Menace to Sorority
From the time that Devin Alston-Smith became involved in George Washington University's Zeta Phi Beta sorority, he made it clear that he was not your typical sorority sister. In spring 2008, Alston-Smith began what Zetas refer to as the "intake process." He knew his sisters would have a lot to take in: He asked them to call him Devin instead of his legal name, Chanise. He told them he preferred male pronouns—"he" and "his" instead of "she" and "her." At sorority events, he wore a button-down shirt and tie and a fedora over his long dreadlocked hair.
The sorority's sisters were initially welcoming, friendly, and confused. At the initiation ceremony, all sisters were required to dress in head-to-toe white. Alston-Smith had white pants, shirt, and tie, but he didn't have any white shoes, so one Zeta offered to buy him a pair. He told her he wore men's shoes, size 6½. She returned with white women's flats. "I tried to get a low heel," the Zeta explained.
"That's when I sort of knew that they didn't really get it," says Alston-Smith. He wore the women's shoes anyway, the flats uncomfortable on his feet. "I felt degraded, like I was dressing in drag or something," he says. "I know that all my signifiers, except for my clothes, indicate that I'm female. So I try to be really understanding."
Alston-Smith had never intended to become anybody's sister. "I was anti-sorority for a long time," says Alston-Smith. "Then I joined Zeta." During his sophomore year, Alston-Smith kept running into one senior Zeta around campus. She told him, "I'm a Zeta. You should come to our events and check us out," he says. He did, and the historically black sorority's commitment to "Service, Scholarship, Sisterhood, and Finer Womanhood" surprised Alston-Smith—he actually liked it. He had trouble getting his sisters to refer to him consistently with male pronouns, or truly understand what it meant to be transgender, but he knew they were making an effort. Only one Zeta, junior Vanessa White, appeared visibly uncomfortable with Alston-Smith's presence. "A lot of the members were really nice and open individuals," he says. "I felt like they were the most open sorority on campus."
That spring, Zeta Phi Beta extended Alston-Smith an offer of membership into the sorority. At his campus debut as a Zeta, which the sorority calls a "coming out show," Smith and his fellow inductee, or "line sister," Shauna Butler, performed a step routine the two had choreographed for the audience. This time, the wardrobe was Alston-Smith's choosing, down to the blue-and-white Converse shoes. The routine ended with Alston-Smith's official "unveiling" in front of his fellow sisters, the sorority's graduate chapter, his friends, and his mom. At the big reveal, the sorority president pulled the tape off of Alston-Smith's backward hat, exposing the nickname his sisters had chosen for him: "The Liberator."
Zeta Phi Beta, for all its inclusiveness, maintains a small presence at GW. The seniors who had welcomed Alston-Smith into Zeta's fold graduated and moved on in May of 2008, leaving only four members: Alston-Smith, White, Butler, and Akilah Bledsoe. White had been elected chapter president. Alston-Smith hadn't voted for her.
Over the summer, the sisters hung out regularly as friends, eating lunch together or planning step routines for the fall semester. During one choreography session for a sorority "Step and Stroll," Alston-Smith saw how his new sorority sisters' discomfort with his gender identity would be enforced. "We were learning new steps from an older [sister], and I was doing the moves differently," says Alston-Smith. "One of the routines was to a Beyoncé song, ["Get Me Bodied"] and it involved a lot of feminine gestures. I was just tweaking them so I didn't have to bend over really sexy, stuff like that," he says. "They told me I had to do it—that we were going to look stupid if I didn't." Alston-Smith stopped dancing. "I'm not going to pop it like a girl," he told them. According to Alston-Smith, they shot back: "You are a girl. You have to stop acting like a boy."
It continued that way throughout the summer—friendly interactions would inevitably devolve into critiques of Alston-Smith's clothes, his dance moves, "the way he was." Gender pronouns were a particularly sore spot. "At first, everyone seemed accepting, and it seemed like it was something that they would work on," says Alston-Smith. By the time the administration change was complete, it became clear that the resistance was more than just confusion. "I tried to compromise, because Vanessa says she doesn't feel it's morally right to call me by the male pronoun," says Alston-Smith. "I said, 'OK—don't call me by any pronoun. Just refer to 'Devin' whenever you speak about me.' But she just didn't want to budge."
When classes reconvened for the fall, it was time to show off all the summer sorority planning. Zeta's first event of the fall semester was called "Sweetest Selections," an evening where community members could learn about famous Zetas and munch on refreshments—"pastries and things like that," says Alston-Smith. As preparation, Alston-Smith read up on his chosen Zeta: Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. "She was a Zeta, but she was an outside-the-box Zeta," says Alston-Smith. "She hung out with a bunch of GLBT people. She was a visionary for her time."
White did some preparations of her own to make sure Alston-Smith didn't appear too outside-the-box. Before the event, Alston-Smith says, she called to inform him that his men's shoes would not be making an appearance. Instead, he was free to borrow another sister's dress shoes—a "girl's sort of shoe." When Alston-Smith declined, he says White raised her voice, telling him that the sisters "have to look a certain way" because "interests," or potential members, would be in attendance, and he wouldn't want to "confuse them." "She was screaming," says Alston-Smith. "I couldn't get a word in." According to Alston-Smith, he broke into tears, and White hung up.
That freed the phone line for another sister, Bledsoe, to call Alston-Smith. "If you wear my shoes, then I'm gonna have to wear some shoes that I don't like, and they're gonna hurt my feet," Alston-Smith recalls Bledsoe saying. "Get in line," she told him, suggesting he buy his own sorority-appropriate shoes. According to Alston-Smith, Bledsoe then said she'd have to get off the phone before she was forced to say something that would hurt his feelings, and hung up.
Bledsoe's feet were spared. At that point, Alston-Smith wasn't too interested in slipping on another pair of women's shoes, or regaling potential members with tales of great Zetas. Alston-Smith proved a no-show at the event, and the sorority's graduate chapter placed one more call for good measure. "They told me that no matter what, I should have gone to the event," says Alston-Smith.
The other sorority sisters spent the next few functions avoiding Alston-Smith completely. At one event, Alston-Smith stood by as White chatted up an "interest," repeatedly referring to Alston-Smith with female pronouns in the process. "It was smug, the way she did it," he says. "I gave her this look, like, What are you doing?" he says. After Alston-Smith corrected White in front of the interest, White pulled Alston-Smith aside and berated him for making the sorority look bad, he says. "Again, she said I was confusing them. She said, 'Don't do that. They're going to think that men can join us.'"
Only a month into the new semester, White notified the sorority's graduate chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta infighting and scheduled a meeting. Alston-Smith was prepared to talk about what he considered the sisters' ongoing harassment and sent an e-mail to both chapters again explaining his pronoun preference and his choice's protection under the D.C. Human Rights Act. White was prepared to talk about Alston-Smith's repeated failure to cooperate. The sisters would be joined by advisers from the graduate chapter, including former graduate chapter president Yvette Jardine, an older professional who had been a Zeta since she was an undergraduate. "I was warned about her before I even met her," says Alston-Smith. "She has a really firm belief system about what it means to be a Zeta."
Alston-Smith came prepared for the meeting with pamphlets discussing basic GLBT and transgender issues. "They didn't touch the handouts," Alston-Smith says—Jardine wanted to do the talking. "She started saying that what I am didn't fit into the mold of Zeta," he says. "She told me that I should have known not to accept the membership. She said, 'It's an organization for women,' and that they have a certain model for 'woman' that's supposed to be a part of the organization." When Alston-Smith told Jardine that continued harassment from the sisters could force the university to "take Zeta off of campus," Alston-Smith says that Jardine responded, "Well, maybe we don't want to be on this campus." She then asked Alston-Smith repeatedly if he intended to pursue legal action.
When the sisters disbanded for a break, Alston-Smith and Jardine walked silently to the restrooms. Jardine entered the women's bathroom; Alston-Smith used the men's. When the sisters reconvened, Alston-Smith says, Jardine outed his bathroom habits. "Look, she went to the men's bathroom," Jardine said. The meeting was over.
Jardine says she can't recall the specifics of the meeting, but says she would never wish the sorority off campus.
A week later, Alston-Smith received a letter stating that his Zeta Phi Beta membership had been deemed "inactive." Alston-Smith was disqualified on less controversial sorority business: He had failed to turn in a transcript on time.
Alston-Smith's place in Zeta Phi Beta is protected by a peculiar nexus of federal, District, and GW code. Federal law and GW's Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities allow social fraternal organizations to discriminate on the basis of sex. The D.C. Human Rights Act, however, prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. So while a female-born trans student, like Alston-Smith, could conceivably be legally barred from participating in an all-male fraternity, the law protects him against discrimination from a female sorority—even though his gender identity is incongruous with the traditional definition of "sisterhood."
Despite the legal back-up, when Alston-Smith brought his grievances to university police and administrators, he found he was navigating uncharted terrain. While GW's rights and responsibilities statement promises that the university does not permit discrimination based on "sexual orientation or identity," the Code of Student Conduct—a document that actually disciplines students for breaking that promise—includes no such language protecting transgender students.
University spokesperson Tracy Schario says the policy still covers trans students, as the university incorporates the D.C. Human Rights Act's gender identity protection into its own. But the absence of the phrase "gender identity" can complicate the procedure of filing a discrimination claim with the university. As Alston-Smith's grievance claim ascended the administrative ranks, he says he was told that a similar claim had never been presented to the university, that there wasn't a clear category for that form of harassment, and that the university protected sorority sex discrimination. (Alston-Smith's grievance claim is still being processed by the university).
GW's Zeta Phi Beta undergraduate sorority members did not return requests for comment. In an interview with GW Hatchet Staff Writers Alli Hoff and Emily Cahn, White denied the harassment—while employing the female pronoun. "[Alston-Smith] chose not to participate by not turning in that transcript.…She made it clear she wanted nothing to do with us." In an e-mail, Jardine seconded the denial. "The undergraduate chapter members knew that Devin/Chanise identified as a lesbian prior to joining," Jardine wrote. "Devin/Chanise is not the first lesbian member of the organization. Zeta does not discriminate." Even when sorority members continue to refer to Devin with female pronouns, Jardine says, it's not harassment. "You try to remember, but sometimes you slip up. This is new territory for our sorority."
When Alston-Smith stopped attending sorority events, he withdrew from other parts of his life as well. He began to skip classes. Instead, he would hole up, crying, in his dorm room. As the fall semester neared its end, he decided he couldn't come back—he would take a leave of absence and spend the spring semester at home, in Connecticut. Before Alston-Smith left, he gathered all his Zeta paraphernalia and destroyed it. He ripped apart his letter jacket and scratched out the Zeta Phi Beta emblem on the sorority plaque. He smashed his paddle and tore up the keepsake boxes gifted to him by former sisters. He gathered the blue-and-white mess and placed it in a trash bag. On top, he wrote a note: "You took the liberty of ruining things for me. Now I am returning them to you. All my best, Devin." He left the bag on White's doorstep.
Jardine called the gesture a "vicious act of violence." Zeta Phi Beta has filed a complaint against Alston-Smith with the university.
"It wasn't a violent or a vicious act. It was a final cry of submission," says Alston-Smith. "At that point, I had given up."
Photo courtesy Devin Alston-Smith