Zihao Lin

On a Friday in mid-January, I walked up High Street for SigEp’s Open House rush event. [1] I was thrilled by the thought of going it alone, but when I came face to face with the brown brick building, I envisaged a tapestry of unpleasantness: football players dragging women in sequined skirts up stairs, punch laced with Dubra, baseball caps with racist puns, beer bellies, burps, and men with serious difficulties processing my existence due to my height and lack of overt sex appeal. The house vibrated and thumped, but the red double front doors were locked. I tracked the sound to the left side of the house, where a few concrete stairs led to a protruding olive green portal that looked like an above-ground septic tank slapped onto the facade as an afterthought. Two hunky, smiling men entered a PIN on the keypad above the doorknob and ushered me down into their kingdom.

****

Well past my bedtime two days earlier, I had scurried into the corridor of the Yale Women’s Center in my pajamas. My friends and I entered a carpeted room where fluorescent light rained down on mismatched chairs and couches — teal leather, maroon suede, navy blue velvet — that had been arranged into an octagon, presumably to facilitate conversation. By the time we arrived at the Engender information session, the ugly furniture was already populated, so we stood in the back, slumped against the bright orange walls.

A group of students stood up opposite us and introduced themselves. I rolled my eyes as a nervous girl named Jess began listing off the dangers of single-gender spaces. I had been in college for five months at this point and had sworn that if I heard the word “space” one more time, I would throw myself out a window. But the Women’s Center meeting room was on the ground level, so I took a deep breath and tried to keep listening. Jess outlined the battle plan as I brushed some snow off my shoe.

“So as you know, we’re the student activist group Engender, and we are advocating for the co-education of fraternities. One frat, Sigma Phi Epsilon, has agreed to let women rush, so, we’ll rush SigEp, apply formally for a spot, get denied admission, then sue the Yale SigEp chapter for gender-based discrimination, go to court, and hopefully, male-only spaces will be ruled unconstitutional.” She explained that while fraternities cannot admit women,[2] nothing in their bylaws explicitly prohibits women from trying out.

“We will attend every rush event — pregames, parties, and one-on-one meals — to call the boys out for their exclusion of women,” explained Jeff, a double agent who was a member of both Engender and SigEp.

I was miffed. The only way SigEp could conceivably offer a bid (which is like a PBR-infused letter of admission) to a woman would be if the frat disaffiliated from the Sigma Phi Epsilon national chapter, and choosing to so involved losing the frat house, insurance, and legal support. Given the unlikeliness of this outcome, it seemed suspicious to rush under the auspices of co-education. And as seductive as I found the notion of lawyer-ing frats out of existence, this plan struck me as misguided and mean. My attitude towards fraternities and sororities was typically merciless: I had almost chosen not to attend Yale because a full 10 percent of the student body considered “Greek Life” appealing. And yet, I found myself pitying this poor frat. SigEp was the only frat to concede that the exclusion of women from one of its central activities was unnecessary, and it was going to be thanked with a surprise lawsuit? Certainly, SigEp complied with demands for a co-ed rush in an attempt to uphold its reputation as the “woke frat,” but this gesture also attested to some openness to feminism. Engender was disregarding this openness and purporting that the only way to achieve equality was through deception.

Engender’s militant operation was impressive, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were squandering an unusual opportunity. They had been invited into the belly of the beast and had no intention of learning anything there. I didn’t need to see frat houses burn like they did; I just wanted boys to care enough about participating in an antiquated system to not want to be in one. I stood against the wall growing enraged. I was convinced only that Engender’s antagonistic, man-bashing style of feminism wouldn’t encourage a single man to think critically about sexism. I feared it would just make these boys even more resentful of women. And yet, rush seemed like a chance to see the inner workings of a system I purported to know enough about to hate. Spying on a frat could give me ammunition for smarter, more exacting criticisms. As we filed out of the room, I wondered what it would be like to rush without Engender. If I brought a non-man-hating attitude to rush, might I be able to pick up on things that Engender hadn’t and devise a better approach?

“Don’t forget to record the boys’ comments in a journal,” Kate cried after us. “Your accounts will be central to the lawsuit!”

****

I stood in SigEp’s hallway for a few moments, unsure where — and if — to put down my leather jacket. Cold wind hit my back, and a fresh batch of SigEp hopefuls pushed past me to toss their coats onto a pile growing outside the bathroom. I peered over the balcony as they jogged down the stairs into the basement, where the frat brothers were mixing drinks and playing beer pong. I followed their lead. Loud music blared through the internal speakers, causing the walls to vibrate. At the bottom of the stairs, a sea of strangers sent me into an anxious and sudden beeline for the bar in the back of the room. As I darted around swarms of people, my high school era Adidas Superstars[3] clung to a sticky substance on the floor, likely the sugar of vodka-cranberries-gone-by. I eventually made it to the bar, scored a fizzy orange mystery cocktail, and watched the party.

I recognized some Engender members from the Women’s Center, who were busy cornering baby-faced frat brothers into ideological battles. Some of the boys who had managed to escape this barrage were introducing themselves to prospective members, slapping them on the back and giving out free fist bumps. Others stood around the beer pong table, taking their turns rising onto their tippy-toes to lob small ping-pong balls into red Solo Cups. No one was embarrassingly intoxicated, no one had stepped on me, no one pounded his chest, pointed a finger in the air, or screamed his own name upon scoring in beer pong. They wore blue or white T-shirts, jeans, and Stan Smiths — almost exactly what I was wearing. The brothers looked like my friends, not a muscle-y, towering, misogynistic foreign species. I realized then that they intimidated me only because they were strangers, woven into a web of masculine secrecy, activity, and movement. Simple, jolly, carefree, handsome, and impenetrable. I sipped my drink to look busy.

I was still hovering awkwardly when I noticed Scott from my freshman seminar standing with a glob of other freshman boys, all eager to win a spot in the frat but too nervous to approach any members. I sprinted over to him and racked my brain for a way to start the conversation. It proved no challenge. He went to an elite Upper West Side Catholic boys’ school, and I went to an elite Lower East Side co-ed Quaker school. I came up with compliments about the green J. Crew sweater he wore on the first day of class, questions about his parents’ jobs, and concessions about how I “kinda loved” the non-PC comments our Shakespeare professor made, especially the day when he belabored the decline of free speech at American universities. So true! Haha! Scott basked in the glow of my attention, my insatiable curiosity about his life story, and my apparent conservatism. As I lathered him in mostly real interest, my fear about the impenetrability of the room evaporated. There was a flirtatious way to flow through it.

I found my next conversational victim: a tall, grinning Justin Bieber-haired junior named James. He leaned seductively against the white, cracking wall; I came over and leaned next to him. We talked honestly about how I disagreed with Engender’s adversarial approach but wanted to rush anyway. We looked around and laughed at the Engender women ensnaring fearful SigEp boys. James whispered to me that he liked watching the freshmen, like Scott, interact with girls at rush, almost as a way of testing them. Are they respectful? Or do they ignore the women because they think it will count against them to be friendly? James revealing the slightest semblance of humanity, let alone feminism, made me swoon. I was charmed to hear that these guys were thinking about how their incoming class would interact with women, even if it was a little twisted. Everyone here is using someone, I thought.

“Co-education would be totally sick,” James said, throwing his hands in the air, “but you know, that’s not our call.” He was referring to a crucial fact, which the brothers who claimed willingness to integrate brought up constantly throughout rush: if a Yale fraternity tried to admit women, the national organization would simply close its Yale chapter.

I spaced out for a moment as he delineated this, watching the brothers glide through the room — lean calves, dark arm hair, so at home in this underground world. I’d always envied men. I envied them for the looseness and beauty of their physicality. I envied that their outpourings of emotion were regarded as literature — serious and moving — not expected, sappy, and overwrought. I liked their poems, I liked their novels and their philosophy, I liked their films, I liked their Nobel Prizes and their Oscars, I liked their eye contact, I liked their sarcasm, I liked when they cried. I was jealous that they were the unquestioned owners of whatever traits they pleased. Of the freedom and forgiveness of the eyes that rested upon them. That we are all so used to respecting them. And here they were so coordinated with one another — like a team united by glances, kinship, and freedom.

“Ah, I better go,” James said, nodding towards a swarm of freshman suitors vying for his attention. He squeezed my hand as we parted. I grinned and spent the rest of the night floating through the room, befriending, laughing, and setting boys at ease with the grand reveal that I wasn’t a member of Engender.

****

Engender had covered many injustices, but I was most compelled by its argument about the danger of powerful men never learning to see women as friends due to having attended on all-male schools, being on sports teams, and joining fraternities. After getting along with James, my role came into clear focus. I could be the platonic woman — there neither to hook up nor to attack. And if I could, through my casual disposition, respect, and solidarity, get these men to like my company more than that of the boys who were rushing, might they wonder why they’d chosen a social world isolated from women?

****

            The Friday after the Open House, the rushees were arbitrarily split up into small groups for more intimate “shindigs,” and I was sent to Val’s suite on the top floor of Silliman College for a “pong night.” I sat on a couch next to a row of gangly boys all named Will who stared at the wall like zombies. After a few failed attempts at conversation, I moved over to the open window by the beer pong table. I surreptitiously twisted my body so the icy air from the courtyard would flow directly into my armpits, which were dripping with anxiety sweat.

Suddenly, a life-size brunette Ken Doll with a silver dog tag poking out from underneath his T-shirt was introducing himself to me. I pulled myself together. I yanked down a few loose pieces of hair to frame my face and tucked my hands into the pockets of my oversized jeans to demonstrate nonchalance. Game plan: distance myself from Engender. Many SigEp brothers later told me that they were repeatedly reminded to treat the girls with the same seriousness as the boys at every official rush event, yet a wave of relief washed over every brother to whom I proudly denounced any such affiliation.[4] Though Reid’s shoulders did slacken and his conversation topics became edgier, we clicked even before my disclosure. We discussed Grand Strategy and why I thought sororities were the worst thing to ever happen to feminism, and I asked him how beer pong worked but accidentally zoned out while he explained the rules. He did not condescend to me with the same sanitizing diplomacy as James, nor did he fear me with the cold resistance of the other boys at the event. We were just two people talking. We even fist-bumped.

Like at the Open House, I was curating my self-presentation. This was not out of the ordinary for me — in class and with friends and in front of teachers, I was always trying to balance intelligence with approachability and humor with kindness and confidence — but the particular assortment of traits I brought to rush skewed towards ones that could keep these men interested (and a little bit afraid). I wore makeup to be pretty enough to talk to, jewelry to seem feminine and cool, and loose clothes for a sense of power, masculinity, and aloofness. With the perfect balance of intensity, sarcasm, charm, attractiveness, I could be a destabilizing anomaly: neither man nor woman; neither feminist nor misogynist; neither threatening nor weak. If, through this arrangement of characteristics, I could gain the subconscious, accidental respect of men who could care less, I thought, I could achieve a kind of neutrality. A freedom for myself and credibility in their eyes. Clicking with Reid was like receiving a gold star for my curated personality. Sliding into it was easy, effortless.

****

On the last night in January, SigEp held “Date Night” at Toad’s Rainforest Room, and my friend Nick volunteered as my arm candy. Everywhere we looked, green and brown bombarded our senses. The room’s jungle green walls were bathed in a green glow from twinkly lights that were wrapped around plastic trees and taped to the ceiling. These tacky plastic palm trees sprouted from every surface: hanging from the ceiling, growing out of the floor in pots, and peeking out from behind the bar. All the brown congealed in a small, unoccupied seating area in the front of the room. Brown beach pillows decorated with brown palm leaves sat atop brown wicker chairs under a neon sign for Ambassadeur Ultra beer. Behind this campfire pit setup, the older brothers gathered by the Tiki bar on the right side of the room and ordered drinks.

The music came on. I didn’t see anyone from Engender. Anxious freshman boys in oversized preppy suits soon separated from their calm, model-esque plus-ones to schmooze with their prospective brothers. The rushees’ dates understood their obligation to make themselves look gorgeous: their appearance would prove what kind of goods each potential brother could deliver.

I downed a beer and buzzed around chatting with the SigEp members I had befriended during rush. All the boys now occupied the right half of the room by the Tiki bar, while their female dates chatted on the left side by the dance floor. I clung to the right, elated and energetic. I saw Pat and Craig, two sophomores on the squash team I’d had rush meals with, who pointed at me and yelled my name. I hugged James, who introduced me to his best friend Luca, a cartoon-esque Australian rower who talked at me about his independent study with John Gaddis for so long that I had to pretend to get a phone call. Eventually, I locked eyes with some of the dates I recognized through word-of-mouth, film classes, and tangential New York City connections. I felt obligated to say something. I approached them, and we chatted about various similarities and mutual friends — links between us that were technically real but unthinkably superficial. Inevitably, no more than five minutes into a conversation, they’d lean in and gesture their heads to the other side of the room,

“Wait, so who did you come with?”

“Haha, no one,” I’d laugh awkwardly, “But he came with me.” I pointed to Nick, who was off dazzling someone. My conversational companion would look genuinely horrified at the realization that I was not a fellow plus-one and excuse herself.

****

I had five rush meals, and my last was with Greg, a cloudy, reluctant senior in a dark hoodie. He showed up half an hour late to the Berkeley dining hall, announced that he had already eaten lunch, and plopped onto the beige cushioned chair beside me in the common room. I rolled my eyes at this burly man who wouldn’t make eye contact, and I immediately prepared to lie that I had to dart off to class. But with the sudden awareness that I had nothing to lose, I thought about what I’d really like to know about this archetypal frat brother. So I asked. Who do you feel close to? What does being close to someone mean for you? Are you friends with women? Would you ever want women in a frat?

Greg answered. He talked and talked, telling me how hard it was for him to make friends, that he only felt close to his girlfriend, and that his frat was a place where he could be surrounded by potential friends without putting himself out there. He never attended SigEp’s parties, just the brothers-only afternoons and evenings at 31 High Street. His honesty flabbergasted me, but I tried to hide my surprise. He went on to say that he knew it was wrong to oppose co-education, but he feared that the inclusion of women could change the behavior of the brothers in the TV room, smoking weed and playing FIFA. If women were there, the Jameses would flirt with them and put on a different personality. The Scotts would suggest that they keep the house cleaner. The Reids would concede that they ought to sometimes watch “The Bachelor” instead of the World Cup. How could Greg, or a boy shyer than he, ever come out of his shell? He feared, so earnestly, that his dependable route to friendship would be obstructed.

The brothers were happy to critique Greek life and scoff at its rules in my presence, but none rejected it completely. It provided too much solace. For some, that was the consistent influx of girls and parties. For others, it was the peace and rest from a world obsessed with women.

Talking to Greg clarified my dissatisfaction with Engender for the first time. Engender had never taken the time to understand the problems at the root of fraternities. They didn’t want to know people like Greg existed. I didn’t care that frats were abolished; I cared only that these boys began to think about women differently. To attempt to see women the way the world sees men. And toppling the only place where some boys felt like they could be themselves wouldn’t make its members any more generous in their view of women. It would leave them with resentment, social anxiety, and the hunger to reform what they’d lost.

****

In early February, I opened an email with the subject line “BID REQUESTS.”

“Starting today, you may submit a request for a bid to SigEp. This bid request is binding, and that is something we take very seriously. Fill out the bid request form here. You may submit your request at any time before the bid request form closes at 7pm on Wednesday (February 7th). After that point, we will deliberate, and then inform you on Friday (February 9th).”

The email linked to a Google Form that required name, phone number, residential college, and gender. “Gender: Select one: a) Man, b) Woman, c) Non-binary.”

I stared at my computer for fifteen minutes. What could they say if I clicked a)?

****

Two days later, I was working on an essay about the invisible line between lies and truth in “Don Quixote” at Claire’s Corner Copia when an unknown (954) number lit up my phone. I knew. I wasn’t Scott, who at the Open House, I’d introduced to James saying, “Give him the spot I know you want to give me.”[5] I had gotten as close to the innermost realm of boyhood as I could. I was close enough for Greg’s honesty — for him to say things to me that he would not have said to most women — but not close enough to be un-sexed in SigEp’s eyes.

“Is this Lily? It’s Alex, the SigEp rush chair.”

“Yeah, hey Alex!”

“Hey. I just wanted to tell you, regarding your bid, that the guys loved meeting you but, I’m really sorry, there’s no room for you this year.”

“Haha, Alex, it’s fine, I am well aware.”

With the early buzz of Engender’s lawsuit, the brothers became careful to avoid any language that might sound discriminatory — and therefore, realistic. I thanked him and hung up.

A conversation I’d had with Ken-Doll Reid validated the success of my dispositional cocktail. He confirmed my dream, saying that he suspected my coming across as cool was a more persuasive argument for co-education than any of Engender’s actual arguments. Hearing, though, that my accomplishment was in differentiating myself from other women, in proving myself as an anomaly, seemed selfish. But I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, my ability to blend in was exactly what I had been testing. I wanted to show them something about what women could be — platonic, chill, and masculine, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I could blend in — that I could briefly live life boyish and free and easy.

The sky had grown dark when I turned my attention back to my essay. I picked up the tattered red paperback of “Don Quixote” that I’d inhaled in two weeks over winter break — the same stretch when Engender first reached out to gauge my interest in rushing. I opened to one of the eighty pages I had bookmarked. Sentence by sentence, there was a constant, magical fusing of opposites that created irreducible conflict. I’d been finding it impossible to pick just a single passage that would illuminate the role of contradiction in the novel. For Cervantes, things are always right and wrong, true and false, or performance and reality at the same time. I settled on a passage about disguises. Dorotea, a young woman who has been dressed as a man, begins to take off her costume in the woods when a priest and barber happen upon her in this liminal state. They catch her suspended between seeming opposites — with the hair and feet of a woman, but the clothes and disposition of a man.

 

[1] All names in this piece are pseudonyms.

[2] Sigma Phi Epsilon, 2019-2020 By-laws. Article II, Section 1: “Limitation of membership to a small, selective group of men, and the exclusion of women from membership is deemed to be consistent with the purposes for which the Fraternity was founded and Article I hereof. Such limitation is further intended to foster and develop (i) family-like ties of brotherhood comparable to those existing in members’ families, (ii) members’ collegial, social and emotional development, (iii) members’ academic commitment, (iv) associational relationships, and (v) adherence to the conduct of members’ lives consistent with the principles, values, and teachings of the Ritual.”

[3] Upon arriving at college, I was told by my FroCo that I’d need a sacrificial pair of “frat shoes” — a raggedy set of shoes that one wears out to parties and does not worry about soiling. And here I was, bringing these old, dirty shoes to honor their namesake — huzzah!

[4] Women criticizing other women is very out of vogue these days. The shock of doing so is enough to win over the favor of any male partial feminist.

[5] Scott did not need my help.

A note from members of Engender in response to claims made about the organization: 

“Engender was founded in the fall of 2016 to advocate for gender equity in all educational and social institutions, starting with Greek life. Over the next two and a half years, Engender repeatedly inititated contact with Yale fraternities and many Yale administrators to discuss the possibility of gender-integrating Greek life. Those who did not ignore or deny us outright dismissed our proposal. In February 2019, three Engender members filed a class-action lawsuit against Yale and its fraternities alleging gender discrimination and detailing pervasive, systematic sexual assault all plaintiffs experienced and witnessed at Yale’s fraternities.”