When Samantha Jones came out as a lesbian, she found comfort in her close friends but a letdown in a Greek system that was less than welcoming.
A sister of the Eta Zeta chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha at Elon University, Jones, ’13, said some of her sisters offered a supportive environment when she came out in 2012, but others did just the opposite.
“I had some people who were really uncomfortable with me afterwards,” she said. “I don’t think I necessarily lost friends, but I think some people certainly distanced themselves from me. I had a lot of people move away from spending time with me.”
Inclusivity takes priority in Elon’s mission and policies, but the Greek system hasn’t necessarily kept up. Students in Greek organizations who have come out as members of the LGBTQIA community are often treated as anomalies within the system.
But advocates say it’s better now than it once was.
Matthew Antonio Bosch, director of the Gender and LGBTQIA Center (GLC), said as the general conversation around sexual orientation and identity has become more common over the years, he’s seen an increase in the number of people who are out in Greek organizations at Elon, though there’s no concrete way to determine how many.
From 1990 through the early 2000s, Bosch said more people were openly gay in fraternities than in sororities. Then, for about 10 years the number of women out in sororities grew. Now, he said, there are more males who openly identify as LGBTQIA in Elon’s fraternities than females in sororities.
Allies emerge in Greek life
Shana Plasters, Elon’s director of Greek life, said the university has no way of tracking how many LGBTQIA students are involved in sororities and fraternities, noting some members may be out in certain circles but not in others.
There are no policies in the Greek system that restrict LGBTQIA people from rushing or participating in Greek-sponsored activities. But Plasters said some organizations have rules requiring guests at Greek functions to be approved by a committee or a standards board. Though this rule exists so dates who might have had problematic behavior in the past can be barred from events, a standards board could potentially shut out dates of the same sex.
“Although these policies were not designed to be discriminatory towards LGBTQIA students, there could always be the chance that student members could use this veto power over dates to discriminate based on sexual identity,” Plasters said in a statement.
But as Jones found with her sisters in Zeta Tau Alpha, subtle attitudes within individual organizations are more often the source of discrimination. She suspected some people were disturbed when she brought her girlfriend as a date to a sorority function.
“A huge part of being in a sorority and fraternity is the social aspect,” she said. “Most of that social part is tied to straight interactions. You get invited to those things because guys want to have sex with you. When you’re out, it kind of limits you a little bit.”
Plasters said regardless of the sexual orientation of their members, all organizations have an expectation of brotherhood and sisterhood.
“Certainly we expect our fraternities and sororities to be supportive environments,” Plasters wrote. “If a student doesn’t feel supported by their peers, that can be concerning.”
The Office of Greek Life has partnered with the GLC to provide LGBTQIA Ally Training for organizations who have requested it. Bosch guided all of the sorority Pi Chis — students from all nine of Elon’s sororities who counsel potential new members through the recruitment process — through the Ally Training sessions. The Pi Chis come from all nine of Elon’s sororities.
Bosch has also provided training sessions for individual sororities and the National PanHellenic Council.
Challenging Greek norms
Many of those who are out in Greek organizations are challenged by certain conventions of Greek Life — stereotypes Jones said hold true at Elon.
“People that are different aren’t always celebrated,” she said. “They kind of hold a standard of white, straight, pretty, skinny, blonde, brunette. I wouldn’t say that it’s really a conducive environment to being out or alternative in any way.”
Other social challenges LGBTQIA brothers and sisters encounter stem from the historically heteronormative activities sponsored by fraternities and sororities. Jones found that aspects of the Greek system, like date parties and formals, are traditionally geared toward straight couples.
“When people ask what the typical Elon girl looks like or acts like, people describe things that are aligned with sorority culture,” Bosch said. “It’s in the way people dress, the way their hair is presented and the way they see the world — both external and internal.”
He said people generally know which sororities and fraternities are more affirming and progressive, and students interested in joining those specific organizations lean toward them during the recruitment process.
Jones said her sorority did not fall into that category.
“I think there are some very open, kind sororities that are known for being more accepting,” Jones said. “I don’t know if the one I was in was necessarily. Zeta and Phi Mu are where most of my friends were, and in general, I think they’re more of an exclusive club.”
Gay visibility in Greek Life
Greek life accounts for about 40 percent of Elon’s student body, but gay visibility within the system is little more than a whisper.
When she came out, Jones didn’t know of any other openly gay women in her sorority, and she only knew of a handful in other Greek organizations. This lack of representation was obvious in the curiosity of her peers, which at times bordered on insensitivity.
“It made my social life a little bit more awkward,” she said. “People would ask me all types of incredibly inappropriate questions.”
Senior Brittany Wenner, a sister of Sigma Sigma Sigma, encountered similar questions when she came out to her sorority her sophomore year. Wenner said she welcomed some of the curiosity, but not when it was clearly rude.
One night, when she was out with friends at West End, a fraternity member she knew asked her if it was “gay night at West End.”
“I don’t really understand why you think you can speak to anybody like that,” Wenner said. “And it was a person I was friends with.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident. When she came out, Wenner said she received nothing but support from her sisters. But she experienced more negativity from men in the Greek system.
“It was just people who wouldn’t normally talk to me about my sex life or who wouldn’t normally approach me at a party,” she said. “The conversation would quickly go in that direction, just asking me questions that you wouldn’t ask someone who was straight.”
Wenner partially attributes this treatment to ignorance, acknowledging that not everyone has interacted with LGBTQIA people before entering college, and they might not be as accepting.
She said these are the members who keep negative stereotypes of Greek life alive.
“I think some of the preconceived notions about Greek life can be correct in situational ways,” Wenner said. “Open-mindedness needs to be embraced through the university.”
And for the most part, she found, it has been embraced by the other women in her sorority. When it came to taking that first step out of the closet, Wenner said she was no more apprehensive about giving her sorority sisters the news than she was anyone else. It was more important for her to be true to herself in her sorority than it was to hide her sexuality.
“I think that when anybody who comes out faces that fear, not just within the Greek system but at Elon in general,” she said. “I do believe that, especially within my organization, it was OK to be myself. I felt like my sisters were very welcoming and supporters.”
Conforming to Greek life
Junior Evan Candler, said he joined Zeta Beta Tau because he saw an opportunity to be part of a fraternity that distinguished itself from other organizations on campus by redefining traditional values of masculinity and brotherhood.
As an openly gay brother, he chose to take another man to a date party because he thinks it’s important to challenge norms within his fraternity. No one openly condemned their attendance, but not everyone was enthused.
Candler said his experience falls in line with a larger attitude in Greek Life that fraternity brothers should conform to the standards of their organizations despite their sexual orientation.
“There’s a level of discomfort, and I feel like I have to be as hetero as possible,” he said. “You can be gay, but just don’t talk about it.”
Through conversations about inclusivity with Zeta Beta Tau’s leadership, Candler has seen gradual progress in this area. But, he said, the closeted population in Greek life still outnumbers those who feel comfortable opening up about their sexuality.
For closeted freshmen and other students thinking about rushing, Greek life has a specific appeal — Candler said joining a fraternity can serve as a way to hide being gay.
“I think there are people who might want to join Greek life because they think joining a fraternity might make them more straight or something,” he said. “Maybe if they do go through rush, they just know that they can never come out.”
The need to conceal their sexuality is something some LGBTQIA brothers and sisters have in common, but they agree the need to do so shouldn’t exist.
“In terms of a sorority, you’re supposed to look at those people like they’re your family,” Jones, the Zeta alumna, said. “You’re supposed to love them and care about them no matter what.”
Correction: The print version of this story, published in the April 8 edition of The Pendulum, included a graphic that did not accurately represent Greek Life at Elon University. The original graphic omitted the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which is one of the three main branches of Greek life on campus. The Pendulum regrets the error.