By Annie Iezzi
*Some names are changed to protect the identity of those interviewed
As Pride Month comes to a close, we’ve all been privy to the discussion of who’s fighting for justice in the LGBTQ community, who’s capitalizing, who’s excluding, and who’s thriving. But as many in the community know– and have expressed frustration about– queer people are queer all year, not just during the month of June! Anyone who identifies with a color on the flag also has a job, attends classes, goes out, stays in, and participates in any number of non-LGBTQ social groups. One of these social venues, Greek life, has always had queer members, but these brothers and sisters are increasingly more comfortable being open with their identities as fraternities adapt to modern cultural standards.
It is from a place of gratitude that we can reflect on the historic exclusion of the LGBTQ community from Greek life as slowly, but surely, becoming part of the past. Today’s sororities and fraternities hold high their inclusivity as a point of pride, and now, it’s exclusionary to assume that queer people aren’t in the Greek community. They most definitely are.
I met up with Justin, Aja, and George to discuss what makes their fraternity and sorority houses feel like homes, instead of like Animal House. Justin identifies as bisexual, Aja as queer, and George as gay, and while these identities vary, their feelings about their organizations are largely similar. They love their Greek life, but they have reservations about identifying with the establishment at large, due to ongoing institutional grievances and misconceptions retained from an earlier time.
It’s important to note that both Aja and George attend Columbia University in the City of New York, which is contemporarily known for being a sort of liberal bastion amongst universities, while Justin attended Allegheny College, a liberal arts college in Western Pennsylvania.
George and Aja, however, both voiced concerns at the beginning of their academic careers about not wanting to join and/or be affiliated with Greek life. “I actually came to Columbia very much against the idea of Greek life,” Aja explains. “There’s a perception of it as historically rooted in racist, misogynistic practices.” In combatting this stereotype by joining SDT as a woman of color, Aja also combatted prejudices in her own community by pledging a sorority that is not historically tied to people of color. “That being said,” she elaborates, “through the process, I felt comfortable enough to join SDT (Sigma Delta Tau) because it’s pretty diverse. The leadership was diverse. Thinking about my identity was at the forefront of my mind, but I felt like they made me feel as though I didn’t have to think about that constantly.”
This sort of inclusion that is organic, perhaps underplayed, and not “shoved up my face”, as Aja says, is part of what drew George and Justin to their organizations, Beta Theta Pi and FIJI (Phi Gamma Delta), respectively. These organizations are social and academic fraternities and sororities that fall under the Greek umbrella. They speak glowingly of their support systems, with George describing how Beta wildly outperforms the institutional support provided by his university. “I know a lot of people at Columbia say that it’s so stressful. Most people in Greek life have the support system that the university tries to offer but isn’t able to. So, whether you’re gay straight, male, female, it offers a friend group and a support system that is unparalleled.”
This support is evident even in the language employed by those interviewed and their fraternal peers– to my surprise, they all reported that derogatory language, whether homophobic or racist, was not a major player in their organization. Justin departs from this paradigm slightly, explaining that he and his peers took the initiative, while in leadership positions, to cut down on derogatory language in general. “We made a conscious effort to shift brothers away from derogatory jokes,” he says. “I like to think that in our time as seniors, this was the case.”
Interestingly, all three interviewees hold or held leadership positions. Aja occupies the position of Fundraising Chair and enforces standards as a rising junior, George is the Beta House Manager, also as a rising junior, and Justin held a cabinet position during his junior and senior years. These positions are points of pride not only due to their elevated status, but because each person described the importance of representation to their college communities. “I wanted to show that Greek life at a small school like Allegheny was not prejudiced,” Justin elaborates. Aja, too, characterizes her positions as, “Making sure people are aware of the fact that this is a space that works as hard as it can, but it can also be better at being accessible. It’s an accountability thing.”
So, organic inclusivity and accountability seem to be threads connecting the positive Greek experiences of Justin, Aja, and George. But one area in which Greek life has historically failed its community is that of sexual harassment and assault. As same-gender sexual assaults are reported and addressed far less often than heterosexual assaults, I wanted to investigate this issue. Both George and Aja reported that they haven’t witnessed any instances of sexual assault or harassment in their organizations, be it same-gender or otherwise. George tempers his statement by explaining the blind eye turned to harassment in times of the alumni, but the brothers now work hard to make sure everyone feels safe.
I, as a woman, can corroborate that these efforts have made an impact. I actually live in the Beta house and have yet to experience or witness any sort unwanted advance.
Justin shares an experience that departs from these glowing perspectives, but even still, his story showcases how far Greek Life, at least at liberal colleges, has come. “Personally, I experienced unwanted sexual advances from a gay advisor from Fiji’s international headquarters. Specifically with this instance, my brothers all supported me. Even though this man was in a position of power over our fraternity, the brothers of my chapter had my back, as did the campus chapter advisor. Allegheny was incredibly supportive and ultimately, the IHQ advisor was not allowed to return to campus. Unfortunately, Fiji as an International corporation failed to do their job to protect their young members. Even after my report, they allowed this predator to continue working, and even promoted him. I am told he no longer works there, but [his termination was] not related to this issue. After this experience, I learned that Greek life should be judged on a campus by campus basis, organizations can be vastly different than their national reputation in positive and negative ways.”
This acknowledgement of the nuances between campus chapters seems to be one of the defining factors in today’s Greek life generation, as a positive or negative experience at one chapter can seldom be extended to characterize all chapters of an organization. As a sexual and gender revolution comes to fruition nationally across college campuses, some historically staple facets of Greek organizations are falling to the wayside. Justin, George, and Aja all vehemently deny that their organizations haze- and, save for a few nights of possible (and consensual) drinking amongst pledges, I believe them. They each mention that their sexual identity may have been a factor that they considered when joining Greek life, but that it didn’t impact their experience negatively, and often it didn’t at all. They feel comfortable brining their LGBTQ dates to mixers, coming out to their brothers and sisters, and taking initiative to further improve the fraternity and sorority climate. Their Greek organizations, instead of suppressing their gender expression, encourage them to break out of the normative mold- Aja wore a suit to semiformal!
While Greek life in the United States still has a long way to go– for starters, unequivocally including trans and nonbinary pledges, and expanding this inclusivity to all campus branches– representation and diversity seem to be on track to becoming the new normal. A composite of descriptors, in the tradition of the shirt-and-tie composite photos of fraternities, is encouragingly bright. Aja, George, and Justin describe their Greek lives as: supportive, hilarious, enlightening, compassionate, rewarding and worth-it.
Hopefully, this inclusive and positive mentality will proliferate to redefine the Greek life reputation, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Justin, George, and Aja have already begun by outlining their Greek lives as something that redefined them: “I’d say that being a member of Greek life has been tremendously beneficial to my mental health, my academic health, social, emotional, – everyone pushes you to not be better than them, but be better for yourself.”
Do you have experiences with Greek life that you want to share with us? Have you been positively or negatively affected by these experiences in or out of university? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or hit us up on social media with your stories!
Annie Iezzi is Honeysuckle Magazine’s Managing Intern. She is a second-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.