More than 25 percent of Penn’s undergraduates have gone Greek, but transgender students are few among them.
In interviews with Greek organization leaders, administrators and transgender students, the low representation was attributed to structural inequalities, slow institutional change and cultural norms.
The unwelcome ratio
Common aspects of Greek life, like ratios of women to men determining access to parties, marginalize genders outside of the male/female binary.
“I think that frats and sororities as a whole are stuck in very regressive gender roles,” College senior Roderick Cook said.
Cook, a transgender student who uses they/them pronouns, is the president and co-founder of Penn Non-Cis, a group dedicated to trans students at Penn through discussion of gender identity issues and awareness. To their knowledge, none of the members — which number about 12 — are in a fraternity or sorority.
“I think the entire point of traditional Greek life is very strict gender conformity,” Cook said.
Cook identified ratios as especially unwelcoming to transgender people.
“Assessing people for their gender and their attractiveness right at the door is something that affects everybody, but in particular for gender non-conforming people, that plays out in really bad ways,” they said.
Other leaders in the Greek community agreed that ratios are harmful for transgender students because they reinforce the notion that only men and women are welcome.
“I have trans friends who have gone to frat parties with the ratio and have been asked, ‘Are you a guy or girl?’” Wharton junior and Pi Lambda Phi President Christian Urrutia said. “It’s outright misogyny.”
For gender non-conforming students, some of whom are still in the process of transitioning, the strict gender binary encouraged by ratios is directly exclusionary.
“I think that the main issues that are criticized in general for frats are just something that piles on when you add gender identity into the mix,” Cook said.
Changing law and culture
National chapters can slow down the process of opening up membership to transgender students, administrators and students said in interviews last week.
The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life leaves matters of membership to the individual chapters in coordination with their national organizations. Greek groups are exempt from the Title IX gender equality requirements, meaning the national headquarters for each group can determine membership free of federal anti-discrimination claims.
Occasionally, national organizations are unbending to the will of local chapters in expanding membership.
Pi Lam has petitioned its national organization to become officially co-ed at Penn for six years, but the chapter has repeatedly rebuffed their request. At Penn, the chapter operates as a co-ed organization, but the national chapter only counts males for official documentation.
Despite bureaucratic hurdles to becoming gender inclusive, student leaders attested to Penn’s acceptance of non-binary students within gendered fraternities or sororities.
“We haven’t had a necessity to bring it up with the administration if a transitioning or transitioned person has been recognized,” Urrutia said. Two nonbinary students have been members of the fraternity during Urrutia’s time in Pi Lam, including one current student.
OFSL Director Eddie Banks-Crosson agreed that convincing national organizations to change chapter rules can be difficult, especially when national executives aren’t exposed to the conversations about race, gender identity and privilege that occur on college campuses.
“Working in the field for quite some time, I’m thinking that ‘OK, I’m living in an environment where we’re constantly talking about these issues.’ These people who are steering these groups do not,” he said.
Cook believes the problem of trans-inclusivity in Greek life is rooted more in the homogenous culture of the groups, rather than in any one group’s membership rules.
“Even if you look at mainstream sororities and fraternities, you don’t see a diversity of race, you don’t see a diversity of body type, body size, you don’t really even see a diversity in interests,” they said.
Wharton senior and Interfraternity Council President Jacob Wallenberg admitted that fraternities often have checkered pasts but remained optimistic about future inclusivity.
Many of these “organizations were founded in 1850 when women weren’t allowed to go to college. It’s possible that there’s still relics of that,” he said. “If there’s any biases left, they’re more cultural than institutional. Then that becomes a student problem more than a Greek problem.”
Going beyond co-ed
The community that Greek organizations provide can often be found in other campus groups, Cook said.
“Companionship and spending time closely with a group of people are something that can be replicated at places like APO [Alpha Phi Omega] and even in groups like the Writers House,” they said.
Cook knows other trans people that have “really enjoyed” being members of APO, a co-ed service fraternity.
“Even the marketing of co-ed also does imply a gender binary that a lot of people don’t ascribe to,” Cook said.
Cook added that while “LGB” people may be represented at higher rates in co-ed fraternities, the groups “fall into the same category in terms of not exactly being safe or welcoming for trans people.”
Starting a Discussion
Continuing to make transgender students feel comfortable and welcome within Greek life will be an ongoing issue, not solved by or restricted to correcting instances of cultural insensitivity.
“It’s up to the students to start the conversation,” Banks-Crosson said. “We can be here as experienced professionals to support and guide the conversation, but I think they need to start it.”
But is rectifying occasional instances of insensitivity enough to become more welcoming?
“There’s only so much you can do with sensitivity training and changing certain dynamics within Greek life that will make them more accepting,” Cook said.
Though Cook reiterated that they do not speak for all trans people at Penn, they believe it’s unlikely more trans people will be attracted to Greek organizations anytime soon.
“I think there’s something inherent in the structure of how fraternities and sororities interact with each other that is never going to be a welcoming place for trans people,” Cook said.
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