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For transgender student, Greek life alluring, but elusive

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Emily Kaufman was wearing white jeans, a pink tank top and flats on her first day of sorority recruitment. A sophomore at the University of Michigan, originally from northern Delaware, this was one the outfits she had carefully picked out to rush 15 sororities.

Eight months ago, Emily did not exist in the eyes of Delaware, the University of Michigan or her peers. She was Sam Kaufman, not Samantha as her Instagram, now speckled with colorful selfies and transformation pictures, touts as her middle name. Sam was a male teenager who lifted weights in high school, played competitive football and faithfully followed basketball. Now, Sam exists only if you scroll far enough back on that Instagram profile.

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Emily Kaufman

Emily said she knew she was a female from a young age. She remembers her excitement when her mom painted her nails red as a child or when she wore a dress in pre-school. As she grew past what she jokingly called the "pre-cooties" phase, the more deep-rooted her feminine tendencies became, as did her attempts to resist them.

"I embodied the epitome of masculinity with the sports and being muscular and only hanging out with guys and being 'bros'," said Emily. But by her last semester of high school, she struggled with depression, unsure of her identity.

When she came to the University of Michigan as Sam Kaufman, she joined gender inclusive housing, telling people she was bi-sexual instead of transgender. She grappled with self-identification and began seeing a therapist, ultimately deciding that the only way to live an authentic life was to transition, even if it meant losing some security.

"As a white, straight, cisgender male that I presented as prior, I had almost all the social privilege. ... Being a woman and a trans-woman makes me more marginalized," she said.

In October 2014, she took testosterone blockers and in January 2015, she began to take estrogen. Emily recalls this as the time in which her female identity came to fruition.

"When I went to the doctor's appointment to get the prescription ... the feeling that I had inside of just pure joy," said Emily. "It was something I had never experienced before and from that moment ... I knew that I am a woman."

With her transition underway, Emily became a leader of transgender activism on campus. She joined multiple LGBTQ executive boards and pursued a major in social theory and practice. Identifying with women and drawn to the idea of sisterhood, she dreamed of being in sorority. Yet, she did not think this dream was feasible until her transition.

"I knew that I would always regret not rushing if I didn't at least try."

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Emily Kaufman

This dream drove Emily to legally change her identity. In June of 2015, Emily changed her name in the state of Delaware and worked towards changing her legal gender. Back at school, she replicated much of this process to gain recognition of her name and gender with the university. Then, as Emily Kaufman, a female in the eyes of the University of Michigan and the state of Delaware, she registered for sorority recruitment and lined up her outfits.

More than 1,000 students registered for sorority recruitment this year at the school. The Panhellenic Association, or "Panhel," represents all sororities on campus and oversees the process of sorority recruitment.

"It's a mutual selection process ... so the chapters can choose who they'd like to invite back and then the potential new members can choose which chapters they'd like to attend again," explained Madeline Walsh, the 2015 President of the University of Michigan Panhellenic Association .

With the basis of her identity at risk of being questioned, Emily entered first sets, the initial round of sorority rush, with apprehension. "I didn't know if the girls were going to look at me different or treat me different or if they would be able to tell," said Emily.

The current members are acutely aware of their first impressions as well, chanting songs and wearing matching outfits to try and be memorable and cohesive as hundreds of potential new members come through their houses. Amid the whirlwind of the first of four sets, Emily said positive moments stood out.

"The first house I went to a girl came up to me and said 'I was in your women's studies class when you gave the talk about trans issues and I think it's really amazing what you're doing,'" Emily recalled. "One girl came up to me and was like 'Any sorority would be lucky to have you.'"

Of the dozens of women she spoke with, she estimated around five or six definitely knew she was transgender. She was deliberate in who she shared her transgender identity with, fearing some may be "transphobic."

Marlee Beckering, a senior in the Women's Studies major, was one of the women Emily opened up to during first sets. "She said she spoke to the Women's Studies community and I got really excited," said Beckering. "It unlocked this whole amazing conversation about her journey and her experiences on campus. ... I was so excited ... not only to meet her but encourage her and just congratulate her."

Emily felt hopeful after first sets, excited to see which chapters called her back. She anticipated her list eagerly, tempering her expectations that seven to nine houses would call her back, but secretly hoping her top 11 would invite her to second sets.

"I really thought that I would get a lot of bids and that I would end up joining a sorority so when I opened that letter, that piece of paper," Emily paused, remembering her own anticipation. "It only had three sororities listed. My heart just dropped."

Many of those initial insecurities returned as she wondered why many houses did not invite her back.

"Whenever things like this happen and I'm surprised by outcomes, I always think 'Is it because I'm trans?' and I think I'll always have that in the back of my mind because I can never know."

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Emily Kaufman

Emily came close to dropping out of the process. "One thing I've learned in my life is to not associate with people that don't want you," she said. Emily spoke with her close friends and thought carefully about her choices. She believed that two of the three houses could potentially be a fit for her. Refocusing back on the positivity from first sets she continued on to second sets, determined to find that sense of sisterhood that compelled her to rush.

Emily built up confidence through second sets, not just as a potential new member, but as a woman. She became more comfortable with the other women rushing. She wore her outfit for second sets and looked ahead to the dresses she had planned for the sets to come. With this, she felt confident in her connection with two of the chapters she revisited.

"I felt like I had a good experience," said Emily. "But then when I got my list back, they weren't on the list."

Only one house invited her back to third sets.

"At this point I realized ... if there's only one, even if it was my favorite one, if there's only one, it eliminates the option of choice," said Emily. "I felt that since none of the other 14 houses thought I was worth taking into third sets, I didn't think they were ready for a girl like me."

With this realization, Emily dropped out of sorority recruitment. Emily expressed her frustration, not with the individual women who rushed her, but with the system of Greek Life and the norms it enforces. "They could say 'We really like this transgender girl, but what will the fraternities think?'"

"With this gender binary in mind, there's a long way to go where it comes to transgender inclusion," said Walsh in regard to Panhel's role. "We're just now beginning to hear from and learn from what some of the roadblocks are for the trans community. ... The next steps of that work are to really listen to transgender women, to hear from them how Greek life can be a more welcoming and inclusive space."

In April 2015, Walsh spearheaded the creation of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which focuses on improving the Greek community for those with marginalized identities.

"The university is rolling out their diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan, so it's really cool to be able to see that we as members of Greek life can be a part of the greater movement," said Walsh. She stated that Greek organizations can "hopefully use the sense of sisterhood and brotherhood that we have in our organizations to further these conversations."

This task force comes in light of recent controversies concerning diversity in Greek life. Footage of Sigma Alpha Epsilon's racist chants at the University of Oklahoma sparked outrage and the ultimate disbandment of the chapter at OU last spring. Over the summer, sorority recruitment videos like Alpha Phi's from the University of Alabama were criticized for displaying a lack of diversity and reinforcing stereotypes.

This past fall, students accused a Yale Sigma Alpha Epsilon's chapter of denying people entry into a party based on race and an anonymous post on GreekRank.com entitled "Reasons black women do not and will not get bids" at Southern Methodist University went viral. These events culminated into national coverage and creation of task forces but widespread change is still to come.

"I would say it's definitely in the discussion phase," said Lexi Wung 2016 U of M Panhellenic President, concerning the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. "We have together an amazing group of people that meet up weekly...we want to have that change and we want it to come out of us."

With these hopes of change to come, Emily still looks at the experience as a positive.

"Even though I didn't end up joining, there was the potential for me to be in one and it wasn't extremely far-fetched. So I think that going forward, if any trans women see my experience of rush and they felt the same sort of need or want for sisterhood ... they can feel like they can be accepted," said Emily. "It shows that trans women are women."

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