The choice of publishing anonymously is a difficult decision, but one which is not uncommon both here at the Vigil and throughout social justice oriented publications across the globe. As a publication dedicated to providing a space for the voices of marginalized persons, students frequently share their experiences of marginalization knowing full well that their vulnerability within the various pages of this website leaves them vulnerable to further harassment, ostracization, and persecution; the following article is no exception. Anonymity provides, albeit slight, protection against the possibility of financial, physical, social, academic, and professional ramification which accompanies the making public of ones experience of marginality. As the editor-in-chief of the Vigil, the president of Queer Liberation of Alliance, and a queer person myself, I urge our readers to think critically about the importance of respecting and maintaining the anonymity of those writers whose safety and wellbeing rests in their ability to remain anonymous. The act of outing a queer person without their consent is always an act of violence, but a particularly dangerous one in which the gender identity and/or sexuality of the person in question will have real world consequences if shared publicly. For this reason, I urge that the readers of the following article take seriously this writer’s choice to stay anonymous, respect that anonymity, and do their part in maintaining it. The safety and wellbeing of the W&L community and its most vulnerable members should always be our top priority.
Editor-in-Chief of the Vigil
President of Queer Liberation Alliance
I was a member of the Pi Beta Phi fraternity for women for a little over one year, from the middle of my sophomore year through the end of my junior year. I am speaking solely from my personal experience, and, as a white lesbian, I can't speak on the racism BIPOC have experienced at the hands of these women. This will be skewed towards speaking about homophobia, and I encourage you to read the articles written by BIPOC students about their experiences with the Greek system at W&L.
For those who aren't aware, Pi Phi is considered a "bottom tier" sorority. They're only invited to mixers (private parties) with the "bottom tier" fraternities - a fact that makes them feel like they don't have any social standing on campus. They feel overlooked for positions of power and invite-only social events, and I believe some of them truly feel discriminated against solely because they chose to be members of Pi Phi. Coincidentally, they also claim to be more diverse, boasting about 5 BIPOC students every pledge class and significantly more openly queer women than the other sororities (namely, more than 0). That in itself speaks volumes about the state of the Greek system on campus.
I, for one, specifically joined Pi Phi after they courted me with their diversity. They promised that they loved me regardless of my lesbianism, that they would offer me a true and unconditional family, that their friendship was sincere. It was a promise I desperately craved, having been painfully aware of the exact conditions for my family’s love my entire life. Pi Phi is widely considered to be the most open minded, the most diverse, and the least racist sorority on campus. Needless to say, the bar is horrifyingly low.
Over the course of my time within Pi Phi, I noticed a lot of.... unsettling behavior. Some members of the organization were obsessively dedicated to raising the tier of their sorority. They pushed each other to go on dates with men in the upper tier fraternities, told queer members to not be open about their queerness for fear of encouraging the "wrong type" of woman to join the next pledge class, and obsessively rushed pretty white women. They constantly talked about how they needed to lose weight, party more, and date more men solely to raise the tier of the sorority. It was baffling - after all, the “tiers” in the Greek system are completely made up, and far from an official concept that can be shifted.
These women, obsessed with raising their social status through weeding out the “undesirable members”, were likewise in positions of power in the sorority. One was even in charge of recruitment, which made it all too easy for her to make entry more difficult for queer and BIPOC women.
They didn't consider themselves to be racist or homophobic, and they didn't see how harmful their behavior was - to themselves and others. They were even good friends to me once, letting me cry on their shoulders when I was confronted with the inevitable realization that my family would reject whoever I fall in love with, no matter what, based solely on their gender. These women were aware of the impact racism and homophobia have on people and truly believed that they were good, unbiased and kind. And yet, while they superficially supported their BIPOC and queer friends, these members cared more about their sorority’s social standing.
I'll summarize here my experience, the details of which you can find in my past article “Washington and Lee and the Culture of Complacency”: they were fine with me being a lesbian until I openly dated my girlfriend and became one of the few visibly queer women on campus, after which certain members bullied me out of the sorority while others stood idly by and let it happen. It was a truly heartbreaking taste of the rejection I always feared.
On top of this directly bigoted behavior, there were extremely troubling undercurrents throughout the organization as a whole. Those with access to the sorority’s financial records shared the financial status of potential new members, or even current members, gossiping about whether or not they could afford the steep fees. I was even directly approached by a woman making comments about my family's financial status. It wasn’t an official conversation about the sorority or my dues; she just wanted me to know that she knew. Not only is that a direct invasion of privacy, but it reeked of classism.
Similarly, during rush we were shown a slideshow featuring the faces of every freshman woman. It was to determine whether or not we knew them, for event planning purposes, and the moderator specified that we weren’t voting on members yet. Regardless, people broke out into laughter when gender non-conforming or not traditionally beautiful women were shown. They would coo "awww she's cute! we want her!" when prettier white women appeared on the screen. It was truly appalling, and I sat horrified as this slideshow continued through every freshman woman, whether or not they chose to rush. It was indescribably demeaning and vile for these women to comment - as a group - on the appearance of every single 17-18 year old woman entering the school, without their knowledge or their consent.
I'm sure you're thinking that these were just some bad apples, a couple of horrible people that ruined things for everyone else, and the overall organization wasn’t to blame for this behavior. Unfortunately, the system as a whole indirectly encourages this behavior and emboldens its bigoted members rather than stopping it.
Pi Phi - both as an administrative organization and as a self-policing group of women - is completely unwilling to enforce any system of punishment against the bigoted behavior of the women within the organization. If someone drinks too much and embarrasses her sisters at a party? You bet she'll get reported and receive an official warning. Someone "dirty rushes'' by offering a potential member alcohol? The whole sorority is put on social probation for that. Someone intentionally or unintentionally hazes another member? She's kicked out immediately. "We don't want /that/ kind of girl (queer) in our sorority"? No one even bothered reporting it until a year later, and she got a slap on the wrist. Members were openly homophobic (they just weren't "comfortable with gay people") and everyone accepted them, even celebrating their membership.
Not only that, but even the deans on campus claim they have no control over Greek life behavior and discipline. We can’t even rely on our own school to help when the sorority’s disciplinary system fails us. This is especially mind boggling, and frankly unacceptable, considering that they have their own houses on campus and are a university approved and supported organization. Minority students literally have nowhere to turn for protection and official support.
When I sent a full letter to nationals detailing the cruelty my girlfriend and I suffered at the hands of Pi Phi's members, and spent hours meeting with the director of Greek life and Pi Phi and campus officials, it barely caused a stir. After a full, exhausting, and heartbreaking investigation - with the officials continually assuring the members that nothing would hinder their ability to rush new women in the winter - Pi Phi agreed to do a diversity workshop before rush.
I fully believe that the only reason we even got that much is because the president of the Panhellenic council on campus at the time was extremely dedicated to justice and kindness, and worked hard to right the wrongs committed by the sorority. Unfortunately, the system was actively working against her.
This brings up an important insight into how sororities as a whole work. Why is it that when members are reported for open bigotry, the sorority wouldn't even consider a group punishment (god forbid it affects rush), but if one member is accused of "dirty rushing" the whole sorority is punished as a group? Why is breaking the organization's rules more important than expelling bigots from the sisterhood, more important than making sure the minority students feel safe? Why are minority students not thoroughly and effectively protected by the organization's rules in the first place? Why can the school’s own administration do nothing to help us?
I likewise noticed that people, even good people, were blindly loyal to Pi Phi. Rather than admire the good and work against the bad, many preferred to force ignorance upon themselves, brutally ignoring the toxicity and violence their sisters created and they abided by.
Those who dare to speak out are shunned and vilified; after I published my original article I was attacked, slandered behind my back, the people I still considered to be my friends spreading harmful lies about me. Though I never mentioned Pi Phi by name, nor did I give my own name, people knew I wrote it and came after me with a vengeance. They told each other that it was my fault, that I was to blame for their rejection, all without directly confronting me. A year later Pi Phi's members continue to fight other queer women who were hurt by the organization, claiming that their experiences couldn’t be their own, they must be talking about me - the liar, with no proof behind my words.
After all, it’s easier to defend the organization than think critically about your own actions and the actions of those around you. Why accept that you hurt someone if you could just silence them, and never have to think about it again?
Retaliation has undoubtedly suppressed countless women from coming forward with their own stories about systematic mistreatment in Greek Life. Can anyone on campus name a time the administration punished a sorority for retaliating against one of its members? Deans tried to address this concern in meetings by simply saying, "Retaliation is not allowed under school policy." But when has any student in recent memory been saved from bullying and retaliation after filing a report with Title IX?
Even if one person didn't directly perpetrate the problem, if they knew about it and didn't report it, they're still culpable. If they actively chose to continue being a member of Pi Phi and support the organization and their sisters, they’re still culpable. They accepted that this was just how the organization was, they accepted that this is just what their sisters do and they agreed to associate with them through their shared name. Through this protection of the members and their organization, the members of Pi Phi were emboldening the worst among them to continue harming others.
This blind loyalty is hurting young women, decaying at them from the inside out. I've seen people develop anxiety, eating disorders, alcoholism and self-loathing from a mad attempt to fit in with their sorority sisters, or -even more egregiously- to try and make their sorority "top tier". They want to help their sisters, to protect their sisters, and will go to horrifying lengths to do so.
Pi Phi is the mildest of the sororities, the one that is known to be the most diverse and accepting. I can't even begin to guess what goes on in the other ones.
The administration refuses to take responsibility for the actions of Greek affiliated students, Nationals are more concerned with the sorority’s image, and individual members can put up or shut up, facing intense retaliation should they choose to speak out.
This is all to say that I wholeheartedly believe that the Greek system on Washington and Lee's campus is beyond reform and must be abolished for the good of every student. If this university wants minority students to feel safe, wants to stop the spread of bigotry and hatred, they must do away with the organizations that not only perpetuate it but protect the worst among us. Racist, classist, and homophobic people - not to mention the rapists running rampant within the fraternities - are emboldened by the mob mentality of their Greek organization, and by the protection afforded to them. Not only that, but even the straight and white members of the organizations are harmed by the intense peer pressure to fit in, to drink and lose weight and be unhappy with who they are. For W&L to be an inclusive and healthy community, the Greek system must be abolished.
(I am speaking out anonymously to protect myself from being publicly outed. If any campus official wishes to discuss my experiences in a productive manner, please contact the Vigil staff for permission to receive my contact information)