illustrations by Min Kim

Gays who go greek

*Gia’s name has been changed because she is not out to her family

In the first 24 hours of sorority recruitment in 2017, I learned that looks count, no matter how many times people tell you they don’t.

I thought I had to pretend to be straight to count.

I had been pretending for months, which made it easier. I intentionally grew my hair past my shoulders and bought dresses I would never wear again. I read Pinterest articles on how to make chapters want to choose me.

Mid-afternoon on the last Friday of that January, I touched up my cat-eye eyeliner, smoothed out a few frizzy hairs, and tucked in my Panhellenic shirt to match the other potential new members.

No one would have known that I was president of my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance for three years.

I don’t think anyone knew I was queer when I rushed. I didn’t have pride buttons or stickers on my belongings, and I appeared stereotypically straight with a full face of makeup and long curly hair. I even wore a belt, which I had never done before in my entire life, solely because accessories are how you individualize yourself when everyone is wearing the same Panhellenic shirt.

I made myself look like someone I wasn’t — a girl who could actually use a curling iron and would go to date parties looking for a nice guy in the crowd.

I’ve always been odd. I wanted to fit in, to be liked. Rushing was the door to a fresh start, but not just anyone could enter. Who I presented myself to be in the brief five minutes I spoke to a sister is who I would become — someone who belongs in Greek life.

Halfway through formal recruitment, I caught the flu and had to miss part of the third round. When a potential new member doesn’t show up, the chapter often assumes she isn’t interested. I didn’t receive any invitations to Preference Round, the final event before bids are officially distributed to join a sorority.

With that, I was “dropped” from the formal recruitment process and decided to look into informal recruitment, a more casual process conducted by some chapters after formal.

A few weeks later, I accepted a bid for Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi).

***

It was National Coming Out Day my junior year, and I had recently figured out I’m pansexual. I remember sitting in the Women’s Center on the third floor of Armstrong (before it became part of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, or CSDI, on the second floor) and thinking, I should go down there and take a photo. Why not?

I’m wearing letters. Does it matter?

I walked outside, turned around and went back upstairs before I changed my mind again. Our founders would have approved of this. AEPhi was founded on inclusivity, and to our chapter, founding principles carry weight.

In my bright pink AEPhi sweatshirt, I stood underneath the frame of the rainbow door and smiled.

That photo is the most-liked one I’ve posted on social media with 94 likes, second only to a photo of me holding my bid card when I joined AEPhi.

Every time I got coffee with my “little sister” in the chapter, Paige Hartenburg, we talked about our love lives. She always asked me if “there are any girls in the picture.”

I started to stop caring about looking “straight.” Whatever that means.

One of the buttons on my backpack says “pansexual good.” A shirt in my closet reads “queer and forever here.” I used to spend my free time between classes in the CSDI.

Three months ago, I asked my hairstylist for an angled bob on impulse. She cut it to the base of my neck, and I left feeling more like myself than I had in years.

***

“I’m a lesbian. How will that go over in your sorority?”

Gia*, then a freshman, looked each sorority chapter representative in the eye while delivering this opening line during the recruitment process. Most chapters brushed off her question or changed the subject, but no one was outright aggressive or hurtful.

But Gia, who looks back on recruitment now as a senior, wasn’t just there to impress her future sisters. She wanted to make a space for herself and others like her.

If she couldn’t answer the question or handle the question, Gia didn’t want to be there.

According to the Cliff Alexander Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life, 24% of undergraduate students at Miami University are affiliated with a Greek organization. While no statistics exist on how many identify as LGBTQ+, the experiences of this untracked group within Greek life have left a trail of studies behind.

Miami’s LGBTQ+ Services has conducted two studies on the intersection of Greek life and being queer on this campus, but neither of them are available online. While two articles highlight certain statistics and state that the full study reports can be found online, they have since been removed from the university’s website.

A 2013 article from The Miami Student summarizes one study’s findings, stating that LGBTQ+ respondents reported feeling less accepted than straight students by fraternities and sororities.

The other study, conducted in 2015, found that “66% of straight Greeks feel they always fit in at Miami, while just 33% of [LGBTQ+] students feel equally comfortable on campus.”

Colleen Blevins, who is the Associate Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said she hopes to update this information soon.

“Our 2013 and 2015 data is obviously out of date, and I have the intention of diving back into the projects soon, including disseminating an updated survey and exploring educational opportunities in partnership with CSDI,” Blevins said.

Dr. Kim Vance, the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Miami, said that a statement of inclusivity does not exist for the Cliff Office.

“However, the Division of Student Life’s mission does include a commitment to inclusive environments,” she said. “We are a part of the division and as such are also committed to this mission.”

***

Miami provided Gia with substantial scholarships that allowed her to move far away from her home of Kansas and escape her conservative roots.

Gia can blend in with the sorority archetype at Miami: T-shirts emblazoned with letters, girls sporting athletic leggings, stainless steel reusable water bottles selling for $40 and laptop stickers trending on Redbubble.

In the end, she received invitations from three sororities to Preference Round.

Her sorority’s smaller size drew her in. Out of Miami’s 18 Panhellenic sororities, 16 (including Gia’s chapter) home to anywhere from 100 to 250 women.

Similar reasons drew me to my own sisterhood. Our small size means that I truly feel as though I have a dozen sisters who know my story and will unconditionally support me.

This support manifests in sorority suites and fraternity houses, which serve as gathering places for chapter members. Newly-initiated freshmen live with their chapter the following school year. While fraternities each get an off-campus house, sorority women live in dorms.

In my suite, a group of sisters regularly dotted the floor, finishing homework or venting about their week. Sometimes Katie knitted in the corner or sang showtunes. Sammie searched for something in the office, or Sonny napped on the couch.

Without that suite, I may never have learned that other AEPhi sisters identify as queer. One day, I was complaining to a few sisters about the poor dating prospects on campus and it came up that we were all queer in one way or another.

“We should make a GroupMe and call it AEBi,” someone said.

About five or six people out of 11 members identify as queer in Alpha Epsilon Phi.

***

Last year, I served as Vice President of Membership and New Member Education for my chapter.

I opened up a new member meeting with our usual icebreaker, “oys, boys and joys,” where each person can say a negative thing about their week, something related to a crush or relationship, and a positive thing that happened. No one has to share all three if they don’t want to.

One of my sisters was a new member at the time.

“I remember you making this little clarification along the lines of, ‘Or girls. It doesn’t have to be boys,’” she said. “It was this little reassurance that I would be accepted regardless of who I might be interested in at the moment.”

This small moment made her feel like she could bring anyone to a sorority function regardless of gender.

“I don’t feel like I’d ever have to come out to you guys,” she said. “I could just nonchalantly say I had a girlfriend and everyone would be like, ‘Cool, can we meet her?’ And that’s a neat feeling to not feel a pressure to explicitly label myself as gay.”

Feeling secure that however it shakes out, this chapter and my sisters will support me is really comforting in the face of personal uncertainty.

She asked to remain anonymous because she’s questioning her sexuality.

“Feeling secure that however it shakes out, this chapter and my sisters will support me is really comforting in the face of personal uncertainty,” she said.

***

“What I’ve noticed is that sororities either have a decent number of [LGBTQ+ members], or they have none or one or two,” Gia said.

Gia’s sorority is larger than mine and has roughly 25 to 30 queer members, about the same percentage as my own — but they don’t talk about it, in public or in private.

The Lambda 10 Project, a clearinghouse for educational resources for LGBTQ+ members of fraternities and sororities, conducted a 2007 national survey to explore the queer experience in Greek life more closely. They found a curious paradox: a majority of undergraduates thought their chapter was LGBTQ+-friendly, but “33% of alumni/ae rated the climate of their chapter as hostile.”

The organization reported that a majority of queer members hold a leadership position in their chapter. A national list of more than 300 inclusive and LGBTQ+-friendly colleges and universities does not include Miami.

***

Andreas VanDijck, an openly gay brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi, hangs out in his fraternity house as much as I do in my sorority suite. Andreas is the kind of person who vibrates when he talks, moving his hands and occasionally shaking his leg. Energy runs through his veins, contagious to anyone speaking with him. While he joined the chapter as a junior and therefore hasn’t lived in the house itself, he would spend time there a few days each week.

“When I rushed, I think that people knew that I was gay, and I don’t think it made any difference,” he said. “I would probably be okay taking a boy home or whatever, if I did live there.”

As the only openly gay person in his chapter right now, it can be easy to feel left out or “a little different.”

When his brothers talk about women, he can’t relate.

“I think that’s the most difficult thing,” he said. “It’s just because you can’t relate to the more conventional experiences that people have in college, going home with someone and hooking up, that sort of thing. It’s just not necessarily the same for me because there’s so many fewer options, and because we don’t even have a gay bar here.”

Most fraternities on campus have between 80 and 100 members, less than Miami’s sororities. AEPi has 48 brothers.

“We’re all very accepting here,” Andreas remembers his chapter advisor saying at one of his pledge class meetings as a new member.

When Andreas and his advisor discussed formals and date parties, his advisor mentioned that they could “bring a friend or significant other,” making sure to avoid using gendered language.

“When I rushed, I think that people knew that I was gay, and I don’t think it made any difference.”

Andreas took a friend as his date to a chapter formal, but some of his brothers have told him, “Why don’t you just take a guy? That’s chill.”

***

Gia’s sisters haven’t been awkward or hurtful when she brings someone to formals, but sometimes they don’t understand.

Last year, she attended a formal with her significant other at the time, who identified as non-binary and presented slightly masculine, and it confused some of her sisters.

“People were like, ‘So what do they have between their…’ and I was like, ‘What? Why are you asking me that? That’s none of your business,’” she said.

Gia is open about her own identity on campus. While she identified as lesbian her freshman year, she now identifies as gay because of its umbrella term quality.

“And then people started asking me about it,” she said, “and I was like, ‘What if there was a penis? Does it matter?’”

Gia says that she’s stopped caring about the binary expectations of Greek life. She bought a bunch of button downs knowing that the general body of her chapter would be more supportive than the executive board.

“What the fuck are you wearing?” Gia imagines the executive board asking her.

“I’d be like, ‘A button down.’”

While she never wore them in front of the exec board, she says that some sisters would see her on campus in button downs or more masculine clothing and look her up and down.

While it can be tough for queer people to feel accepted in Greek life, it’s even more difficult for those who are transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer.

Only 11 national sororities and five fraternities have public transgender inclusion policies, ranging from formal announcements to subtle word changes to the membership statement.

The frequent language choice of “those who identify as men” or “women” automatically excludes anyone who does not fall into either category.

Having these policies doesn’t mean they need or choose to utilize them. Even if an organization has an explicit statement, membership is up to each individual chapter’s discretion.

Several sororities and fraternities were founded 50 years after other “mainstream” organizations, with the intent to provide a safe, supportive community for queer students, like Delta Lambda Phi (the first national fraternity for gay, bisexual, transgender, and progressive men) and Gamma Rho Lambda (the first national multicultural sorority inclusive of all under the LGBTQ+ umbrella).

None of these exist at Miami.

Four fraternities and one sorority were founded at Miami, which is considered the “Mother of Fraternities.” But none of those chapters were founded with LGBTQ+ people in mind.

Many universities have local LGBTQ+ friendly chapters, such as Alpha Delta Epsilon sorority at State University of New York College at Geneseo and Tau Delta gender-neutral sorority at Otterbein University. To be more inclusive, some of these organizations refer to their members as “siblings,” as opposed to “brothers” or “sisters.”

“I feel like there was an extra emphasis on me not mentioning anything to do with being queer during recruitment,” Gia says.

Within Panhellenic’s regulations, members cannot discuss certain topics during rounds, including significant others, but sometimes it just slips out — a casual, not ill-intentioned mention of having been to a potential new member’s favorite vacation spot with your boyfriend, or how you both love dogs and your boyfriend’s golden retriever is just the cutest thing ever.

The strictness of these rules varies among sororities, and Gia’s chapter is more lax about them than others. 

During one round, she mentioned her girlfriend in response to a potential member, similar to how a sister across the room might casually bring up her boyfriend. The girl wasn’t even phased — no potential members ever were when Gia brought it up. 

“People were saying like, ‘It’s great, we put up a sheet sign, and we talk about these values for that week … and then what do we do with them the rest of the year?’”

After that round, her sisters pulled her aside.

“Remember, that’s on the list of things not to talk about,” one said.

***

“When I first came to Miami, I was like, ‘I’m gay and I want to fix things,’” Gia said.

Greek life was on her to-do list.

Two years after she rushed, Gia presented to Rho Gammas, or formal recruitment group leaders, on LGBTQ+ identities.

Separate from Gia’s efforts, the Panhellenic Board hired its first Director of Diversity and Inclusion last year, created with the goal of promoting diversity within the community.

The board also hosted its first Reverse Recruitment Kickoff, a day-long event designed to prepare members for formal recruitment with a values-based mindset. Chapters made sheet signs with their values to hang during one of the rounds and attended a diversity and inclusion training that promoted diversity within the Greek community.

A Panhellenic Board member, who cannot speak publicly on behalf of the National Panhellenic Conference, said it was a small step in what needs to be a larger effort.

“It was a really good start, but I don’t think that it necessarily hit what it was going for yet,” she said. “People were saying like, ‘It’s great, we put up a sheet sign, and we talk about these values for that week, and then what do we do with them the rest of the year?’”

During the event planning process, chapters were reluctant to discuss diversity. In my chapter VP role, I attended Panhellenic roundtable meetings for recruitment. Some representatives wanted to move the diversity and inclusion breakout session to chapter meetings, so they could avoid the required conversation.

“That way we don’t have to do it,” I heard someone say under her breath during a meeting.

***

I may not check all the boxes of the Greek life stereotype, but I can pass as straight. Gia, Andreas, and I all could if we wanted to. We probably often do to strangers. Some LGBTQ+ people can’t pass as “normative,” and with the homogeneous nature of Greek life, they can’t even get through the door if they try to go Greek.

Those of us who have slipped through need to hold the door open for them.