The most invested conversation I’ve had on a night out in New Haven was outside the fraternity many seem to deem a symbol of everything wrong with frat culture. Sometime in the midst of November’s weakening fall, I was chatting up (or more accurately, being chatted to by) an SAE brother and his much younger actual sibling in an innocent conversation about rushing. It’s called Leo now, the younger one says, interrupting a rant on my doubtful-at-best concerns about joining a frat, least of all one my best friends at Yale refuses to even visit. We laughed about Yale’s strict living regulations and the freedom of an off-campus location. I confessed that I would’ve preferred a coed situation because I can’t stand just boys for too long. One of them gave me the number of a “brother” who’s gay so I can talk and have my fears assuaged — that seemed both odd and kind at the same moment. I cracked a joke about being a “diversity hire,” but they took me seriously and assured me I am not. In the almost-fantastical naivete that comes from the magic of freshman fall, I left the conversation enchanted that two “cool kids” took their time convincing me and resolved that, when the time comes, I will rush SAE. Sorry, I meant Leo.
I never ended up rushing any fraternity because a life-changing lecture in “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” made me an avid, agitated and loud opponent of homosocialized environments. If I was ever asked about my opinions on Greek life, boy, you’d hear me trash-talk start to finish. Straight, masculinized environments let boys slip up and solidify their mistakes, many of which are monumentally consequential to others, without realizing that those mistakes solidify into behaviors and beliefs. Do you know how many incidents of sexual assault have probably happened inside of frat houses? Do you know how many probably went unreported, covered up and never lingered upon? Why do you think there needs to be environments separating people by gender? Girls are fun too! Boys are fun too! I had only heard of Engender and had never spoken to a single member but in rightful exaltation, I would sing praises for the organization in open conversations, roll my eyes at my guy friends submitting bids and champion the cause against Greek life by the simple, effortless act of being bitchy. I gasped in baroque dramatics when girls who I thought were fun and interesting posted pictures about joining sororities. I did not cater to a lot of scattered feelings when I would call my friends “SigEp Softboys” or poke fun at whoever once wrote “Phinally Home.”
But thinking I was safe from the legacy of social auditioning if I did not venture too close to High Street was an illusion Yale hammered out of me. Auditions were going on everywhere and they were seldom only about talent. My ex-boyfriend told me about the countless rush meals he had with a cappella veterans because they had to decide if they liked the person behind the voice that got through to this round. It made much more sense why everyone in the Baker’s Dozen felt so similar and seemed to get along so happily, so enthusiastically. How come everyone I met from Red Hot and Blue shared a specific sense of humor? Why does the word induction follow every mention of an extracurricular? What is the rugby team doing at night and what the hell is initiation now? The News called it “heeling” and everyone got in, but I was at least smart enough to realize that had demand been slightly steeper, the situation could have been easily unrecognizable and still somehow as convincing to explain and believe. Junior friends felt as emotionally unmoved whenever they would talk about secret society interviews. Will I be having the same conversations with the same people, whispering about who got into what and whose friends didn’t, two years later? Is every interview and activity an unending regurgitation of the desperation from that time with the Common Application, finding the best formula to represent the best self?
In each manifestation of this social spotlight, decisions and evaluations, I grew more and more contemptuous with the culture of who fits in and who doesn’t. It was not mere exclusion that led to this frustration because I felt invited enough. This, for the first time in a career full of social interactions and their sheer absurdity, was about reason. I did not understand why boys wanted to hole up in a house littered with hedonism, wrecked by nothing holding any semblance of being important, meaningful. I was at least slightly positive that a lot of these boys did not particularly like their “brothers,” or sopranos, or sports editors or one or the other depictions of forced camaraderie. Returning to Yale in January after leaving the security of a home that I loved and a home that loved me, I was decidedly against this idea of trying out for friends and communities. A few weeks later, however, I became an official hypocrite when I started rushing Fence Club.
Let me give you a spoiler alert in an effort to save what little self-respect I can for the sake of honesty: I did not get into Fence, and that consequence is very important for what I am about to write next. I think Fence was a stunning environment complete with a lot of charming, socially intelligent and kind people. I am proud to say that I do not think that the reasons that compelled me to send the blasphemous email requesting a bid have disappeared just because I wasn’t invited to be a part of that community. But in the two weeks when I rushed Fence and surrounded myself with unreal, blasé and spontaneous mixtures of sophomores from Colorado or seniors from all over the world, I understood this desperate, consistent human condition that reimagines itself in fraternities, sororities and other equally vile insular social groups.
Before I flatter these groups, let me add that, yes, observing the process firsthand might have allowed me to understand the innocent nature behind these groups but it also gave me more reasons to disapprove. There is nothing evil in the idea of SigEp Softboys who want to be surrounded by other harmless boys who only say the word “pussy” because there isn’t a better word for it. I hang out with these boys enough to know that often, more often than not, their words are in kindness and misogyny is not their flavor. Because our world divides social interactions, the comfort of humor is often inaccessible to boys in environments with girls or most people who do not fit in a very straight narrative. I agree that this might be lessening year by year but currently, places like SigEp or Leo or that random combination of Greek letters serve as “safe spaces” for that persisting social divide. In some ways, these High Street mainstays are no different than 216 or Soggy Cigs might be for the Supreme-jacket donning hipsters.
All of the world is scary and the somehow endlessly expanding environment of the Yale undergraduate population is daunting. Everyone seems to be having more fun on the same streets you walked after the party ended early. Everyone seems to be making friends at Bass Library and everyone you have a crush on has a radio show. All your friends are going to pledge events or rush parties and everyone seems to be part of something bigger than themselves. And that idea doesn’t seem too bad? It doesn’t seem too evil that we are looking to find their accurate, life-changing connections because everything is big, everything is inexplicable and at best, we’re all in a computer simulation. At night, I would waver in and out of Fence parties and discover a world within Yale that I would have never credited it to be able to create, when I realized something. This caricature of an amazing, unexpected connection that I had found was perhaps the end goal for every unsure boy and girl who rushes with his or her friends.
And in this new knowledge, solace and closure came from the fact I didn’t get into Fence. When I saw the categories of people who didn’t get in, in my melodrama, I couldn’t help but remark what abundance of kindness had been lost in this process of trying to connect. In moments like those, I realized the times I had been made uncomfortable while rushing. When I felt I needed to defend Engender in a room full of cynical ridiculing or when often some things felt plain rude. Connection should be sought for how it brings people together, not how groups of people thrive on exclusion. I couldn’t help but realize that this was all about cliques and circles that get narrower and narrower and any infiltration will only lead to the realization that these circles are protecting nothing, hiding no secret. Fence may have been, for me, the light of hope as a coed environment in a school that would not even desegregate an a cappella group, but the way I witnessed them undercutting sincere change with meaningless cynicism pointed me to the realization that Fence was no rebellion, it was an imitation. The fight to inclusion cannot include more exclusion, and though the need and want to connect is harmless and almost beautiful, we are too reckless with it. And like all the ego-inspiring things we Yale students tell ourselves, recklessness must not do.
Contact Zulfiqar Mannan at firstname.lastname@example.org .