Alec Josiah (C’17) grew up in Tennessee, with a very specific idea of what fraternities should be. He envisioned a state school archetype of hypermasculine misogynists, collected into “places he did not want to be at all.”
He came to Penn and found it difficult to apply this catch–all mold to the fraternity brothers he interacted with. But he was always wary of the social spaces he entered and explored his freshman year, and the dialogues that dominated them.
“I did the whole recruitment process and I was in the closet at this point,” Alec explained, “so I was always paying attention to what people were saying at parties.”
It wasn’t uncommon for him to hear gay slurs and witness people use the word “gay” to negatively connote something. He was looking out for slips of the tongue or blatant gestures that signaled that a fraternity might not accept a person like him. He didn’t encounter any of this at Sigma Alpha Mu, more commonly known as “Sammy,” and decided to join.
But while Alec has had a positive encounter with Greek life at Penn, many other queer students, like Taylor Hosking (C’17), haven’t felt the same comfort.
Though she didn’t consider herself to be out during the rush process, Taylor identified as queer to people in her immediate friend group. She went to an all–girls school and was convinced she could find a similar community through the formal rush process.
She accepted a bid in her freshman spring at Chi Omega, and was plunged into a whirlwind of fraternity parties and programmed male friendships. She recognized that she was one of the few, if not only, queer women of color in the sorority and oftentimes felt alienated by the gentle nudges to dress in “sexy and feminine” clothing for social events that centered on meeting men.
Just a few months later, in the fall of her sophomore year at Penn, she decided to deactivate from Chi Omega.
“I didn’t necessarily know how to figure out a queer space for myself in general, and I was giving a lot of time to being in a social circle that was most likely not going to be that,” Taylor remarked.
While increasingly more queer–identified students are entering into fraternities and sororities, there is no universal experience. Despite university and administrative initiatives to make these spaces more welcoming, most LGBT students agree that their participation in this system is at best an imperfect fit, one that either motivates them to make internal change or disengages them from Greek life altogether.
Leaving the System and Social Alternatives
Taylor can pinpoint a specific instance that led her to deactivate. Her sorority had organized a “Chi–sino” philanthropy event and sold tickets to fraternity brothers. Sorority leadership strongly persuaded sisters to dress in tight black dresses and heels, so that they could better embody their roles as blackjack dealers and bartenders. Taylor texted friends in her pledge class to see what they were going to wear, and slowly realized from their responses that she would have to sport the suggested outfit if she wanted to avoid sticking out.
“I was really upset about the event, but I didn’t feel like there would be a way to explain to people that that can’t happen anymore,” she said. “Partly because it’s such a large organization, like 200 people or something, it’s hard to influence the group culture or dynamics if you disagree with something that’s going on or are a minority in the space racially or with your sexuality.”
Taylor’s experience with feeling uncomfortable as a queer person in a Greek organization is not an isolated one. Many students report feelings of unbelonging and frustration with the creeping pace at which these organizations seem to accommodate them.
Zoe Stoller (C’18) recalled being uncomfortable with the inherent girliness of rush freshman year, and chose not to fixate on her hair, wear makeup, or don the requisite snappy casual little black dress for the rush process. Her being cut from most sororities thereafter seemed to confirm her hypothesis that these organizations focus heavily on appearance and traditional female identification.
“I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the Greek life situation as a gay woman,” Zoe said. It felt strange to me, I felt out of place.” She decided to leave Zeta in her junior year and join an unaffiliated fraternity that unofficially accepts female members.
Additionally, the rush process itself rests on a binary: girl’s rush and boy’s rush. For gender nonconforming or non-binary people, this can introduce its own set of confusions, especially since admittance of trans individuals into Greek life has just entered into national chapter conversations.
“I know I felt weird about joining a sorority because I didn’t think of myself as a girl,” explained Seb Dombrowski (C’19), who identifies as agender and uses they/them pronouns. “At first I wasn’t gonna join anything.”
Seb eventually joined the same fraternity as Zoe, after positive experiences meeting and talking with members of the organization who identified as queer.
There once was an on-campus organization that seemed to remedy this inclusivity issue entirely: Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity for gay, bisexual, and transgender men, whose Penn chapter was open to members from other area schools. “They’re no longer active in Philly,” LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg explained.
The closest extant organization at Penn is Alpha Delta Phi Society, a co-educational social and literary fraternity. As member Lydia Ramharack (C’18) describes, 6 out of their eleven members are queer and conversation about LGBT+ issues are commonplace.
“They’re just something that’s in our daily conversation, and not something we need to educate people on,” she said. Penn’s own chapter reflects the inclusive dynamics of the organization on a national scale, with 30% of members identifying as queer and an additional 5% identifying as trans.
Other times, students find the necessary community in multicultural Greek organizations, which are governed by the national Intercultural Greek Council (other "traditional” fraternities and sororities are under the umbrellas of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, respectively). José Armando Lopez (C'19) initially got a bid from an IFC fraternity, but dropped a few weeks before being initiated.
"I didn't feel as connected as I should've been,” he explained. "I couldn't relate to most conversations that were being brought up because I'm queer and it's not really a space for me."
He knew he wanted to still be in Greek life, so he kept his ears open. When a friend in a Latin dance group told him about Lambda Upsilon Lambda, a Latino fraternity under the jurisdiction of IGC, he was excited to join. All the members have a common identity to unite around, which he feels has made him feel less alienated as a homosexual man. He crossed just last semester.
Rashad Nimr (C’17) joined Tau Epsilon Phi (TEP) his freshman year, after initially not planning to join Greek life.
“I thought that it would be a very chill, accepting place, and it predominantly was,” he said. But he found himself surviving in TEP, rather than thriving.
“It was not created for people who are queer or people of color or people who are disabled,” he said. And for someone who identifies as all three, “I think because I just hit on too many things, I didn’t actually ever enjoy the space itself.”
In fraternity life in general, he thinks that there are many people who “aren’t critical of how sexist everything is.” In this way, both heterosexual and homosexual men can participate in a culture that alienates women.
“So you’ll have people who are queer at the door, still enforcing a ratio. That’s a weird thing to be, to be oppressed by a specific system and then become a part of the same system,” Rashad said.“That kind of scares me in a way, but that’s what I had to do to survive there.”
Rashad attempted to recruit more queer people and more people of color into the fraternity, but he still felt that the institution remained very white and straight. His efforts having failed, he ultimately decided to leave TEP at the beginning of his senior year.
Participating by Example: Queer Pioneers
It was ultimately the peace of mind Alec received in meeting a gay man in Sammy while rushing his freshman year that motivated him to join. “It was good to have that, and to know that I wasn’t venturing into a whole sphere of the unknown,” he said.
He saw more than a few reasons to be initially deterred from joining: “Greek life is not created for someone like me obviously, someone who’s gay and who’s black. Just at Penn, there’s not many people of color in a lot of chapters. That was a reason back when I was a freshman that I was not planning on joining a fraternity.”
In his time as a brother, Alec has seen the space evolve into a much more accepting place, with more queer members joining over the years.
Now a senior, he can look back thoughtfully on his experiences with rush and coming out to his brothers in his sophomore year of Penn. He found his time in Sammy to be supportive, and views his position as an older member in the fraternity as one of education and leadership.
Phillip Huffman (C’18) knew Alec when he was rushing Sammy and cites him as a reason he joined the organization. “I never felt like my sexuality was a problem there, which is why I gravitated towards my fraternity,” Phillip explained.
But the spaces aren’t without their faults.“I just think fraternities in general are a heteronormative space,” he said. Phillip never felt like his sexuality was an issue, but rather that he was operating in a space not expressly created for him, in terms of frat parties and social events created for heterosexual men.
“I think having one person who is extraordinarily open about their sexuality [will be] a catalyst for other people,” he said. “Being one of a handful of queer people in a group of mostly heterosexual people is gonna inherently come with questioning of yourself, but I think I’ve grown positively from it.”
When Emily Irani (C’18) first rushed during her freshman year, she didn’t know she was queer. She was mainly searching for a way to establish more female friendships, and found herself in Zeta Tau Alpha. It was the organization that she had set out to find, and having this Greek life community and common institutional support undoubtedly helped her coming out process.
She eventually came out to the rest of her sisters, telling them that she was dating another woman in their sorority. “The support network we got at Zeta was superb,” she said. “There were some girls who were a little confused by it, but most of the sorority were very supportive.”
Education, Dialogue, and Change
In total, Penn has 48 university chapters, which are all subject to the jurisdiction of Penn’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life (OFSL).
OFSL requires all new fraternity and sorority pledges to complete a New Member Education program within six weeks of being offered bids, which includes an event hosted by the LGBT center focusing on sensitivity towards queer brothers and sisters.
While these events are mandatory, only a few members of each pledge class are required to be at each panel. Alec attended the New Member Education event at the LGBT Center in his freshman year, and while he feels that it was a step in the right direction, he added, “It felt like a sort of checking the box thing.”
Phillip recalled a similarly ineffective experience with this LGBT sensitivity initiative: “I felt very uncomfortable during it because it just felt like a room full of straight men and like four gay men in the front.”
Despite the efforts of the LGBT Center, these events are organized at the request of one of the three Greek councils, and only then can be sponsored and held in their space.
“We’re not pulling them in, we sort of wait for the requests to come in,” said LGBT Center Associate Director Rebecca Schept. “It has to come from the president, or from the administration of the fraternity. It can’t just come from OFSL or us.”
In other words, only the Greek organizations that think they need help will reach out for it, and these are usually the sororities and fraternities that already have a healthy body of queer members in the first place.
“There’s nothing worse than doing a training for people who don’t want to be trained,” Schept continued. And under current operations, the people who don’t want to be trained really don’t have to be.
Even with these imperfect educational initiatives, administrators at the LGBT center have noticed an increase of LGBT student involvement in fraternities and sororities.
Alec is proud to be openly gay, as it signals to possible closeted brothers and younger rushes that this is a place where they can feel welcome. But he’s also aware that fraternities still accept a very specific type of homosexual man, one who fits a more traditionally masculine mold.
Outwardly queer presentation can be a problem for many LGBT students during the rush process. “I know our students feel like if they look different, when they rush they won’t be accepted,” Schept explained. “For a lot of queer folks, their clothing style, their hair length, the way they express themselves is different from what you normally see in sororities.”
Some queer people are fine to assimilate and remain quiet, but other more outwardly queer people don’t have that option. Sesana Taylor, the Panhellenic Council’s first–ever Vice President of Diversity, has been working toward ensuring that sororities are diverse racially and in terms of gender and sexuality.
She pointed to a sentence from Kappa Alpha Theta sorority’s national website—“Those who identify as women are eligible for membership in Kappa Alpha Theta”—as an exemplary marker of this shift in sensitivity. Though this small step in phrasing might seem invisible and insignificant to some, it could make a world of a difference for a trans person interested in joining the sorority.
An Ongoing Discussion
“It’s getting better for LGB folks, even if it’s not perfect,” Schept diagnosed. “If you’re a queer woman who sort of fits into the stereotype of what a woman in our society looks like, a sorority might be a good place for you.”
Schept’s exclusion of the T from the acronym is intentional. As so often occurs in social movements within the queer community, trans issues are forced to take a secondary role to homosexual and bisexual concerns. For Seb, this is exactly the case with Greek life at Penn.
“I think that while it would be fantastic to recognize that people who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary exist and would possibly want to rush frats and sororities, most frats and sororities aren’t in a place where they’d be super progressive because some of them are focused on making non–heterosexual people feel comfortable,” Seb explained.
Schoenberg, who has worked at the LGBT center since 1982, can only ever recall having one trans person in a traditional on–campus Greek organization, citing a person who identified as a trans man who joined a fraternity about ten years back. Though he did not encounter any problems or report anything to the university, the man decided to deactivate because he wanted to concentrate on his studies.
Schoenberg remembers a time when homophobia was much more commonplace in Greek life—he recalled one instance when two gay men were spat on by fraternity brothers for being too overt at one of their parties.
But now, when Alec has brought another guy to a date night or formal, he’s found his brothers always to be supportive. “It goes to show that while we’ve made progress and we have frats with openly gay brothers, there’s still a lot of work to do.”