Sororities reproduce the same gender-based discrimination their founders faced as women by denying nonbinary students today. It’s time to end the cycle.
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Gender nonconforming, nonbinary and transgender children, teens and adults have been increasingly subjected to restrictive legislation and policies that deny their gender, their bodily autonomy and their agency. On college campuses, sororities could offer close friendships and a deeper sense of belonging on campus, if it weren’t for national policies that often restrict membership based on sex assigned at birth.
Fabián (Fa) Guzmán was thrilled to join a sorority in August 2022. They had been attending St. Lawrence University, a predominantly white institution, as a nonbinary Latinx international student for two years. After a traumatic incident and struggles with mental health, they found their support group in a sorority and became an honorary sister in spring 2022.
When they considered formally rushing, some people Fa spoke to expressed uncertainty: As a nonbinary student not assigned female at birth, were they eligible? After months of reviewing the membership guideline documents, getting approval from nationals, and having the university double check approval, the consensus was in: Fa could be offered a bid!
Fa charmed all the sororities during rush and accepted a bid from their favorite. Within two months of joining, Fa was elected recruitment chair and began attending national leadership conferences. Thus, they were shocked in April 2023, when the national sorority organization decided to interpret their policies differently: Fa was banned, kicked out of the sorority with no opportunity to appeal, due to being nonbinary.
While other student groups on college campuses are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of sex due to Title IX, social sororities and fraternities have held an exception to this rule since 1974.
Ironically, the two authors of this article came together because of Fa’s original success. Fa approached Alanna Gillis, a sociology professor at their university, about doing research on their experience as the first nonbinary student on campus to join a sorority. Their project began to examine the local and national context of sorority membership.
Currently, most sorority organizations lack bylaws that explicitly permit nonbinary students to join, especially if those students were not assigned the sex of female at birth. While other student groups on college campuses are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of sex due to Title IX, social sororities and fraternities have held an exception to this rule since 1974.
Sororities were founded in response to the sexist environment women encountered academically and socially, being forced to create “women’s fraternities” due to their exclusion from traditional men-only fraternities.
Sororities today continue to play a role in helping people oppressed by the patriarchy. Men continue to dominate the economic, political and social positions in society. Being part of a sorority counteracts some of the exclusive power of the “old boys club” by helping those excluded to network together. Many women break into fields dominated by men like business, law and politics in part thanks to their sorority membership. Members additionally gain access to professional development, friendship, a group with shared values, and emotional support.
Nonbinary people are similarly oppressed by the patriarchy. Ironically, sororities are reproducing the same gender-based discrimination their founders faced as women in the late 1800s and early 1900s in denying nonbinary students’ entry today.
To preserve their historic mission, we argue that bylaws should be amended to explicitly include women and any other gender-minority group. This change would enable cisgender women, transgender men and women, nonbinary people, and any other genderqueer people to join. Delta Phi Epsilon did this in 2017; yet most other panhellenic sororities have not followed suit.
This policy change would not only enable nonbinary and trans students to gain access to benefits they are currently denied, but also open opportunities for sororities to recruit more members who they see as a great addition to their sisterhood. More than 5 percent of young adults identify as trans or nonbinary, and those numbers are likely to rise.
As seen in Fa’s personal experience, the problem is often not lack of support among current college students. Every student in a sorority leadership position that we interviewed on our campus stated that they believe nonbinary students should be eligible to join. A student from a different sorority than the one Fa joined stated that she and her sisters were “definitely excited” when they saw Fa’s name on the recruitment list because “we hadn’t had an experience” of having a nonbinary student rush before, but that it was an “awesome thing.”
They hope their legacy is one that inspires change: Fa’s former chapter is inspiring other chapters to support a proposal to next year’s national convention to vote to make nonbinary students eligible to join.
Sororities at other universities, such as Drake, have similarly recruited nonbinary members in the past and then had those decisions overturned due to national policies.
As more states pass legislation banning equal participation of students based on gender and sex, and some sororities face lawsuits for their inclusion of trans women, national organizations may be interpreting their bylaws more conservatively.
We argue that sororities should take a proactive stance: If they amend their bylaws to explicitly include expansive definitions of women and nonbinary students, they can protect themselves from such lawsuits if there is no room to argue whether or not such students can join. It would also prevent joy from turning into devastation when members like Fa are permitted to join and then kicked out when someone changes their interpretation.
It seems like this change is unlikely to be initiated by the national leadership. So how could the change happen? Sororities that are affiliated with national organizations have regular conventions where members can propose new changes.
Unfortunately it’s too late for Fa: Fall 2023 is their last semester of college, and despite creating a petition, they will not be reinstated in the chapter or as recruitment chair. Their pain is profound from the loss of the social connections to the invalidation of their identity.
Nevertheless, they hope their legacy is one that inspires change: Fa’s former chapter is inspiring other chapters to support a proposal to next year’s national convention to vote to make nonbinary students eligible to join.
Now’s the time for sororities to simultaneously stay true to the historical mission and move into the 21st century of gender inclusion and empowerment.
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