We screamed and laughed and called the other our sister and did the super-secret Pi Phi handshake (touching the second knuckle.) I drove them to their car later. “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to kiss me,” they said. I leaned across my center console and lightly touched the back of their head. I kissed them slightly open-mouthed with pressure in the lips. They pecked my lips. I lingered a bit. We made plans to go to an art show that never materialized. The light rejection didn’t diminish my experiencing long-buried desire, a desire buried so deeply that I didn’t even let myself think the thought for the majority of my closeted years: kissing my sorority sister.
A few weeks later I saw a Lex ad that caught my eye:
@extrememuppet love 2 be fat hot & gay now!!! #lgbtq #skiptherinse #ShadowAndBone #lesbiansoftiktok #lesbiantiktok🌈 #gay #college #sorority #wlw #comingout ♬ Yucky Blucky Fruitcake by IAmDoechii – YAR.
Kelsey illustrates the sorority-to-dyke pipeline
When we met in person that night we met as our final forms, though she had seen my darkest secret: an image of me with sun-lightened tousled hair, a toothy smile, and a body 50 pounds lighter than today.
Kelsey was a Kappa at UC Santa Barbara, perhaps the only school on the west coast to slightly rival the ferocity of USC Greek life, where I attended. Though we both experience our gender differently now than during our time in Greek life, she said that part of why she was celebrated in her house was because she was “so good at being a girl.” I remember with pride when my photos were chosen for the house slideshow: my skinny arm pose with my hand at my hip, vibrantly colored silk top paired with a short American Apparel skirt, a chain purse on my arm. Sororities dictated the version of femininity that we would perform, which was partially-clothed, nubile, and willing.
We screamed and laughed and called the other our sister and did the super-secret Pi Phi handshake.
We recounted perhaps the most psycho part of our time in our respective sororities, but also the most homoerotic: rush. For the unacquainted, rush is a highly choreographed week-long opportunity to meet and “mutually select” girls that would be a fit for the house. We would arrive back on campus two weeks early for “polish week” or a time where we practiced superficial conversations to have with “PNMs” or potential new members. We were assigned “bump” groups with girls who had similar levels of hotness as us, never discussing how the hottest groups would rush the hottest PNMs. At night after we met hundreds of girls, ranking them based on whether we wanted to be their sister, we set up projectors with images of the girls and voted with clickers after girls would make a case for or against the girl.
@lindsaytuchman Tbh I’m mortified posting this but couldn’t resist. Any questions? #usc #rushtiktok #kappakappagamma ♬ original sound – Lindsay Tuchman
@emmaaroof insider on recruitment lunch breaks inside sorority houses #sorority #rush #usc #kkg #kappa ♬ kim kardashian its a full time job – kardashianicon
We weren’t allowed to debase the girls in our nightly meetings, even though that was exactly what we were doing. In Kelsey’s sorority, slutty girls were called “nocturnal.” In my sorority we would rank using a traffic light system and prized girls were called “nugs” or nuggets.
Without a greater understanding of what we were doing, we were doing the gayest thing possible: rating girls for potential hotness and determining qualities that would make for sound relationships.
It was all so, so gay.
Kelsey told me she took an edible for initiation and was placed in a room with robed girls holding candles. She remembers being high and scared. I should have gotten high. During my initiation I remember sleeping on the floor of our in-house gym and being disappointed when my house’s secret words “true, tried friend” were whispered in my ear. Part of why I wanted to join a sorority was for the mystical lore of secrecy, ritual, and bonds that transcend normal friendship.
@rflynnie when you get into the sorority of your DREAMS #piphi #usc #fyp ♬ original sound – Riley
Where was the bloodletting? The explosives? The paranormal activity? The, dare I say, magic? Sadly none of that was present. What was present was the heavy emotional labor I did to appear straight, cis, and white.
When I joined my sorority of 200 girls in Southern California in 2008, I only knew of two Asian women already in the sorority. There were no Black members despite USC’s location in South Central, but there were a few Hilaria Baldwin types. I had a strange affinity for the other Asian girls, cemented through the bond of being othered. We took pictures together holding up peace fingers. We were grouped together for rush. We wanted the same Asian girls to join our sorority. Girls would make jokes about me being half Asian, sometimes pretending “ching chong ching” was my native language and that the R in my name was an L. I played the role well, using a similarly racist affectation for my captions in Facebook albums. The stereotyping was never discussed among us.
If there was any unspoken rule in my sorority it was that queerness was absolutely forbidden. In high school, I had experimented a bit drunkenly kissing my female friends for the benefit of our male friends. I distinctly remember one of my sorority sisters describing my outfits for a fraternity party as “lesbian.” To us, lesbian was a slur. As I applied my makeup in the wake of the comment, she said “why are you putting on makeup? No one is going to look at your face.” I felt ashamed when I looked at the other girls’ outfits that night, which probably cost a lot and required hours of labor to put together, sensuously revealing breasts and belly. But I felt vindicated that night when a fraternity guy made out with me on the dance floor.
@rileyycarter bid day, best day 💖 #piphi #bidday #sorority #usc #southerncalifornia #fyp #foryoupage ♬ Juicy – Doja Cat
It wasn’t until I was 24 that I consciously let myself consider that fact that I was queer, so my years in Greek Life were no exception. Unlike some people’s experience of being closeted, I was so closeted I wouldn’t even entertain an inner dialogue. No questioning, no what if’s. Perhaps it was a way to keep me safe during my time in a sorority, for if I let the floodgates open even an ounce I would have felt like an absolute predator. Kelsey said that people in her house would joke that “statistically, at least one of us is a lesbian.” Couldn’t be me!
Sororities dictated the version of femininity that we would perform, which was partially-clothed, nubile, and willing.
Recently, I posted a Lex ad asking for queer sorority stories. A woman named Christina who attended USC starting in 2012 responded first. She said that she had founded an underground support group for queers at USC that was private, anonymous, and safe for questioning folks. It was held at a secret location on campus and started the year I graduated.
Christina had transferred to USC and wanted to join the Greek system to make friends. An out lesbian since high school, she obscured that detail during rush but revealed her sexuality to her sorority once she was a part of it, slowly telling her sisters in the first month or two. She was the only one out on the row and didn’t know anyone else queer in the sorority system.
“I think what really benefited me was there was the hierarchy of sororities and fraternities on campus. I was in what was considered a ‘bottom’ house. We were seen as alternative. We weren’t allowed to use the term ‘diverse’ but we were the most diverse house.”
Dear reader, if you sense a disparity in our experience, I was in a “top” house. And to many at USC, part of being a top house meant being homogeneously white. Having too many members of color was seen as a detriment by white supremacists who stalked incoming members of houses and “ranked” their hotness on cruel gossip websites like Juicy Campus.
Christina recounted a moment at a fraternity house, when a woman approached her while she was intoxicated and hit on her. As the evening continued, the aggressor’s boyfriend came in.
“I felt like I was set up and pretty intoxicated at the time and was like ‘yeah whatever’ but it felt so nonconsensual and it led to something I didn’t want to do. My sexuality was used against me, and wasn’t respected.”
She also remembers extreme homophobia within frats. Anti-gay rhetoric in the early 2000s was rooted in heteronormativity and cisgender expression. You had to represent femininity and if you didn’t, you weren’t accepted. The same went for fatphobia and xenophobia.
Though other sororities were probably busy mocking Christina behind her back or labeling her sorority the lesbian house, she didn’t experience outright homophobia. She brought girls to her formal and it was never a problem within her own house.
Her story, thankfully, has a happy ending: Senior year, she met someone from a neighboring sorority. The woman approached her in a friendly conversation that became inquisitive, then flirty, and then, finally, a relationship. Her girlfriend even served on the Greek life governing board.
“Though we were both femme-presenting and conventionally attractive and didn’t push too many barriers,” Christina says, “it felt like we were doing something that hadn’t been done before.”
I asked her if she recalled any trans members of Greek life. She said there was a rumor that a trans man had rushed a bottom frat but wasn’t allowed to join because he was already admitted to a sorority.
I met Callie when I was a senior and she was a sophomore. Before she came out as a trans woman, she was in my favorite fraternity, Phi Delt, also maliciously known as the “gay frat” at USC. During my sophomore year, the members of the house had voted me their “sweetheart,” or a sorority member who was popular among the men in the house. Yes, I had slept with a few of them. Callie remembers others in her fraternity were outed as gay long before they were comfortable coming out on gossip websites. Others were called gay who identify as straight.
When Callie and I spoke, she remembered how she grew up with three brothers and felt that joining Greek life was a natural extension of her upbringing.
“I was struggling a little with gender identity at that point, but had been around so much masc energy growing up that it wasn’t hard to be around. I dressed flamboyantly at the time and didn’t fully understand my gender identity. I also didn’t have the time and space to explore. Growing up, I knew I was attracted to feminine things and when puberty happened it was especially so. I thought maybe I had a kink. I was trying not to examine what I didn’t like about myself.”
Callie and I dated my senior year. Perhaps there was something about both of us, struggling with our identities, that attracted me to her. I remember loving her absurd outfits in direct contradiction with the gender norms dictated to us in Greek life. When we first talked, we talked big. We dug into philosophical conversations that only being high on several bong hits and ingesting a lot of beer could facilitate. I remember making intense eye contact with her big blue eyes throughout, a simple gesture that was a rarity in my college dating experience.
During my junior and senior years, I experienced my first bout of intense depression, an episode that coincided with weight gain, binge eating, and withdrawal from sorority life. I remember experiencing what felt like the first instance of dysphoria in my life, but not my first instance of dysmorphia, standing alongside my sorority sisters during rush junior year. Gender, like sexuality, was buried deeply in my consciousness. My clothes didn’t fit anywhere. I was placed in a bump group with girls who were not the image of blonde, rich, and lithe. The gossip website labeled me “fat.” I had failed as a sorority girl. Or perhaps it was the first time I realized my gender was simply not the same as my sisters.
I gave Callie my copy of The Stranger and I played her favorite band at the time, Wilco, when we slept together the first time on my twin extra long in my shared bedroom. (Side note: who has sex to “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?”) Something about her contrarian personality and that I was seeing her at all the cool house parties where Greeks were less welcome made me like her more. I was falling for her, hard.
I had failed as a sorority girl. Or perhaps it was the first time I realized my gender was simply not the same as my sisters.
We weren’t exclusive, but that didn’t prevent me from thinking what if we were. The texting became less frequent between us and I could tell she was drawing away from me. The last night we spent together on my way out I discovered a lacy thong on the floor of her bedroom. The discovery stung and I took it that I was getting too attached to a thing where the attachment wasn’t reciprocated.
Years later, she would come out to me in an email and tell me that the underwear was hers. Subject line: Personal Update.
It was the kind of message that can explain everything among queers. We reconvened at a ramen restaurant to break bread. Afterward we victoriously strolled the aisles of a Target, beaming. When I interviewed her for this article, she noticed the gender-neutral pronouns in my Zoom name. I felt seen.
In the post-BLM social media landscape, I remember revisiting USC Pi Phi’s Instagram page. I saw during the month of Pride they posted an image of a member at a parade with the caption:
LOVE IS LOVE IS LOVE [rainbow flag and heart emoji] While Pride month is coming to an end, we want to offer our committed love and support for our LGBTQ+ sisters and community. As we continue to address the many historical problems with Greek Life and our role as a chapter upholding outdated traditions, we additionally recognize how this system has not been inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community. Our priority while instituting changes to membership and recruitment practices is to both acknowledge structural issues barring inclusivity and work to cultivate a more welcoming and loving environment for everyone – where discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated, and minority races and sexualities will both be respected & celebrated. With that, we want to wish everyone a Happy Pride!
View this post on Instagram
I remember being excited that my sorority had a queer member and that they would display her on that holy grail of recruitment tools, the Instagram account. I reached out to the featured member.
Hi *****! My name is Rax and I saw your picture on the USC Pi Phi page. I was a Pi Phi at USC too and later came out as gay/nonbinary in my 20s. I am doing an article for Into magazine about being queer in a sorority and was wondering if you would be open to chatting with me about your experience. I look forward to connecting! Thank you
Thanks for reaching out 🙂 I’m actually not queer, I just submitted a picture for them to post since I went to pride and I was excited they decided to post mine!
Hope you can find someone to talk to, that sounds like a great article 🙂 fight on
Hey ******! Thank you for letting me know 🙂 would you mind sharing if there are any out queer women you’re aware of in USC Greek life? It would be really helpful to know if this has changed. Thanks!
Honestly, I don’t know any who are out and who would be willing to participate
My sisters said Happy Pride at least?
Before this story, before Kelsey, before my Pi Phi sister smooch, there was a tweet.
sorority girl to HUGE lesbian pipeline
— margot 🎃 (@thyholygemini) March 31, 2021
Kelsey and I went to a queer play party together. She told me that her bottom would be there. She told her bottom that I was their “grand-top” with a nod to sorority traditions. I told her that I imagined the story I was writing ending there, in media res, at the play party.
In many ways, a play party is a lot like a fraternity party. You get dressed up in a slutty outfit and go to a place where other people are dressed up in slutty outfits. There’s alcohol and people fucking. I guess the only difference was that at this one, everyone was queer and they all understood consent.
That night, we went into a private room together. I proposed a sorority-themed scene where Kelsey and I were active members and our bottom was rushing the house. We started by letting them worship our feet and ended with us hazing them.
“I really want to be your sister,” they said.
“You have to prove it,” I said.
They begged to join our house. We made them repeat our nonsense words and created secret rituals. There wasn’t bloodletting, but there were deep rouge lipstick kisses on our body parts, open hand spanking, crawling. With every motion, every word, we created a world entirely our own in that room. In some ways, it felt like the magic of intimacy among friends that I had always wanted.
By the end of the night, our bottom was a fully initiated member of Alpha Sigma Sigma. They won’t be the last.♦
Rax Will is a graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA in fiction with words in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, L.A. Review of Books, and POPSUGAR. They are currently at work on a queer coming-out novel set in Los Angeles. You can follow them on Twitter @masamimommi.