Greek houses adjust to new concepts of gender

by Samantha Stern | 5/19/16 8:42pm

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Amarna

Founded in 1994, the undergraduate society Amarna takes its name from a city in ancient Egypt founded by Akhenaten’s wife, Queen Nefertiti, Amarna’s president Breanna McHugh ’17 said. In the idyllic city of Amarna, people could hold any position regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic background.

Amarna is not the only house that champions this egaliatarian ideal. In recent years, gender has become a more salient topic within both the general Greek community and Dartmouth’s three gender-inclusive fraternities — Alpha Theta, Phi Tau and the Tabard — which together with the undergraduate society Amarna, comprise the Gender-Inclusive Greek Council.

There is a misperception that people join gender-inclusive Greek houses or organizations because they did not succeed in rush, did not feel comfortable going through the rush process or because they were not content with their Greek experience, McHugh said. Whether or not individuals fit into the LGBTQIA community, they may feel uncomfortable within the Greek system, she said.

Rush is an inherently racist and part of an exclusive system, McHugh said. Even if people are not overtly homophobic, there are a lot of both internalized and externalized assumptions prevail in gender-exclusive spaces, she said.

Amarna attracts many students devoted to thinking deeply about race and class issues, sexuality and gender, McHugh said. Discussions about gender often occur in an informal setting.

“There are a lot of people hanging around at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. talking about feminist epistemology over a glass of wine because that’s the conversation that happens around the bar,” she said. “There are a lot of people just hanging out on the couch and discussing how homophobia has intersected with racism in their daily lives.”

Last term, Amarna had a series of formal conversations about gender, race and class and how the house could better support people with certain identities. McHugh said that gender, sexuality and race are only “as much of a thing as you make it,” noting that there are also many members who are less vocal about their identities.

Amarna exists as an alternative or supplement to the Greek system, she said. Although Phi Tau and Alpha Theta do not permit dual membership in a gender-inclusive and gender exclusive Greek house, those in Amarna are also welcome to belong to any Greek organization.

Membership in Amarna is much more flexible than at an average Greek house, McHugh said. Anyone, freshmen included, can join the society, given that they sign a code of conduct. The code of conduct was initially intended to protect victims of sexual assault within the house, but is now a more general document that aims at creating a culture of inclusivity and respect for others’ identities, she added. There are no requirements for membership in terms of duties, dues or the number of meetings members must attend.

Between 30 and 50 percent of members at any one time are also affiliated with a fraternity or sorority, and McHugh herself is a member of both Sigma Delta sorority and Amarna. She said that while women’s spaces are critically important, there is a degree of nuance that gets lost in discussions about gender within them.

“Sigma Delt can be a really powerful place for healing, but at the same time, I think having a more active dialogue where people come in with very different experiences in terms of gender creates a critical conversation that’s monumentally different,” McHugh said.

The conclusions you reach about how to structure safe spaces while maintaining ideology happen both at Sigma Delt and Amarna, albeit in different ways and with different conclusions, she added.

Sigma Delt has traditionally had a high percentage of gay and bisexual women compared to other sororities, she said. While her sorority embraces “loud, outspoken tits out feminism,” gender discussions within the house always revolve around women, McHugh said.

Furthermore, Sigma Delt’s emphasis on sexuality is absent from fraternities, she said, noting that she has never heard about a fraternity that encourages discussions about men’s femininity or on gender fluidity.

McHugh highlighted that neither the single-sex Greek organizations nor gender-inclusive houses are inherently superior. Choosing where to rush is a matter of personal preference, as both systems can enable students to find solidarity, build confidence and develop ideas and identity, she said.

“[At Amarna], I felt like I was given a much more powerful voice right off the bat, but at the same time, there’s also power in numbers, and Sigma Delt has this really beautiful, collective energy that happens because there are so many of us who are so in tune with each other,” McHugh said. “It comes down to a matter of preference, and for me that preference was to be engaged in both communities, to the extent possible.”

Phi Tau

Unitas et Diversitas — unity and diversity — is the motto of Phi Tau. Although the organization’s official name is Phi Tau coeducational fraternity, its member now use the term gender-inclusive, due to the fact that the phrase coed implies a gender binary.

“There comes a point that you have to realize that there are various groups we’re excluding with this name,” president Bev Alomepe ’17 said.

Despite its gender-inclusivity, members of Phi Tau still refer to one another as brothers, a holdover from when it was an exclusively male organization, member Ruby Hopkins ’17 said.

“I sort of see it as a [darn] you to the patriarchy and that’s how a lot of the women at Phi Tau have felt,” she said.

Phi Tau separated from its national organization, Phi Sigma Kappa, in 1956 after a dispute involving the segregationist membership policies of the latter. The local fraternity first began welcoming women upon their admission to the College in 1972.

One of the advantages of being in a gender-inclusive house is having discussions about stereotypes and misperceptions surrounding what it means to be a man, woman or transgender individual, Hopkins said.

Phi Tau is a space that while full of differences, fosters conversations about them, Alomepe added.

“It makes me happy when others who are often discriminated against tell me they feel so welcome in the house, and that it’s such a home for them,” Hopkins said. “That’s when I think Phi Tau has fulfilled its purpose.”

Alpha Theta

Alpha Theta gender-inclusive fraternity also split from its national organization, Theta Chi, as the result of a racial exclusion clause, former house president Noah Cramer ’16 said. Like Phi Tau, the fraternity began accepting women in 1972.

The house also welcomed many of Kappa Kappa Kappa’s gay members in the 1980s, after an incident during which the single-sex fraternity ousted them, Cramer said.

“We have this incredible history of diversity and openness that is booked into the fabric of our organization,” he said. “Even still, at one time we were an all male [and] all white organization and we have to reckon with and grapple with that history as well.”

Other Greek organizations also carry “historical baggage” including gender-based, class-based and racially-based exclusion.

“Those institutional ideologies are very hard to expunge and persist in ways throughout an organization’s practices, character and values,” Cramer said.

In contrast to Phi Tau, members of Alpha Theta call one another “siblings” unless they are acutely aware of a person’s gender identity. In those cases, the terms “brother” and “sister” may be used.

The fraternity became officially gender-inclusive in name in the fall of 2015. The name change follows the rebranding of the Co-Ed Council to the Gender-Inclusive Greek Council in 2014.

Cramer said that the change served two purposes. First, it most accurately described what the house has been for years.

“There are people the history of Alpha Theta that don’t fit into that binary,” Cramer said.

The name change also served as a political statement.

For many, the term coed may be upsetting, and Alpha Theta’s goal in changing its name was to state its valuing a non-binary gender system “loudly and proudly,” Cramer said.

Nevertheless, he noted that the gender-inclusive houses are not necessarily better or safer spaces for gender nonconforming individuals than single-sex Greek institutions are.

“People that are gender nonconforming might find a reason to love Alpha Theta [and] might find a reason to hate it,” he said. “I think there are people who don’t conform to the tradition gender binary but still want to be in single-sex Greek life.”

Gender-inclusive overview

Gender-inclusive Greek CouncilPresident Yasmeen Erritouni ’17 said that for a student who does not identify with a particular gender, it can be a lot more comfortable to be a member of a gender-inclusive house.

In a survey conducted by The Dartmouth on gender and Greek life, participants were asked to mark their level of confidence with a number of statements by selecting the options strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree.

An overwhelming number of the 342 participants agreed wth Erritouni that gender-inclusive organizations are safe, welcoming and inclusive for nonconforming students. Roughly 40 percent of participants strongly agreed that gender-inclusive organizations are safe, with only 1.5 percent strongly in complete dissent. Similarly, 41 percent strongly agreed that these spaces were welcoming and inclusive for those other then men and women, with 1.5 percent in total opposition.

Gender-inclusive houses are unique for taking a model of a social group that is traditionally gender-segregated and making it their own, Cramer said. There is nothing inherently bad about the structure of a Greek house as a group of friends who share a living space and participate in activities together, he said. However, a number of factors, such as gender-segregation, can change the character of a house, making it a “really toxic, ultra-masculine environment.”

While discussions on gender identity have become commonplace in coed houses like Phi Tau, single-sex fraternities and sororities are also grappling with contemporary definitions of gender.

EKT

Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority amended its constitution two or three years ago to accept anyone who does not explicitly identify as male, president Amara Ihionu ’17 said. Since that change, the local sorority had the opportunity to welcome its first non-gender binary member, Kevin Bui ’17, this winter.

Ihionu said that Bui had explored the gender-inclusive houses, but felt they were not an appropriate fit for them. Having heard about EKT’s constitutional change, he approached Ihionu about rushing EKT.

According to Ihionu, Bui has made gender a more important topic within the house. Since Bui’s joining, Ihionu has become increasingly conscious of using female-specific terms, at times forgoing the term “sisterhood” in favor of “Theta” or “the house.”

Ihionu attributed the constitutional change in part to her sorority’s progressive nature. She cited the sorority’s posting of resource sheets with the phone numbers of executives on bathroom doors — a decision that has since been adopted within the larger Greek community – as an example of its forward-thinking ways.

EKT is also the most racially diverse sorority within the Panhellenic Council, Ihionu said. This year, a majority of its total members are women of color.

Based on their oversight by national organizations, Ihionu think the bylaws governing many of Dartmouth’s sororities will not change. Despite the probable lack of change, Ihionu still recognizes the value in not accepting male members.

“I do like that we have expanded with all but men, because of the patriarchal dynamic that still exists today,” she said. “The whole school was created for [men]. We were only accepted beginning 40 years ago.”

Sig Ep

Last year, the National Board of Directors of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity also unanimously voted to open its membership to those who identify as transgender. The term transgender refers to a person who expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s assigned sex at birth.

“Sigma Phi Epsilon is a national fraternity built on the brotherhood and fellowship of men. Any individual who identifies as a man is welcome to seek membership in the fraternity,” former student director and student of Davidson College Sawyer Hicks said at a meeting on Dec. 5, 2014.

Vice president of membership development for Sig Ep at Dartmouth Nick Moolenijzer ’17 said that prior to the national organization’s implementation of its more inclusive policy, Dartmouth’s local chapter was open to accepting transgender students, although this rule was not formally codified in its constitution.

In the fall of 2014, a gender non-conforming individual participated in rush at Sig Ep, he said. The rush chair at the time went to the executive committee to seek advice on whether this student could potentially join the fraternity and was told the student’s gender identity was a non-issue, Moolenijzer added. Nonetheless, this student — as well as other transgender students who rushed in the past — have instead opted to “shake out” at other fraternities, he said.

“I think generally, as a single-sex Greek house, [Sig Ep] is pretty self-selecting and kind of inherently exclusive,” Moolenijzer said.

To Moolenijzer’s knowledge, no transgender students have been offered a bid. However, gender identity has never been a defining characteristic during deliberations, he said. Bids are offered based on the brothers’ interactions with prospective members, not their identity.

“It’s never been, ‘This guy’s so masculine. He’s super macho. Let’s give him a bid,’” Moolenijzer said.

Considering that Sig Ep is a group of primarily cisgender, gender is talked about much more than Moolenijzer would have expected. The brothers often play games such as “Crossing the Line,” during which someone reads a statement and members cross a line if the said statement is applicable to them. Many of those given deal with gender identity and sexuality, Moolenijzer noted.

The fraternity brothers also hold discussions about making Sig Ep as safe as possible for people of all gender identities, he said. In this regard, this past fall, Moolenijzer proposed marking the first floor bathroom gender-inclusive.

“What made me happiest was when I proposed making the first floor bathroom gender-inclusive, I expected there to be some resistance,” he said. “But [the resolution] was unanimously and immediately passed.”

During last year’s PRIDE week, a few Sig Ep members attended a discussion on gender inclusivity in the Greek system, to share the steps they had taken to make the fraternity more inclusive and welcoming place, he added.

Bui and Sig Ep national organization did not respond to requests for comments.