Kelly Chen, a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to campus in 2017 with a negative impression of sororities and fraternities and had all but written off the possibility of joining a Greek organization.
Chen identifies as nonbinary, as neither a man nor a woman, and uses the pronouns "they" and "them." They considered the organizations' deeply held beliefs about womanhood and manhood inherently heteronormative and exclusionary. Chen was not interested in compromising their identity in college after a difficult time being “out” in high school. But a friend and the prospect of free food ultimately coaxed Chen to attend sorority recruitment events despite the gender-conforming nature of the organizations.
“A lot of sororities push this toxic interpretation of womanhood,” Chen said. “There are some implicit expectations, like that you should dress formal casual on the last day of recruitment, and everyone shows up in a dress, even if I’m personally comfortable there in a suit.”
Chen was ultimately drawn to Delta Phi Epsilon after learning about the sorority’s explicit inclusion policy for nonbinary members and the international organization’s motto: “To be, rather than to seem to be.” Leaders at Delta Phi Epsilon’s headquarters created the policy after a nonbinary student was prevented from joining the chapter on campus by an umbrella group for sororities at MIT. The policy said nonbinary people “may be included as members in all areas of the organization, provided that they accept and share in the collective values and experiences of the sisterhood.”
Twenty-five other national and international sororities, members of the National Panhellenic Conference, or NPC, an umbrella organization that governs the policies and practices of the sororities, are planning to meet Saturday to decide whether to follow Delta Phi Epsilon and vote to approve an amendment permitting the member sororities to change their definitions of “woman,” to ensure nonbinary people are welcome in their organizations.
If passed, the amendment would mark a radical departure from the sororities’ original frameworks and foundations, which are based in womanhood and women’s empowerment. The organizations have hundreds of chapters on college campuses nationwide that are known as women-only groups, with expectations and traditions rooted in stereotypical feminine ideals.
"I hope … that people will see that this is the future and that this should have always been," said Nicole DeFeo, international executive director of Delta Phi Epsilon. "We sit in a place where our members expect us to set the standard for sororities in an ever-changing world, because collegiate campuses are ever changing."
As the NPC embarks on this decision, men's fraternities in the North American Interfraternity Conference, the umbrella organization that encompasses 58 Greek organizations, already leaves it up to individual member groups to define "men" in their membership policies, Todd Shelton, chief communication officer for the conference, wrote in an email. One fraternity in the conference, Delta Lambda Phi, was founded by gay men and last year officially opened its fraternity to all individuals other than cisgender women, said Bryan Guffey, executive director of the fraternity.
Guffey, who identifies as nonbinary, said the interfraternity conference has "always given the organization the latitude to define their own membership," and doing so is something the fraternities "hold sacred."
"It’s important for there to be a space for people," Guffey said. "The thing that continues to define Delta Lambda Phi as a men’s fraternity is that all of us has had an experience of socializing as a man in our lives, whether that’s past or present, or wishing for it more in the future. That’s what binds us together."
Should the National Panhellenic Conference change its policies surrounding the definition of "women," it would be a step in the right direction, Guffey said. Some NPC sorority members, especially college-aged members, view the conference's ideals as outdated notions of femininity and welcome the policy change as a progressive and timely move. Others acknowledge that changes are warranted but are concerned that the sororities might stray too far from their original mission.
Carole Jones, chair of the NPC, seemed to express this dynamic in a letter to members she posted on NPC's website in March in honor of Women’s History Month. Jones, a University of Alabama alumna and member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, spoke of members' efforts to "tirelessly advocate for the sorority experience and work to preserve the women's-only experience.” She also described campus sororities as “the only student-organized women’s-only safe spaces on campus” and “spaces that allow women to empower and to advocate for one another.”
But Jones also wrote that sorority leaders will adapt as society changes.
“We know that college-going women are looking for this type of experience -- a sisterhood and a shared experience,” Jones wrote in the post. “As we find ways to celebrate Women’s History Month, we will continue to focus on the future of sorority and preserving the experience while at the same time adapting and evolving to meet the needs of our members in this ever-changing world.”
Jones declined to comment through a conference spokesperson. In a written statement, Dani Weatherford, CEO of the conference, said it "will continue to engage the larger Panhellenic community to look for ways to break down barriers in the recruitment process and make the community more inclusive."
Simone Ispa-Landa, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University who researches gender and sororities, said the potential policy change is representative of a broader social shift in sororities. Ispa-Landa conducted a qualitative study about femininity and gender roles in sorority life, which was published last October in the journal Gender & Society. Several sorority women she interviewed noted displeasure with how historically white sororities treat LGBTQ students.
Ispa-Landa said younger sorority members are increasingly recognizing and disavowing gender stratification in Greek life and the exclusion of those who don’t identify with stereotypical perceptions of “womanhood,” such as nonbinary people or other members of the LGBTQ community. The NPC vote is a sign that “the system is on the cusp of change,” she said.
“It’s a further indication, for me, of this discontent,” she said. “It’s not surprising to me that this is happening in sororities, where I see so much discontent and mismatch in practices and ideals.”
The NPC’s current policy for new member recruitment for chapters under its oversight defines a woman “as an individual who consistently lives and self-identifies as a woman,” according to an NPC manual. DeFeo said this definition would exclude nonbinary people, and at times the policy has interfered with Delta Phi Epsilon’s own policy for including transgender and nonbinary members, which it established in 2017.
DeFeo and Roxanne Donovan, international president of Delta Phi Epsilon, said the organization’s leadership spent multiple days researching gender identity and crafting the sorority’s inclusion policy with the help of gender and legal experts. Donovan hopes that the other 25 sorority representatives who will vote on the NPC amendment are putting the same amount of work into Saturday’s decision, which she believes is a no-brainer.
“For people who aren't living it, living with it, looking into it, doing the work, it could be a more challenging vote,” Donovan said. “But to me, it seems pretty straightforward.”
The Delta Phi Epsilon policy still includes gendered terms such as “sisterhood” and says the organization welcomes “all women as they self-identify” and nonbinary people, “provided they are committed to the advancement of womanhood.” Chen, the MIT senior, said some of the language the sorority uses, such as “women of Delta Phi Epsilon,” is outdated and makes them uncomfortable. But it’s natural that the organization is still in the process of evaluating what terms to retain and what to phase out, Chen said.
Dan Perez-Sornia, a nonbinary member of Delta Phi Epsilon who recently graduated from Humboldt State University in California, said they don’t associate “sisterhood” with gender. Their decision to join the sorority had nothing to do with womanhood, but rather the values and actions of fellow members that Perez-Sornia connected with.
“Sisterhood to me is grace, empathy and the deeper care of putting yourself out there for someone you love, and ‘brotherhood’ is similar,” Perez-Sornia said. “Sisterhood is not necessarily defined as something tied only to women. It’s about actions.”
Though the NPC vote does not compel member sororities to permit nonbinary members, DeFeo is hopeful conference attendees will choose to eliminate the existing barriers for these members. She described an affirmative vote as national sorority leaders deciding to be “on the right side of history.”
“We remain cognizant of embracing the evolving definitions of what it means to be a sorority,” DeFeo said. “Come to Delta Phi Epsilon as you are, as your authentic and true self. Wear no masks and tell no stories that are not authentically yours.”