As I descend into the basement, familiar colorful murals surround me. In them, familiar Greek letters make appearances while cartoon Wile E. Coyotes and Road Runners eat spaghetti, re-enact the birth of Venus, and face each other as foosball figurines. I reach the bottom and begin making my way through the rooms. The game room smells like an old, decrepit basement, the pool and foosball tables look lonely, and the ancient black couch slouches into itself. The kitchen has spots on the floor. For nearly two years, these sacred spaces have been abandoned. Moisture crept in and pooled, dust settled into corners, and scarcely a breeze blew through the building.
Growing up, the only Greek letters I knew were symbols used in math class: Delta meant change of a quantity; theta represented the angle of a triangle; and alpha and beta were placeholder variables. I never thought much of it. During those years of my life, I was more concerned with the calamity that was questioning my identity. At the outset, I started wearing slacks and button-downs, men’s novelty t-shirts and oversized jackets. I cut all of my hair off. The internal joy I felt in this new appearance was overshadowed by the embarrassment I felt at school, where I was hyper-aware of the feminine role I refused to play.
Another change I made as a teenager was more physical—tattoos. In my high school bedroom one afternoon, my friend hunched over my ribcage, carefully pricking my skin over and over with a needle securely fastened to the end of a Ticonderoga #2. Her blonde hair was tied back and her face was chiseled with concentration. The final result turned out well. It was a heart, or more accurately, a less-than sign and a three. Afterwards, I sketched more ideas, my favorite being an ouroboros (a snake eating its tail) weaving in and out of a Greek delta symbol: a self-created symbol of eternal change. After I outlined the tattoo sketch of the ouroboros snake and delta with an ink pen, I moved on with my life. By senior year of high school, I was exhausted and irritated by the routine of steady hometown life. It seemed like something in the atmosphere latched onto all of us, pacifying us into a languid state. I was anxious to leave Des Moines and meet new people, have new experiences. To be around other nonconforming, queer people. To find some place where I belonged.
When I arrived at Brown, I first entered the door under the Greek letters with several other eager first-years ready to step into any college party we were allowed into. We spilled over each other toward the music echoing through the basement. People twirled on the table and dance floor, pop music raged, and a strip of lights flashed luminescent blue then green then red onto the dancers. It was easy to melt into the crowd, nodding our heads and swaying our hips. At the same time, it was hard not to notice the interesting decorations: license plates from Hawaii, Idaho, and more lined the top of one wall above appropriated traffic signs. Posters with contact information for any concerns or issues during parties were taped to the doors. And on the ceiling, unnoticed by the patrons, was a painting of the Creation of Adam with two revisions. It was not Adam, but Wile E. Coyote, and it was not God, but Road Runner.
After that night, I kept coming back. Members of the house introduced themselves to us. There was Taja, with long hair, offering us water or a walk home. There was Christien, full of energy and charisma, dancing with us. And there were my friends and me, laughing and smiling and swaying. The next semester, I did my readings in the lounge and rarely missed a chance to hang out or dance in the basement. I learned that the symbols above the door stood for Zeta Delta Xi, the name of a co-educational fraternity that I happened to stumble upon. That was how most people found it, they told me: stumbling.
The origins of “Greek life” as we know it began in the mid to late 1800s, when college students began gathering to discuss and debate over topics not included in rigid curricula, including current events and literature. These informal groups evolved over time into organized debating and literary societies. Within these organizations, students developed deeper relationships and, in addition to the intellectual element, began to hold social events like parties and dances. Group members often lived together, and classic fraternity houses became more popular close to the early 20th century. The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776, chose Greek letters because they corresponded with their secret motto “Philosophia Bios Kybernethes” or “Philosophy is the guide to life.” Future organizations followed suit.
Fraternities as we know them today draw criticism for reports of hazing and mistreatment of pledges. The majority of Zetes, including myself, never considered themselves someone who could belong to such institutions. We found that Zete was, well, different. The history of Zete is unique, and more closely tied to inclusivity and diversity than most fraternities. Zeta Delta Xi is an independent fraternity that was created from the ashes of Zeta Psi, an all-male national chapter that didn’t recognize the female officers that our chapter began recruiting in 1982. On January 24, 1987, Zeta Delta Xi was born as a local, co-educational fraternity. As a local chapter we had the power to customize our rush and pledging process over time to be more comfortable, consensual, safe, and inclusive.
The rush events I attended that first spring ran the gamut, with astrology, milkshakes, and healing circles all in the mix. I learned more about this non-fraternity-like fraternity that I was about to join, comprised of an eclectic group of students: queer, not queer, students of color, bookworms and actors, drinkers and sobears, from all class years and backgrounds. There was something magnetic about Zete. About walking into the lounge, plopping down, and, like a weary adult, basking in the comfort of coming home after a long day. And there was the feeling of being translucent, seen for exactly who I was and being completely and utterly welcome. At this point, fraternity is almost a misnomer. Family would be more accurate.
Many months after I became a brother, I lifted my paintbrush to the game room wall, tracing Road Runner in black. The bird is poised in mid-air, jumping toward a Smash ball. Lex, another member, worked on the sharp lettering. These walls have seen so much, I thought to myself. The memories flooded back. Grinning glitter highlighting my cheeks, surrounded by voices and bodies. Sitting on the couch, feeling the bass pulses from a Kim Petras song reverberate through my body as others conversed. Now I was not a visitor, but the host, making a mark on the walls of my home.
Over my time at Brown, I have dipped my toes in many different groups, extracurriculars, courses, friend groups, and concentrations. Looking, always looking, but for something I couldn’t place. To me, Zete is the first organization that made me feel fully and intimately a part of something larger than myself, its traditions and history instilled into me, its future bare in my hands. I’ve worn many hats at Zete: I planned parties as a Social Chair, organized events as Vice President, and this semester, I ascended to presidency. Intimidated by the position, I frequently awoke this summer from nightmares about mishandling the organization or making mistakes. As time progressed, I grew more confident in trusting myself and my brotherhood to continue to make Zete a better place. Reflecting on the tattoo sketch, still safe in my drawer, I find comfort in knowing that there will always be change and progress. And I know when I look back years from now, I won’t forget the community I had. There are too many memories to write down: running around campus in the middle of the night with my Zete brothers, helping each other with problem sets, binge watching Squid Game together, and dancing until I was sore.
The rituals and comforts of our home were disrupted by the pandemic; our members were scattered around the world and the doors to our spaces locked. As the fall unfolds, our home reawakens. Amidst all of the uncertainty, it’s reassuring to know that my brothers and I have the opportunity to live together again. We mopped up the water, cleaned the couches, arranged the furniture, installed air filters, and revived the dance floor. We returned, and our doors are open.
Brotherhood and fraternity do well in expressing the familial ties that exist in Zeta Delta Xi. Currently, I sit at my desk on the second floor of our house, surrounded by my community and grateful for this reflection on this place that is not just a place but a home, a home that is not just a home but a family, a family that is not limited to our current brotherhood but which extends to members and alumni who joined decades before me. I look forward to meeting all the new members that will inherit our home and transform it, meeting members who already have, and working with the current brotherhood to continue the work that began decades earlier. Transitioning back to being on campus is definitely a struggle, but being back in my unique home makes it all the better. And, down in the basement, I imagine the decades-old murals shine just as brightly as they did the day they were painted.