The Food Chain

By E. Plemons

Source: Shane L. Windmeyer & Pamela W. Freeman’s Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian & Bisexual in a College Sorority

CW: homophobic slurs, mention of sexual assault

Looking back on the whole experience now, it seems surreal. None of my friends believe me, and I certainly can’t blame them. “You were in a what? You?” “Are you kidding? You’re kidding, right?” Of course, these responses come only from the few people to whom I’ve confessed my past Greek affiliation. Most of the time, it’s a detail that I conveniently leave out of conversation. We all make mistakes in our youth, right? I’ve made it to the ripe old age of 22 without any signs of permanent damage from my sorority days. I’m sure I will be able to look back at the whole affair in a few years and laugh. Right?

I didn’t go to DePauw University intending to rush. The images of Greek life that had come to mind before I’d ever set foot on DePauw’s campus in Greencastle, Ind., were ones of blond-headed girls who cared more about dates and diets than their grades and cap-headed boys who knew more pickup lines and keg prices than you could count on both hands. I spent my first two years there trying to convince myself that my first impressions had been wrong and my last two years kicking myself after learning that I’d been right all along.

Upon arriving on campus I felt sure I wouldn’t become a part of the Greek system. It was the ’90s, after all. A time of individuality and personal space. The thought of “sorority” brought to mind images of languid Georgian women daintily sweating through southern belle gowns, fanning themselves while skillfully fending off advances from Billy and Hank, the dashing fraternity men. How could I be in a sorority? I didn’t own a single pair of high heels or a dress, except for the cheap floral print skirt I was forced to buy and wear for my high school graduation. But the recruitment pamphlets were right; Greek life at DePauw was “different.” It was different because everyone I’d met before rush was in a sorority. I mean everyone. Though it seems like a cliché, Greek life seemed the only option. And, because of the time-honored tradition of rushing early in the year, the sorority system snatched me up before I’d had a chance to formulate an opinion of what modern Greek life was really about.

So I rushed. But I didn’t like it. The only women I talked to who were at all like me were my friends from the soccer team, who all happened to be in the same house. Of course, I later learned I had been targeted as a potential pledge, and it was well planned whom I would talk to at that house. (Did I feel misled? You bet.) They assured me that their house was different from the others, that they truly valued individuality, and that I would fit in there. I bought it again. I pledged Alpha Phi. All in all, I liked being in the sorority at first. One, two, three—instant social group. As pledges, we were always going to the house, meeting what appeared to be endless ranks of women whose names were nearly impossible to learn, since most of them looked, dressed, and spoke exactly alike. “Oh, my God! It’s so great to finally meet you! We’ve heard so many awesome things about you!” I thought, How strange. I’ve only been here for three weeks. I didn’t realize anyone here knew anything awesome about me. And I know I haven’t seen you before. It seemed strange to me, this idea that because the women in my pledge class had all happened to choose the same house, we would become best friends overnight. My roommate from the dorms and several members of the soccer team were in my pledge class, so I was able to avoid the awkward, forced interaction that seemed to define the majority of our house events. As a freshman, I was relieved that the house provided things to do when there had been so little entertainment before, but I soon realized that those “things to do” were the problem.

Sorority life was by far the straightest thing I’ve ever done, seen, or been a part of. Straighter than your first junior high dance. Straighter than prom night—so I’ve been told. Every activity centered around fraternity boys. There could be no picnic, no party, no good time unless droves of them were present. As a closeted baby dyke who had just left a two-year high school relationship with an older woman, this change was jarring, to say the least. I really liked some of the women in the house, and I wanted to spend time around them and try to cultivate some friendships. Many of the women seemed bright and independent—that is, until the boys came around. I sat back and watched how completely the dynamic changed when a group of men entered the room. I did what any baby butch would do; I stuck my chin out, stopped smiling, and shook their hands, while the other women fell all over one another trying to be cute and funny, and obviously trying not to appear intellectually threatening. There was no more talk of sisterhood and friendship; instead there was talk of hooking up and formal dates. It wasn’t long before their priorities were made crystal clear.

I suppose it’s only fair to put Greek life at DePauw in its proper context. From the perspective of a student, the Greek system seems to be the singular force that controls your universe. It has a hand in every decision that is made, from social to political to personal. It defines your group of friends, affords you instant social status, and, depending on which house you’re in, ranks you on the totem pole somewhere between “loser” and “cool kid.” You see, at DePauw, Greek life is the only life. With roughly 80% of the student body affiliated with a Greek organization in some form or another, one can imagine that the overwhelming majority of campus resources and considerations go toward Greek affairs and are dominated by Greek interests. We even have (believe it or not) a university-sponsored “Go Greek Week,” an entire week of events set aside to showcase the benefits of the Greek system and encourage new students to rush. The motivation of the university seems like a simple law of proportions—at least that’s what Greek students and the university, which is dominated by Greek alumni money, like to tell themselves. If most of the student body is Greek, most of the time and money should go toward Greek-centered events. Most of the policies should create ways for the Greek system to thrive. It all seems to make sense, until you’re part of the invisible and voiceless independent 20%.

As a result, a person entering the university as a promising young student, after being run through the wringer of social pressures and slender molds that define the Greek system, emerges as a well-manicured, fanatically overachieving, insecure sheep. DePauw is about desperate belonging. Maybe clinging is a better word. DePauw is about desperately clinging to some established group for fear that without group identification, there will be no way to define one’s self at all. I admit that I buckled under that pressure, at first. And these women, my new “sisters,” were living under that pressure every day and had lost the self-respect and the initiative to get themselves away from it. Seeds of doubt planted themselves in my brain.

During the summer after my freshman year, things turned around for me. With a little help and reassurance from some wonderful friends at home, I decided it was time I came out of the closet. It started, like most coming-out processes do, with coming out to a few close friends at home. I also wanted to come out to my close friends at school. DePauw is a lonely place to be queer; you don’t have to ask a queer person to figure that out. There was also something appealing about coming out to a group of people so far removed from my life at home. I thought I could establish my life at school and think through some things before coming out to my parents.

So I came out to my Alpha Phi roommates the second day back on campus. Looking back on the whole thing now it seems so ridiculous. I think I showed them a picture of a woman I’d been dating back home and said, “This is my girlfriend.” I wasn’t quite ready to say, “I’m gay,” out loud yet. Though I’d been in a long-term relationship with a woman with whom I’d been very much in love, I was still trying to escape from the whole “we were just really, really good friends” syndrome. The friends I told were wonderful, and I don’t know how I would have made it in the sorority without them.

A few days later I came out to a senior whom I admired and who was also captain of the soccer team. I was concerned about how the team would react, and I needed her opinion on how to best handle this matter within the sorority. She consulted another friend in the house, and so on and so on, and soon all of Alpha Phi knew Plemons was a dyke.

Though it was sort of nice to sit back and let the rumor mill do all of my outing for me, I worried about the reaction within the house. Alpha Phi was a mixed bag of women. There were some totally progressive, cool people there, but there were also some hard-core, ultraconservative religious people. Let’s face it: The sorority system isn’t known for social liberalism. I was confident that I was well liked, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with adverse reactions. I was afraid people would feel weird showering while I was in the bathroom or changing in front of me. Luckily, the hostility I knew existed was kept fairly well hidden and didn’t impair my daily living. I learned that there is indeed some value in the learned facade most of the sorority members wore.

Slowly but surely, I found myself involved in several late-night question-and-answer sessions. I might be sitting on the front porch swings with a few girls and all of a sudden one of them would turn and ask, “Hey, Plemons, how do lesbians have sex?” or some other such question. People slowly came to me for information. Though many of their questions were intrusive and inappropriate, I answered them and was grateful for the asking.

While I know many of the women in Alpha Phi had had no prior personal contact with an openly queer person and my willingness to talk was enlightening to them, the process of self-declaration was valuable for me too. Through endless conversations and a newfound desire to read and learn everything I could about queer history and politics, I learned a lot about myself. I considered the response from the house to be positive, because I had nothing against which to compare it. Since my greatest fear was that I would be asked to deactivate and be shunned by all of my friends, anything short of that reaction seemed like bliss to me. I was setting myself up to be treated badly, because I didn’t expect to be treated well.

Things changed a lot the spring semester of my sophomore year. At the beginning of the term I submitted a one-act monologue to the University Playwrights Festival. My piece was selected and performed with the help of two amazing women, and that performance constituted my outing to the entire campus. The piece, titled Gunfight, was my best attempt at what I would have said to the world if given the chance and a sturdy soapbox to stand on. It was full of politics and personal accounts, but what caught most people’s attention were the detailed accounts of lesbian sex and intimacy. Most reactions were what I later learned to expect from people at DePauw. Those who approached me had nothing but praises, but there were many who lacked the courage to approach me with objections. At a school that small, I heard a lot of the trash talk secondhand. But despite the offhand criticism, I had thrown myself into the fire, and I felt invincible.

After Gunfight was produced, I gained the confidence to become involved with queer causes on campus. I had come out to my family during winter break, so I didn’t feel there was anything keeping me from investing myself in queer activism. Shortly into spring term I joined United DePauw, our university’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, student, staff, and faculty alliance. Even though it has a really big name, it was a small group at that time. I was terrified to walk in the first time. I knew there were professors in the organization whom I admired, but the handful of students were people whom I had never before seen on campus. No one else—surprise, surprise—was Greek.

My initial reservations about being a part of the Greek system reemerged during that meeting. It became quite clear that many of the problems that queer students faced on campus could be traced either directly or indirectly to the Greek system and its peculiar manifestations at DePauw. It’s impossible to have such an overwhelmingly heterosexist governing system and not alienate those who aren’t heterosexual. In addition to the “you don’t belong here” messages constantly being sent to queer students and any independent, there was a great deal of antiqueer violence perpetrated both within and outside of the fraternity and sorority system. This violence included everything from name-calling to rape—both men against women and men against men.

I remember sitting in that room and learning for the first time about the scared and marginalized queer community at DePauw. I was ashamed that I hadn’t heard of these atrocious events before that day. I really never had any idea, as impossible as that sounds. I spent my evenings leisurely swinging on the porch of my sorority house feeling lucky that all of my new “sisters” still allowed me to use the common showers, and meanwhile, other queer students around campus were being assaulted or locking themselves in their dorm rooms out of fear of what their hall mates would do if they finally broke the door open. I felt like an asshole. I didn’t tell the queer group I was an Alpha Phi. I didn’t want to be identified as part of the problem when I desperately wanted to be part of the solution. Several weeks passed before I went to another United DePauw meeting.

Day-to-day life at Alpha Phi was getting harder for me—and anyone with a social conscience. As I was finding a larger picture in life, about the ways we treat one another and what is right and wrong, it was continuously demonstrated to me that the women I was living with saw little of what was happening around them. No one questioned the rules governing their lives. Instead, they slipped further and further into a system that was denying them choices and compromising them as individuals.

So I determined that the sorority system is, in essence, all about men. I liked to think of it as a high-priced, historically legitimized, intensely destructive dating service. Charming, heh? The sorority system was a frighteningly sobering pit of horrors in itself, but wasn’t my involvement in the situation even more problematic? Since I wasn’t just “another female” but also a dyke, I fell completely out of the Greek life food chain. I was on my own.

My feminist principles, coupled with the awkwardness and sheer physical disgust I felt upon setting foot in a fraternity house, changed my life at DePauw. I stopped going to fraternity parties, which for all intents and purposes meant that I stopped going out altogether. Suddenly, all of the women at Alpha Phi who had vowed to be my lifelong friends and love me for my differences began to disappear. They were my “sisters” until something better came along. Usually the “better” was in a baseball cap and a pair of overpriced khakis.

I didn’t attend spring formal my sophomore year. Instead I stayed home with one other Phi who had also decided not to go. We sat together in the dining room. All the lights had been turned out, and there wasn’t a soul left in the house. Needless to say, we felt very important. I’d decided that going to straight events with guy friends in order to play along and not upset anyone wasn’t OK with me anymore. The decision was made: “I’m a dyke. I date women. If I don’t have a female date, then I don’t have a date, period, and I don’t go to formal events.” I was getting tired of putting my feelings on hold to ensure that the rest of the house would be comfortable with my queerness.

Many of the girls seemed to take great pride in there having been no confrontation surrounding my living in the house. As if just because no one screamed at me and called me sick it was the same as openhearted acceptance. They didn’t notice the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, messages that defined the boundaries of where my “lifestyle” should stop and my obligation to the “sisterhood” should begin. For example, I was allowed to comment on girls I found attractive, but wasn’t allowed to add the tales of my sexual escapades to the collection of stories told around the breakfast table on Sunday mornings.

Near the end of sophomore year, life in the house took an unexpected turn. The entire house was off campus for our annual second-term informal. My three roommates and I had decided to go to the informal together, so none of us had dates to worry about. Everyone had been drinking pretty heavily, and we were all out on the dance floor. Out of nowhere a freshman pledge, whom I’ll call Jane to protect her privacy, started dancing with me. Now when I say dancing, I mean really dancing. I was more than a bit surprised, but she was really sexy, and in that state of mind I saw no reason not to dance with her. Later my friends told me that several people stopped dancing and watched us, but at the time I wasn’t considering the possible reactions of our “sisters.”

Jane and I started spending a lot of time together. My roommates made fun of me because Jane, who was still living in the dorms at the time, spent so much time in our room. Everyone knew what was going on, despite what Jane would have liked to believe. I was Plemons, the big dyke as far as everyone in the house was concerned, so Jane didn’t have to say much before everyone considered us together. A senior in the house even let us use her single room to sleep in one night, but Jane was nervous. She hadn’t decided definitively whether she was queer, so she didn’t want anyone to know what was going on between us. Luckily for her, school was out for the summer.

In my junior year, I returned to Greencastle with a flat-top and much less patience. I had spent the summer at home working with and hanging out with so many empowered young dykes who offered me the energy and intelligence I had been longing for at DePauw. I wasn’t willing to be as quiet as I had been for the past two years. Overcrowding due to extremely successful rushes in the previous years caused me to live in the dorms, which was such a good thing for me. Thinking back, I really don’t know how I would have survived that time if I had been living in Alpha Phi.

My politics were becoming more radical than they had been in the past, and I was frustrated with the way the sorority, an organization that was supposed to be about helping women succeed, was so obviously hypocritical and, in fact, acted to hinder women. The very rules that we were told were enforced to protect us were the ones that put us in the greatest danger. Women who wanted to be with their boyfriends for the evening were forced to leave the safety of the sorority house full of friends and walk to a fraternity full of men who saw them as trophies. Because no alcohol is allowed in sororities, women who wanted to drink had to do so in a male-dominated environment away from the safety of their female friends. I knew something was wrong. It was so clear to me, and I was furious that I was the only person out of more than 60 women to feel this way.

I went to the officeholders in the house to discuss some of my concerns. Remembering the awkwardness I’d felt as a freshman being pressured into extremely heterosexual situations (including kiss-ins and being forced to watch straight porn movies at a fraternity during a sorority event), I wanted to change some of our chapter practices to save other young women from similar situations. These women, who had championed the benefits of the leadership experience gained in the sorority, stared at me helplessly. The overwhelming response I received was that they could not change any of these things. “Oh Plemons, lighten up! It’s tradition.”

One woman, whom I considered a friend and who was a senior at that time, actually said to me, “Plemons, you’re right. We know you’re right. And if everyone was a gentleman like you we could change these things, but people just don’t care as much as you do. The house would never agree. We can’t do anything.” I was furious. I began to doubt my association with such an irresponsible body.

Despite my growing frustrations with Alpha Phi, I remained involved with the sorority into the beginning of my junior year. Jane and I continued to date into the fall, and we went to our fall formal together, she in a gorgeous black dress and I in a tuxedo. Despite the opinions of the prevailing literature, I’m proudly all about butch/femme. While this affected my appearance at the formal and in daily life, it also affected my relationships with the women in the sorority. I was respected and seen as a caretaker by many of the sorority members. Big surprise for a butch dyke among girly-girls, heh? No one said a word to me about our attendance at the formal, but Jane felt the pressure of her friends’ watchful eyes. I was so angry. This group of women whom I was supposed to call my “sisters” made my date feel guilty and self-conscious about being with me.

I was teetering near the edge. Jane had decided that the pressures of having a relationship at DePauw and in the sorority were too great, and we stopped seeing each other. The final straw came when in one weekend three different women in my house made sexual advances toward me. It was all casual. They just wanted to see what it would be like to make out with a girl. These women had claimed to be my friends, but were treating me like a science experiment. Again, I was furious.

In one weekend I lost the girl I had been dating and nearly all of my close friends. I wrote a letter announcing my deactivation and delivered it to the house at our chapter meeting the following Monday night. Of all of the people I honestly believed cared about me, only three people said anything to me about it. After my deactivation, not a single person from the house came by my dorm room to see me.

All of the hypocrisy of the system was opened like a split melon and laid out in front of me. I was angry that I had wasted so much time and effort on these people. I tried to better the system and ended up getting burned by it. It pained me to think of the hours I spent sitting in the dark during asinine chapter meetings, listening to petty and selfish rants, and giving my “honest” opinion of an endless array of outfits. All I had to show for my two years of involvement with Alpha Phi was a couple of ridiculous sweatshirts I had never worn and a lot of reasons to apologize to independent students for being a part of this hypocrisy.

After I left the Greek system, I became one of its most vocal critics on campus. I became the copresident of United DePauw and worked to improve the lives of queer students, staff, and faculty on campus. Our group challenged the status quo by implementing policies, bringing big-name queer speakers to campus, and opening a resource center for queer people and allies. I watched the Alpha Phis doing their ridiculous philanthropic activities and realized I was helping others while they were just fulfilling their obligation to appear to be helping others. I also made more amazing and wonderful friends as an independent than I ever would have made in the Greek system.

In some ways I’m glad I experienced the madness that is the Greek system. I learned some important lessons about people and interactions. Most of all, I learned what I don’t want in my life. I don’t need that structure and group validation. I don’t want to surround myself with people who don’t feel qualified to think for themselves or direct their own lives. I gain energy from action and initiative. My involvement in the sorority has better equipped me to dismantle racist, classist, homophobic, asshole ideas—like those that define the Greek system—in the future. And I am making it my business to do just that.

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