Featured in Fusion’s Spring 2022 Issue
“I have gained leadership skills, confidence, and sisters I can count on for a lifetime.”
“We are beyond excited to support these guys as they begin their journey to brotherhood.”
“I had so much in common with all the ladies I talked to I know I would fit right in.”
The Instagram feeds from Kent State’s sororities and fraternities pair statements of belonging and acceptance with pictures and calls for recruitment, encouraging followers to join their chapter. However, the feeds also feature an emphasis on the gender binary that undermines their message of inclusion, particularly for trans and nonbinary students who might be interested in Greek life.
The gender binary is the division of all people into the categories of male and female, and, as the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains, it is a social construct. This means that while it is “typically thought to be immutable and solely biological,” it is actually a product “of human definition and interpretation shaped by cultural and historical contexts.” As a social construct, the gender binary has become central to modern Western life, determining what hobbies, interests, relationships and social groups are acceptable for an individual raised in this society.
The gender binary also forms the basis for Greek life, as Greek organizations are divided into two types: fraternities, which are traditionally intended for male members, and sororities, traditionally intended for female members. This automatically complicates membership for trans and nonbinary students who may want to join. As visibility and rights of trans and nonbinary people are on the rise, some chapters are adapting, and Campus Pride, a national nonprofit that works to create safer campuses for queer students, has crafted a set of guiding principles for trans inclusivity in Greek life (see below).
Campus Pride Guiding Principles Include:
1) A policy change is only one part of a trans-inclusive culture. This principle encourages not just a policy that allows trans and nonbinary people to join and prohibits transphobia but also changes to make sororities and fraternities more welcoming. These could include trans and nonbinary representation in leadership, universal pronoun sharing and the adoption of gender-neutral language, dress codes, bathrooms, and living accommodations.
2) A successful policy provides definitions and explanations. Diversity training, both about queerness in general and trans identities specifically, should be provided, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that actively work to address trans inequality should be implemented.
3) A successful policy makes trans inclusion accessible. For example, medical or legal documentation should not be required to change one’s pronouns or name.
4) Policies must be readily accessible to all audiences. This will ensure that all members of the campus community, including potential new Greek life members, are aware that Greek life is accepting and has implemented change to support their acceptance.
Of the 35 fraternities and sororities at Kent State University, only seven responded to requests for interviews about how their chapters follow or fail to follow these principles.
Ben Collopy, president of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, was unable to participate, saying in an email that “per Alpha Tau Omega Nationals, chapter members are not allowed to comment for any news print including student media.”
Similarly, Julia Hoover of the Sigma Sigma Sigma PR team stated in an email that due to “rules that our sorority has,” she would be unable to participate.
Kaleya Pipkins, the vice president of Zeta Phi Beta sorority who identifies as a lesbian, also declined to participate, citing “confidentiality issues” in an email. However, she stated that, “It is very liberating to know that people whom identify the same as me can join such organizations and be accepted … I strive to continue on building inclusive environments on campus.”
Allie Chapple, president of Delta Zeta sorority, originally agreed to participate but eventually dropped out, writing in an email that “internal conflict” at her chapter made her unable to answer any questions. Chapple was likely referring to Delta Zeta’s hazing allegations. According to KentWired, the university issued a cease and desist notice to the chapter for violating the university’s code of student conduct, meaning that the chapter can no longer participate in activities, and is currently investigating the allegations. The Delta Zeta national council has suspended the chapter’s operations until the investigation is complete.
Tom Jakubowski, president of Delta Tau Delta, said in an interview that “trans men, no question … they’re always welcome,” and that during the recruitment process, Delta Tau Delta “definitely stresses diversity.” He explained that Delta Tau Delta’s policies that are friendly to trans members include meeting in a space with gender-neutral restrooms, not requiring any gendered clothing, allowing members to go by a chosen name, establishing an anti-discrimination policy, and requiring members to go through diversity training.
“Fraternities and sororities, the way a lot of them are set up now, they kind of have a pretty binary setup and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” Jakubowski continued, ”but I think there is definitely a lot of room for organizations to have a more modern understanding of gender and hopefully, more organizations will kind of fill that role in the future.”
Meghan Skeldon, diversity chair of Phi Mu, explained that anyone who identifies as female is permitted to join the chapter. Phi Mu also meets in a space with gender-neutral restrooms, has no gendered clothing requirements, allows members to go by chosen names, has an anti-discrimination policy and includes pronouns on nametags and in introductions at events.
Skeldon also seemed particularly aware of the shortcomings of the current system, saying, “While we have come so far from where Greek life has been in the past, I still think there are a lot of improvements that need to be made, not only in just Phi Mu but on a national level … it really is like a systemic issue.”
She also acknowledged that policy and language changes are not enough, suggesting that aesthetic changes are also important to trans and nonbinary inclusion: “The aesthetic is still very gendered, so I think that can kind of steer people away. It is very in-your-face. Improving in that area is something we can do better.”
Finally, Chi Omega’s president Maya Huffman described that the chapter meets in a space with gender-neutral bathrooms, allows members to go by chosen names, requires diversity training and is phasing in pronouns on nametags and in introductions at events. However, Huffman describes that their membership policy is “kind of like a gray area” regarding trans and nonbinary people.
“As long as the individual was born a female, they are still able to join the organization,” she said in an interview in September 2021. “So, you know, if they are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, as long as they were born a female, they are allowed to join the organization.”
Huffman later clarified that Chi Omega’s national policy was changed in January 2021 “to include females and individuals who identify as women.” Chi Omega’s national website states, “As the understanding of gender has evolved, it is vital that Chi Omega’s membership policy reflects this evolving definition of gender.”
Huffman also noted the importance of Kent State’s Panhellenic Council in the recruitment process in terms of communicating different chapters’ openness to trans and nonbinary members.
The Panhellenic Council is a governing body that presides over several sorority chapters at Kent State, including Chi Omega, Delta Zeta, Sigma Sigma Sigma and Phi Mu. The Council is one of three Greek life governing bodies at Kent State. The other two, Interfraternity Council and Integrated Greek Council, did not respond to interview requests.
Sage Mason, the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion of the Kent State Panhellenic Council, wrote in an email that “while the Panhellenic Council does prioritize diversity and inclusion, each chapter does have its own requirements for membership. With that said as a Council we cannot speak on behalf of each individual chapter … even with policies created by the National Panhellenic Conference.”
Kent State’s Panhellenic Council is tied to the National Panhellenic Conference, which has a lackluster record on trans and nonbinary rights. According to the Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, the National Panhellenic Conference was scheduled to vote on a measure in April 2021 that would have allowed sororities to determine their own definitions of womanhood, which “would have ultimately allowed gender-nonconforming students to join sororities.” However, the Conference decided not to hold the vote, which was viewed by inclusion advocates as a disappointment and an anti-trans message in and of itself.
The Panhellenic, Interfraternity and Integrated Greek Councils are all under the umbrella of the Center for Student Involvement (CSI). Dennis Campbell, the Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life for CSI, stated that “our office doesn’t have an individualized stance. We support all students in finding organizations that fit them and supporting our organizations making decisions through their international bylaws and policies that they have.
He added that the variety of policies held by national fraternities and sororities can make it difficult for individual chapters to navigate the issue, saying, “Our office specifically focuses a lot on having conversations and engaging in education and development of our members. I support all members of the trans community. I support rights…as well as having conversations with our members about that. I actively encourage our students to go to their national conventions, to bring forward conversations, to challenge the status quo. That’s part of social justice and moving the needle.”
Regardless of the differences between Delta Tau Delta, Phi Mu, and Chi Omega’s policies and positions, none of these chapter leaders knew of any trans or nonbinary members who had joined, let alone held leadership positions. However, this lack of knowledge from these three chapters does not mean that there are no trans and nonbinary members of Greek life as a whole.
One trans Kent State student and former fraternity member, who chose to remain anonymous, was not out to his chapter but described that he felt motivated to join Greek life “because I just never had that, like, large group of male friends … so I found it very appealing.” However, he never found the affirmation that he was looking for, describing, “I was trying to be as stealth as I could because I didn’t really want to be any more oddball than I already felt, so that constant fear that, ‘oh my god, I’m going to get outed,’ was always there and every single action I took around them, I was like ‘god, is this going to be the thing that makes them think I’m different?'”
He did come out as trans to a few members of the fraternity, who were all “fine with it,” and believes that if he had been out, he would have been accepted. However, he also pointed out that “every organization is different. It’s not like every Greek life has the same values, the same people, and, you know, the same acceptance rate … statistically, you’re going to have some that aren’t accepting, and you don’t know who it is,” especially in large chapters. That range in beliefs “makes it very difficult to make that leap of faith” for potential trans members.
He stated that ultimately, he was glad that he joined a fraternity but also glad that he left, saying, “I think it was an impactful moment in my life and I learned a lot of things about myself. One of those things is that I cannot interact with large groups of cis men … just because there’s a huge fear and imposter syndrome.” He recommended that trans people who are interested in joining Greek life seriously consider their personal ability to interact with people who hold differing opinions about queerness, recognizing that it “definitely isn’t for everyone.”
He also acknowledged that he felt the lack of trans and nonbinary-friendliness in Greek life is due more to ignorance and circumstance rather than outright transphobia. “It’s just like a giant echo chamber there, so there’s not a lot of room for education about those topics,” he said. “I do think that they want to be inclusive to trans people and it’s simply, you know, they just don’t have good opportunities to show it and I think that’s just because of how Greek life is built … I don’t necessarily think that people there are bad or transphobic. I think they just don’t know how.”
He cited diversity training and taking queer people’s concerns seriously as potential solutions, a message that was echoed by Amoaba Gooden, the Vice President for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Kent State.
“I think that this is an issue for Kent State as well as for the fraternities and the sororities to address so that they are actually being inclusive,” she said, noting that DEI is open to assisting Greek life chapters in becoming more inclusive. “One of the things that we love to do is collaborate with units and student organizations, as well as the LGBTQ+ Center and the other identity centers in student affairs, so certainly we’d be able to collaborate, offer resources, whether it’s workshops or having conversations about what it means to take a step to be more inclusive.”
Gooden also stressed the importance of students speaking up about inequity, saying, “The onus is really on the Kent State community to explore policies, procedures, and processes to see where those barriers are that exclude and address them.”
Change in the Greek life system is possible. Alpha Delta Epsilon, a gender-inclusive group at the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, has made sweeping changes to traditional Greek life practices in order to make their organization trans and nonbinary-friendly.
The chapter’s constitution has been updated to eliminate gendered requirements for membership and include explicit protections for trans and nonbinary members. Gendered spaces, clothing, and even language have been almost completely phased out—the members, who are known as “siblings,” form a “siblinghood.” In addition to participating in Round Robin, SUNY Geneseo’s traditional sorority rush process that is inaccessible to many trans and nonbinary people, Alpha Delta Epsilon also promotes the group at general student club fairs and does outreach that emphasizes their gender inclusivity. All new members are required go through university diversity training before officially joining, and discussions of how to be even more inclusive of trans and nonbinary members is an ongoing feature of the chapter’s programming.
As a result, the chapter has attracted many trans and nonbinary members, several of whom hold leadership positions. Abby Cahill, the group’s secretary and recruitment chair, is nonbinary and said that the gender inclusivity of the chapter is a large part of what drew them to Alpha Delta Epsilon.
They feel it’s important to continue that work and have trans and nonbinary leadership as part of the process, even though “it can be kind of difficult” since there are few examples of successfully inclusive Greek life organizations.
For example, Alpha Delta Epsilon is still registered with SUNY Geneseo’s Office of Fraternal Life as a sorority because there is no gender-neutral option. However, the current officers are trying to change that.
“We’re talking about changing from a sorority—not to a fraternity … but to something that might be more inclusive in terms of naming,” Cahill explained. “Our president prepared a document for us to look at with a lot of information and research that she did, and we’ve been talking with the administration.”
They feel that their organization’s impact on gender inclusivity has sparked interest from other fraternities and sororities.
“Some people have actually expressed that they want to push to be more inclusive in terms of their membership,” Cahill said. “Some other orgs have seen that inclusion and diversity attract people to their org because they know that they can find connections with a bunch of different people and get a deeper understanding of the world.”