by “Marie Baker”
Source: Shane L. Windmeyer & Pamela W. Freeman‘s Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian & Bisexual in a College Sorority
I have known several things about myself for almost as long as I can remember. I had always known I was different from the other little girls. I couldn’t pin down exactly why I felt that way, except that I didn’t enjoy playing dress-up or playing with dolls. I always preferred skinned knees to makeup. And I knew I did not want to be in a sorority or any other “girly” club. Sororities were elitist, and they would make me wear dresses. Besides, what sorority would want me?
Twelve years later, in 1997, as a freshman at Princeton University, I reflected on some of these feelings as I waited in line outside a sorority rush party. OK, so some of my opinions had changed in the intervening time. I had learned to appreciate dresses and makeup, although I had continued to skin my knees. I had also long since figured out why I felt different from other girls my age: I was attracted to women. Even more bizarre in my eyes, I was also attracted to men, and realized I was bisexual. This was a realization that years before had caused me great anxiety, because I thought I was simply indecisive. By the time I entered college, however, I had fully accepted that I was never going to decide one way or the other, and I was fine with that. I also had resolved that I had to hide it from everyone at all costs. I had seen the discrimination and fear that people in my conservative high school suffered when they came out. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that even as I struggled with my own sexuality issues, I gossiped about those “gay people” myself.
Now, 600 miles away from my past, I was haunted by the fear of that happening to me. I determined never to act upon any of my same-sex attractions and instead concentrated only on being attracted to men, as are “normal” women. With those thoughts, I filed in to a room full of girls who I felt were waiting to judge me against those standards of normalcy.
You might wonder where my childhood resolution against sororities had gone. Actually, at this point the resolution was still firmly lodged in my mind. I didn’t go through rush to join a sorority; I rushed to meet other girls and to enjoy being fawned over for four days before dropping out and leaving sororities way behind. The problem was, despite my intentions, I actually liked one of the sororities very much, a new sorority on campus that had not yet assumed a specific stereotype. The chapter attracted a lot of people who, like me, had never seen themselves in a sorority. Some of them were strong leaders who envisioned the direction in which the young sorority should go and wanted to be a part of creating chapter traditions. When I was offered a bid I accepted. Many of the members were not a lot like me, but that was one of the reasons I wanted to join. The bottom line was that I had fun during rush, and I had fun as a pledge. Later, I enjoyed being a full member even more, and soon I was entrenched in the Greek life I had sworn never to pursue. Meanwhile, I remained an interested but remote observer of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender life on campus.
In my sophomore year, however, around November 1998, my life began to change. I was growing dissatisfied with the helpless feeling of being closeted. I felt a vague, nagging sensation that something was missing from my life. I realize now that it was not my lack of same-sex dates that bothered me; it was my deceit. I hated the feeling that each time I met someone new, no matter how close we got, I would never be able to reveal my identity out of my personal fear. My bisexuality was an aspect of my life that I was ashamed of, even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t want to live like that. I decided that it was time for me to come out.
One night while talking to a good friend who was openly bisexual, I took a deep breath and told her, “I understand what you’re talking about. I’m bisexual too.” I don’t think she realized there was anything special in my having said that. She didn’t know she was the first person I had ever told. Although I was terrified, I was also thrilled. This was one of the bravest things I had ever done, but I knew even then that more difficult tasks were to come.
For several months I struggled through a series of little steps. More of my close friends found out, and with each person I told I got stronger. Lured by pumpkin pie (the one food I cannot resist) I went to my first LGBT meeting. Soon after, I kissed a girl for the first time, and we began to date. Bit by bit, I was coming out, and it was one of the most exciting periods of my life. The distinction must be made, however, between being out to other queer people and being out to the general population. The risks involved are decidedly different. I’d been living two connected but distinct lives. On one hand I had my girlfriend, the Pride Alliance, and the “a cappella” group I had joined which is, by self-proclamation, open to “all sexual orientations and gender identities.” On the other hand, I had my family, my classes, and my sorority. In January 1999 the two halves collided. I had been dating my girlfriend a couple of months when our sorority announced our annual formal. I wanted to take my girlfriend to it. I remember thinking that my situation was unfair. For most members of the sorority, dating someone made the choice of whom to bring to the formal easy; for me, dating someone made it more complicated. It would’ve been easy for me to invite a male friend, but I didn’t want to take the easy way out.
My feelings weren’t the only thing fueling my fear; I also knew I had a strong responsibility to my chapter. Of course, I didn’t want anyone to think less of me personally because I dated girls, but I was braced for it. And I didn’t want to hurt the sorority in some way by coming out. It was unacceptable to me that some members might no longer want to be in the sorority or that new members might think twice about joining because of me. In the end I decided to trust that the women of my chapter, whom I had grown to love, would still love me after I told them. After a long discussion with my girlfriend to make sure she was game for it, we decided to go together. Along with my decision not to bring a boy, I decided not to pretend that my girlfriend was just a friend. I wanted people to know the truth. I didn’t want them to think I was afraid, even though I was terrified of what they might say.
Periodically, a subset of sorority officers meet to discuss problems the sorority might have and to talk with members of the chapter if they have concerns or questions. I decided to express my fears to them and to make sure they knew the whole story and could answer questions if anyone approached them. I was nervous telling the entire group of officers, since most of my experiences had been one on one. I was also afraid that they’d tell me I couldn’t bring my girlfriend. I forced myself to enter the room where they were meeting. Shaking all the while, I said, “I’m bringing a girl to the formal.” I paused. “She’s my girlfriend.” I stiffened for a blow that never came. Most of them were surprised as my meaning sank in, but none appeared shocked. They had a few questions for me but reassured me that they weren’t overly concerned about it and that I shouldn’t be either. I left feeling wobbly but relieved.
The remaining days until the formal flew by in a mixture of schoolwork and preparations. There were, I admit, a few glitches. I had not anticipated, for example, having to argue with the florist to get her to give me a corsage instead of a boutonniere. Throughout it all, my roommates (who are also in my sorority and supported me throughout the process) and a handful of other people who knew helped whenever they could. Finally, having taken care of all the details, I was on the bus sitting next to my girlfriend on the long-awaited night.
I have to hand it to the people who design charter buses—they’re an excellent way to encourage coming out on the way to a sorority formal. For one thing, the seats are in sets of two, so it was immediately clear that I was with a girl who was not in the sorority. Also, the seats are high enough to muffle conversation across rows, so that anyone who was interested could discuss it and get it out of their system on the way there. I got a couple of interested looks, but mostly people didn’t stare. I’d advised those people who knew about my girlfriend to answer any questions freely and honestly, so I think they might have defused some of the curiosity during the hour long ride to the formal. The formal itself was in some odd way almost anticlimactic, poised as I was for an affront. We ate and talked and danced like everyone else. Perhaps some people thought we were just friends, but that we could also be accepted as a couple was evidenced by the number of my sisters who approached me to talk during the evening. Many were curious, and some were taken aback, but they still asked questions, which meant much more to me than if they had ignored us for propriety’s sake. A few thanked me for my bravery.
Of course, despite the overwhelmingly positive response of the chapter as a whole, there were isolated incidents of sorority members who were less able to accept me as a bisexual than as a straight woman. I will never be looked at the same by some of my sisters, whether or not they condone homosexuality. Every controversial issue is different when it hits close to home. One of my sisters actually refuses to accept it whenever I date a woman, and although she refrains from saying anything derogatory to me, she continually asks if I have a boyfriend, sometimes even in response to a statement on my part about a current girlfriend. In some ways I have become an example of what it means to be out in a sorority at a small, conservative, Ivy League school. It’s sometimes lonely. I feel strongly, however, that there comes a time when you must grab on to what you believe in and hold on tight. If by making my life a little more complicated, I have also made it easier for others to come out in sororities here, then it’s worth being that example.
Even when I feel the most isolated, however, I know I am loved by my friends, which has been an immense relief to me. Most of my sorority sisters and other friends have never let me wonder if they still care about me. When I have a bad day or a good day, my sisters are there to commiserate or to party with me. The main difference between now and before is that I don’t have to suffer through sexuality issues by myself. The more people I come out to, the more people I have to cheer me up when I have a “bad sexuality day.” In fact, although there are a few people to whom I will probably never be close because I’m bisexual, there are a good number to whom I feel even closer. Some of them might be able to relate to my situation. Others merely understand that by coming out I made myself vulnerable. The feeling of community in my chapter deepens for me week by week. During one meeting, as we talked about upcoming boy/girl sorority events, my big sister reached over and squeezed my hand to let me know she was mentally adding “or girl/girl.” As I went through the painful coming-out process with my family, I knew I had many sisters who knew and loved me the way I am.
Coming out is an ongoing trial, and as more people find out, I’m thankful to my sorority for continuing to accept me; the process has been almost seamless. I’m thankful that the atmosphere of my chapter is one in which I feel safe to be myself and in which I know instinctively that the love of my sisters is unconditional.