Societal conceptions of gender, sexuality and identity have evolved since the establishment of the first Greek lettered organizations in the 18th century. Alongside, and often behind, the times, the sororities and fraternities of modern college campuses have evolved as universities have become more explicit in their protection and inclusion of students.
Greek life institutionally operates on a gender binary, with specific groups for men and women. This creates inherent heteronormativity — or the assumption that everyone is a straight, cisgender individual — in the system itself, which can actualize in exclusive language and practices.
“Greek life is inherently heteronormative,” a queer sorority member, who wishes to remain anonymous, says. “Sororities are destined to mix with fraternities, and for date parties, members often are forced to bring someone of the opposite gender as a date. I’d imagine that individuals who identify as trans or non-binary don’t feel welcome in the Greek community because of its inherent existence on the binaries of gender,”
Language used within Greek life often mirrors this institutional heteronormativity, particularly placing a burden on women to make a favorable impression on fraternity members. Emily Simon, a senior in Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority who is gay, has noticed these subtle yet meaningful language biases in her own organization.
“Fraternities and sororities mix, and there’s an idea that this has a big impact on your social status,” Simon says. “Women have said things like, ‘Remember to talk to the boys at the mixer, we want them to like us.’”
Heteronormative language and policies can have a real impact on how students experience their organization.
“I feel supported by my close friends in my chapter, but don’t necessarily feel like the chapter as a whole does much to support people who identify as queer,” the anonymous student says. “It is assumed that everyone in the sorority is straight unless they come out as otherwise.”
On an institutional level, Greek life at the university defers to university policies when it comes to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to Corin Edwards, director of fraternity and sorority leadership and learning in the Division of Student Life , Greek life organizations nationally have Title IX exemption, which allows for gender-based discrimination, such as many organizations’ exclusive acceptance of only men or women.
“From a university perspective, Panhellenic recruitment is open to anyone identifies as a woman,” Edwards says. “We don’t check any identification or what they put on their university application.”
Greek organizations are taking steps on both institutional and individual levels to become more open and inclusive, beginning with recruitment. Edwards mentioned plans to work with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to bring in trainings and incorporate events on gender and sexual orientation into Chapter Assessment Program, a personal development standard for Greek organization. Additionally, there is a push to set inclusive standards from the beginning in making recruitment a more values-based process.
“If you recruit based on the fact that you are completely homogenous and not open to diversity, any trainings we bring in are not going to impact the values of the organization,” Edwards says. “Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council (IFC) is predominantly white, more so than the general student population. We need to pay attention to what kind of messages were sending. If someone came to our rush event, would they see people that look like them? Would they get the message that they are welcome there?”
Despite some of the institutional difficulties, many queer students are still able to find a home in Greek life.
“I think at least the Panhellenic community is very open and accepting,” Simon says. “I’ve never had a bad interaction with anyone in a sorority.”
Currently, organizations can hold themselves accountable for being supportive and inclusive to their members by shifting expectations and assumptions.
“The leadership in each chapter should encourage people to be themself by making the chapter space an open space,” Simon says.