Sean Finn never thought he would join a fraternity.
“I was very skeptical at first because I had really bad impressions of fraternities in the past and of Greek life generally,” said Finn, a transgender man who’s currently a sophomore at the University of Iowa, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Finn didn’t think any fraternity would appeal to him because he thought Greek life represented a culture of “toxic masculinity.” But he soon realized that Delta Lambda Phi’s Gamma Gamma Chapter was different. After attending recruitment events and social events hosted by the fraternity, he realized the brothers were more open-minded and friendly than he expected — and he eventually joined the fraternity during his second semester.
As trans visibility in the media has increased in the past few years, trans students say they’re seeing a change in cisgender students’ understanding of what it means to be transgender. That attitude shift is spurring more inclusion of trans students in Greek organizations.
Although many Greek organizations are still either unwelcoming to trans students or simply haven’t had a serious discussion about it yet, some Greek umbrella organizations and individual chapters are making it clear that they want to be more accepting.
“I have seen a big change with individuals, with programming and events at the University of Iowa and conversations being had with individuals and in particular individuals within Greek life to spread awareness of transgender people, and that conversation is really picking up,” Finn said. “I think individuals’ points of view changing is bringing organizations’ points of view over that way as well.”
Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity, for example, recently passed a nondiscrimination policy and recommended clarifying membership terms for the fraternity. The policy now states, “Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Delta Tau Delta is open to all men of superior character including transgender males.”
Why transgender students say Greek life is important
Trans students who spoke to ThinkProgress said they were drawn to joining a fraternity or sorority because Greek organizations offer a different level of closeness compared to other student groups on campus. Members know they can find each other all over the country or the world, which can be very reassuring.
Finn decided to become a fraternity brother, for example, because he was looking to meet different people after spending a semester at the university, and because members know they can rely on each other when necessary.
“Being a part of it it really provided a social community experience I don’t think I would have found without it, so joining the fraternity gave me a sense of community, a sense that I belong,” Finn said. “It made me feel like I had a place at the University of Iowa and that I could turn to any single member and say I need your help with X, Y, or Z. Could you help me? Or I’m going through a rough time. I’m able to rely on any single member to have my back and really support me — and though you can make friends at the university or through student organizations, you really don’t have common values and those common ideals.”
Aubrey Sassoon, a transgender woman attending the University of California, Los Angeles, hasn’t found a sorority that she thinks would be the right fit for her yet. But the idea of a sorority is appealing, she said, thanks to her experience as a binary-identified trans woman.
“Being a trans woman is lonely,” Sassoon said. “Having that love from a group of sisters that I can be emotionally vulnerable to and have this social bond with… the idea that there is this whole social network of women across the country and across the world of sisters, that sounds incredibly appealing to someone who is going through this experience that is very lonely.”
How Greek organizations and chapters are making progress
More sororities and fraternities have been opening up membership to trans students to the past few years, with Trinity University’s Zeta Chi sorority allowing a trans woman to rush the sorority as far back as six years ago (although the sorority sisters did not remember to use her correct pronouns in their announcement that she would be given the opportunity). Since then, there have been many more examples of Greek organizations’ chapters considering trans students.
In the fall of last year, Missouri State University’s Xi Omicron Iota sorority changed its bylaws to accept anyone who “identifies as a girl.” The national fraternity organization Sigma Phi Epsilon announced it would consider transgender men in the summer of last year. Gamma Rho Lambda became the first LGBT-inclusive sorority at the University of Texas in March of last year.
The National Multicultural Greek Council can’t hand down orders to individual chapters on how to consider trans students, according to vice president Garrett Bates. But there are other ways to work toward inclusion.
Bates said there will be an event held at the Mu Sigma Upsilon National Convention — a convention for the sororities associated with the National Multicultural Greek Council — that will discuss cultural competency, recruitment, and advocacy of transgender Greek members. The event will be hosted by Grayson Thompson, a queer transgender man of color who is currently studying for his Doctorate of Education degree.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sean Finn
“I believe for Multicultural Greek Organizations, we have the opportunity to set a precedent on issues that are plaguing our communities right now at the global level,” Grayson wrote in his description of the event. “It is somewhat expected for Greek organizations of color to be, whether consciously or subconsciously, discriminatory toward the LGBTQ+ community and I believe we can bigger and more diverse than those stereotypes. This presentation is an opportunity to learn, ask questions (if appropriate), and explore your own beliefs, policies, and standards of the letters you represent.”
Besides simply gaining entry into Greek organizations, there have been uplifting reports of transgender members being supported at fraternities and sororities once they are accepted. Emerson College’s Phi Alpha Tau Fraternity made headlines in 2013 when they supported their transgender fraternity brother, Donnie Collins, by raising money for his top surgery since his insurance company declined to pay for it. At the time of publication of the BuzzFeed story reporting on the brothers’ fundraising efforts, they had already raised $16,000. The fraternity brothers said transgender fraternity brothers pledged a couple years before, which likely contributed to the fact the that the brothers were welcoming and supportive of Collins as a brother.
At Chapman University, a transgender woman was nominated by the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity to compete for the crown of Miss Delta Queen, which is hosted the university’s Greek system. The student, who won the title of Miss Congeniality, said she was working on creating the university’s first “fraority,” a gender-neutral Greek organization.
What is the best process to accept trans members?
But when it comes to transgender people joining fraternities and sororities, there are some other questions to consider. How do Greek organizations decide who to admit? Should fraternities and sororities be in the business of trying to determine gender? Should they simply allow those who say they identify as male or female to be considered for membership, or should they ask for some form of documentation?
Delta Tau Delta’s executive vice president, Jim Russell, told ThinkProgress via email that they will eschew a surgery-based or hormone-based standard and will follow the same rules as for U.S. passport issuance and Social Security Administration identification document gender change standards, which require a letter from a medical professional showing that there was appropriate clinical treatment for a gender transition.
“We will continue to follow developments in the law and government policy, as well as best practices in the higher education and transgender health communities to guide amendments to this policy as move forward,” Russell stated.
When ThinkProgress asked how exactly fraternity brothers would decide who is asked for this information — will only people who “appear” to be transgender to brothers be asked for this information? Will all men interested in becoming fraternity brothers provide this documentation? — Russell did not respond.
Some of the transgender students ThinkProgress spoke to were especially turned off by the idea that trans students should have to do any to be considered besides stating their gender to be considered for membership in a Greek organization. In some states — such as Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee — a trans individual needs to get some type of surgery or hormone treatment in order to officially change their gender on a birth certificate. Many people can’t afford these surgeries and treatments.
“It feels like asking, are you man enough?” said Harper Zacharias, a genderqueer student from Chicago who is attending Bard College in Upstate New York.
CREDIT: courtesy of Harper Zacharias
One of the challenges, both executives at Greek organizations and trans students say, is that it is difficult for umbrella organizations like the National Multicultural Greek Council to ensure there is one consistent policy toward trans students enforced at their chapters.
Zacharias said they are concerned that no matter what the national organization says, individual chapters still may not want to accept trans members — and the fact that Greek organizations are not held accountable through Title IX makes it even less likely that resistant chapters will consider changing their acceptance process.
“There is no specification on how they should be run. They’re just run by national boards and so the only thing that’s difficult for trans cases is the chapter within an individual school,” Zacharias said. “They might be much more prejudiced than a national board is, so while a trans kid may be able to rush and think, ‘Yes I’ll be accepted at this sorority,’ the kids running it may not be as accepting.”
Fraternities and sororities are also protected by their exclusivity, said Emet Tauber, a transgender man attending SUNY Purchase in Upstate New York.
“No matter what the umbrella organization says, they really can’t dictate to the fraternities who they’re accepting because it is an exclusive organization,” Tauber said. “So they could just not accept a trans person, right? But they could say it’s not because they’re trans. It’s just because ‘We don’t want them,’ and the exclusivity gives them cover.”
The appeal of an entirely new model
There are some Greek fraternities and sororities with a mission to be inclusive of LGBT people where transgender students may be more likely to feel welcome. But some trans students say they favor creating a completely different Greek organization that is neither a fraternity or a sorority but that accepts cisgender, transgender binary-identified students, and nonbinary students.
Although Zacharias said they don’t oppose the welcoming of trans students into Greek life and believes it is a positive step, they never understood the appeal of traditional fraternities.
“It’s really tough, the way it promotes masculinity –- as someone who is transmasculine, that’s not the kind of masculinity I identify with, so that’s why I chose to come to a campus without any Greek life,” Zacharias said. “I know the notion of brotherhood is helpful for a lot of people, but I think that the ‘groupthink’ is really heavy in frats and sexism, when there is groupthink, becomes way worse. And so it just is toxic not only for the people around the frats but the people in the frats.”
Tauber also chose to attend a college without any Greek life for some of these reasons.
“I think that the culture of many of these organizations is sex and drinking, a lot of what I would call bro culture, which is just like hyper-masculine and in the case of sororities, hyper-feminine. Even if you’re a binary person, it’s hard,” Tauber said. “There are concerns about locker rooms and bathrooms that can’t be addressed the same way at fraternity and sorority houses. And you know, people have a lot of fear and I don’t know how those organizations would cure that. And I don’t know if that culture can be broken down. That would be great, but at the same time, is it possible? I’m not sure.”
Even though Sassoon said she sees the appeal of a sorority, she’s also aware that Greek organizations and their events are often built on very traditional ideas about men and women and marriage, which don’t appeal to her. She said she’s also concerned about the safety of trans women around fraternity brothers.
“I’m a trans woman and I’m also a lesbian so it’s doubly uncomfortable because of my trans identity and also being uncomfortable with that matching up for the social event with this guy from the other fraternity. It’s like OK that’s awkward, and it feels like it could be dangerous. If there is drinking involved, I mean, God,” she said.
Finn said his fraternity, which has been around since 1986 and focuses on an inclusive message, doesn’t engage in things like hazing and has very clear rules around drinking and drug use.
“We want everyone who joins the fraternity to feel very comfortable and accepted and not attacked. So while the queer and trans community faces a lot of violence just from society as a whole, we want the frat to be a place to escape that kind of violence,” Finn said.
“I thought no fraternity would exist out there that I would be willing to partake in because of the toxic masculinity culture that is very prevalent, but I found out that Delta Lambda Phi was not like that, just getting to know the people who were in my chapter,” he added.
Finn was recently named his fraternity’s brother of the month.