When a transgender student from rural Maine arrived at Tufts University in fall 2015, joining a sorority was the last thing on her mind. But in September, the 19-year-old sophomore decided to rush the Tufts chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi, believing that it was an accepting group where she would feel welcome.
“A lot of my friends were already in the organization, so it felt like a natural thing to do,” said the student, who wishes to remain anonymous because she fears harassment from people outside the Tufts community. “Some people thought I was actually already a member.”
But her bid for membership has divided the sorority and focused attention on how mainstream Greek organizations, typically seen as bastions of traditionalism, are increasingly confronted with the issue of transgender inclusion.
In September, more than half of the sorority’s 79 members, including the president and the transgender student, left the chapter in protest after a representative from the national sorority hesitated to approve the student’s membership bid.
AOII International, which oversees recruitment activities of all chapters, said the representative delayed affirming the bid because she was not sure whether the group had guidelines for transgender students. The group’s president, Gayle Fitzpatrick, said the sorority “does not officially have a position statement on gender identity.”
Just days later, the international sorority apologized for its hesitation and said the student could become a member. But many Tufts students, angry over even a brief delay, were not appeased.
“It didn’t really seem fair,” said former chapter president Kristin Reeves, a Tufts junior. “By them saying we couldn’t give her a bid because they don’t have a policy? That’s basically them taking a stance and having an unofficial policy.”
The federal law Title IX bars sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding, but social Greek organizations are permitted to set their own policies regarding the gender identity of members. Only a handful of national sororities have bylaws that explicitly protect transgender women from discrimination.
In October, a transgender woman who rushed AOII at the University of Michigan was denied membership, according to Cosmopolitan Magazine. The woman, in a video posted on Cosmopolitan.com, denounced the Greek system as “inherently transphobic.”
At Tufts, the remaining members discussed leaving the parent sorority but instead decided to push for a change in its policy on transgender students.
The sorority’s interim president, senior Amanda Wisti, said the amendments include adding a clause to explicitly welcome transgender women, changing the word “woman” to “female-identifying,” instituting mandatory sexual assault and diversity training, and requiring visiting international representatives to attend micro-aggression workshops. Their proposal will be reviewed at AOII’s summer convention in June.
But Reeves decided to leave, saying she “couldn’t make peace” with the organization after its hesitation.
“I saw how slow and unwilling to change they are,” she said. “They talk about [making changes] a lot, but when it comes to actually making progress, it tends to fall on the individual chapters. It leaves the rest of the chapters as unprogressive as they want to be.”
Greek organizations are allowed to set their own policies regarding the admission of transgender students and can admit them without jeopardizing their single-sex status, said Tim Burke, a lawyer who has written about transgender policies of fraternities and sororities. But relatively few have done so, he said.
“There’s progress to made, but they’re struggling with it,” Burke said.
There are exceptions.
In 2014, the national chapter of Delta Gamma declared it was open to all “persons who identify themselves as women,” Burke said.
At Ball State University in Indiana, a sorority of transgender students in 2013 was accepted as a member of the campus Panhellenic, a campus-wide council for sororities.
Su McGlone, Tufts’ director of fraternity and sorority affairs, said the university believes students should be able to join the group they identify with.
“We have fully supported the AOII members who chose to remain in the chapter and rebuild it, as well as the students who left,” she said in a statement.
The transgender student, who was vice president of her high school’s Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance, said she often felt like an outsider in her Maine hometown. Visiting Tufts and seeing rainbow flags across campus gave her a new sense of pride.
The student came out as transgender when she arrived as a freshman because she “wasn’t free to present differently” in her conservative hometown.
Maine “wasn’t the most friendly environment for LGBT people — as is often the case in conservative, rural parts of America,” she said. “This campus is an incredibly supportive environment, and the people here are very kind.”
She decided to join AOII because it prided itself on being inclusive and seemed less tradition-bound than other sororities, she said. “It’s always been an organization that’s very separate in certain ways from Greek life,” she said. “It is a very diverse group. There’s a lot of queer people, there’s people of all different majors, wide range of interests. Just lots of different kinds of people.”
“I’ve never felt that there was no one behind me,” she said. “There was always support there.”Samantha Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.