance] were promoted in any way, it would become a norm,” McGrew said. “We just aren’t recognizing there’s a problem at all.”

The Other Side of the Fence

Nonetheless, queer students praised certain organizations on campus for providing a more inclusive atmosphere than others.

For example, Gabriela noted that Sig Ep is known for having greater queer visibility than other fraternities. She believes that Sig Ep has a better reputation than certain sororities with regards to diversity of members’ sexual orientation.

Sig Ep President Amin Mirzadegan ’17 said the organization’s diversity in sexuality results from a commitment to overall inclusiveness and its efforts to pull members from different areas of campus. He added that Sig Ep still has room for improvement and can do more to support its queer members.

A notable substitute to the gendered Greek organizations is Fence Club, a social club with a house on High Street. Fence functions similarly to a fraternity, with open parties, a rush process and an off-campus space, but it is co-ed. Perhaps because of this, Fence is known for its high proportion of openly queer individuals.

Fence President Eric Nelson ’16, who identifies as gay, said as a co-ed group, Fence does not have a hyper-masculine or feminine component, and so people of all creeds can fit in. He noted that a man choosing to join a co-ed frat rather than normal frat shows he is comfortable bending traditional notions of Greek life. Once a group already has that ideology, having queer members doesn’t alter the dynamic.

“We have more queer representation now then when I joined, but Fence doesn’t feel any gayer,” he said. “The culture has always been open and accepting and free.”

According to Emily*, a queer junior in Fence, the co-ed nature of the group, in conjunction with fact it rarely does mixers, creates an atmosphere with less focus on sex and romance.

“Unlike other spaces it’s just a group of friends,” she said. “It’s not just another gendered group.”

Out of the Closet, Onto the Field

Because athletic teams and Greek life often overlap, the lack of openly queer members in fraternities and sororities can be traced to the disproportionately straight make-up of teams on campus. Many assumed Princeton football player Mason Darrow to be the only openly gay D-I player in the country when he came out last month.

“This is really unfamiliar territory, because there aren’t many openly out athletes, and you hear about them very much through rumor. Because of that, it puts a lot of weight onto individuals for feeling out their own environments,” said Donovan*, a gay junior on the varsity swim team.

He said that he and another friend of his were only aware of a half-dozen queer athletes.

Ryan-Schreiber echoed his sentiments, saying that he believes that Yale hasn’t hit a critical mass of out queer athletes.

“I can only think of seven of literally hundreds,” he said. “That makes it hard because if you have seven, two are seniors, then the next year, you’re down to five because the new freshmen may not be out.”

Yaman said that they believe the insular nature of varsity athletics means that athletes aren’t exposed to as many diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. Yaman and Ryan-Schreiber agree that part of what helps students come into their identities at Yale is meeting different people and having diverse experiences.

“That happens less with athletes because they get closed into their groups and don’t have much time to spend with people outside of their scene.”

Stefan Paul Palios ’14, a queer athlete on the track and field team, echoed their sentiments, saying that at Yale, the team is its own world that can sometimes lead to a physical separation from suitemates, friends and professors.

Different teams have different attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity. However, a majority of athletes interviewed referred to their teammates as close friends and praised them for their efforts to shape inclusive environments.

Isaac Amend, a transgender athlete currently on the Yale Men’s Rugby Team, said that before he transitioned, he had a negative experience on the women’s cross country team because his identity made it hard for him to fit in with other team members.

“However, the Yale Men’s Rugby was totally accepting of my transgender identity — the president, Louis Metcalfe ’16, personally invited me to coffee and explicitly expressed pride at the fact that he was playing alongside a transgender man,” he said. “Times are changing; I feel like I’m watching historic change unfold day by day.”

Donovan said that he had always had a close relationship with his teammates. He told WKND that many of his negative experiences with homophobia were mitigated by the fact that his teammates stood up for him and called out others, even others on the team, that insulted him.

Katie Chockley ’14, former head of the student organization Athletes and Allies and a former member of both the varsity track and cross country teams, likewise lauded the efforts of her fellow runners, saying that her friends on the team had done everything they could to make her feel a part of the team. Chockley came out by revealing that she was bringing a girl to Freshman Screw and described the experience as relatively painless.

“I was so nervous the first time I took a group shower with the team because I was worried people were going to think I was checking them out. But while we were doing that, one of my teammates turned to me and asked me if I’d had any good hookups lately. And that totally put me at ease. What that told me was, ‘You’re gay, but I’m cool with that aspect about you’” she said.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Despite the affection that most athletes felt towards their team members, many stated that they had endured alienating experiences because of their sexuality.

Chockley said that during Spring Fling of her freshman year, a group of male juniors and seniors gathered around her while she was making out with another girl and started pointing and laughing at them.

“It could’ve been because of freshman PDA, or it could have been because I was with a girl, but that was super uncomfortable to say the least,” she said. “There are major power dynamics involved with a group of men laughing at two lesbian girls, even if all of them think gay marriage is a good thing.”

Palios mentioned an incident during which one of his teammates shouted a homophobic slur at him in a locker room.

“What really crushed me was that my team did nothing, and when I looked at them later, they said ‘It’s between you and him, and we’re not going to get involved,’” he said. “It made me feel like absolute shit.”

Most queer athletes interviewed said that they believed explicit displays of homophobia and non-acceptance to be rare. Many talked about the prevalence of homophobic language in athletic spaces and about feeling left out when their teammates talked about their romantic lives.

Palios said that he was particularly bothered when his teammates treated homosexuality as a joke. “There were constant wisecracks about anal sex, liking dick and being obsessed with their body.”

Several athletes expressed disappointment with the methods by which their coaches had responded to displays of queerness.

Ryan-Schreiber said that his freshman year rugby coach had been one of the most homophobic people he had encountered at Yale.

“We were in the car coming back from practice, and he was going on about these fags that were messing with his backyard, and every other word was ‘fag.’ The whole thing was absurd. It was almost of a caricature of a coach from the 1970s.”

Palios said that he was upset by the method by which coaches had dealt with homophobia on the team.

“Instead of saying, ‘team, this is what we’re doing,’ they spoke to individuals,” he said. “It didn’t help to create a whole team culture of acceptance.”

Yaman advocated educational programs for coaches that would help them understand the experiences of and problems faced by queer athletes.

Allies for Athletes

Athletes and Allies, a club for queer athletes, originally began in 2009 as an annual event organized by the Director of Yale’s new Office of LGBTQ Resources Maria Trumpler GRD ’92.

“It didn’t start out as much. The first time it happened, it was basically just a single gay varsity athlete and Maria Trumpler sitting there and eating pizza,” said Chockley.

Chockley rebooted Athletes and Allies after the organization stopped meeting during her sophomore year. By her estimate, a mix of about 20 club and varsity athletes attended. Following the meeting, those assembled decided to transform the gathering into a legitimate club that would meet more regularly and host additional events.

During the spring of 2012, Athletes and Allies organized an ally campaign that encouraged more inclusive behavior. During the campaign, 246 athletes signed pledges not to use derogatory and otherwise homophobic language and to call out others around them for doing so.

“What was really interesting about that, was this one guy on the men’s baseball team came up to me the next year and told me that he and his teammates started out by treating the whole thing as a joke, like, yelling out ‘Be an ally!’ whenever anybody said the word ‘faggot’ or used the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way,” said Chockley. “But over time somehow, it actually turned into them literally policing each other about homophobic language.”

Chockley said that she believed that this method was a less confrontational way of correcting behavior.

“One of the things is that if you start policing language, people start getting defensive because it feels as if you’re saying that they’re bad people for speaking a certain way,” she said. “No one likes policing their friends, so if you make a game out of it, the stakes are a lot lower.”

Despite the role the organization has played since its establishment, several queer athletes have expressed hesitations about becoming involved.

Donovan said that he has always been reluctant to attend meetings.

“It’s obviously a very individual decision, but there are a lot of people who are freshmen who don’t want to go to a place that’ll automatically out them,” he said. “For other people it’s a good thing. For me it was a little too much.”

Ryan-Schreiber believes that there should be a more systematic way for athletes to come out to their team members. He advocated internal resources within the athletics department and an organized support system through which athletes could reach out and talk to someone.

“As a freshman you have resources,” he said. “There’s a LGBTQ resource center with PLs, but the issues that face athletes are very different than the ones faced by anyone else at Yale.”

He added that freshmen athletes should get emails from their teams telling them about available resources for queer athletes. He also recommended that they be provided with the contact information of a queer upperclassman who could advise them during the process.

“We need to let them know that their team is actually going to be fine with this,” he said. “It’s hard to know that because the atmosphere isn’t conducive to finding that out. I think I can make that statement for most spaces at Yale. There will be a few people that may be uncomfortable but the majority of people will be fine.”

***

Both queer athletes and queer students involved in Greek life hope to see increased dialogue surrounding the issues they face in their respective communities.

Gabriela and Freeman said a greater number of conversations about diversity during the rush process would highlight issues that queer members face.

Students interviewed said that the creation of alternate spaces — such as queer organizations that functioned similarly to fraternities — would be unnecessary. Rather, all said that the emphasis should be on creating change within existing institutions.

For Goldberg, problems in the athletic and Greek communities are of a social nature rather than just problems of resources. He believes that university policy will have little impact on Greek-life culture. The central component of engendering change, he said, would be through a shift in social norms brought about by the members themselves.

Yaman agreed, adding that queer members need not be vocal about their sexuality, but should feel able to do so if they so desire.

“All that’s required is a small cultural change,” Yaman said.

*Name changed to protect privacy

Contact Noah Kim at noah.kim@yale.edu and Rohan Naik at rohan.naik@yale.edu .