As institutions face a blurring gender binary, a transgender student tests the bounds of Northwestern sorority life
January 11, 2017
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On Tuesday night, hundreds of Northwestern women were invited to join a sorority. For five days, they had devoted themselves to a long, intricate and sometimes below-freezing recruitment process hoping the common belief would hold true: that a bid will be given to nearly everyone who goes through formal recruitment.
Adam Davies, who identifies as transgender female-to-male, did not get a bid. For three days of the process, the Weinberg freshman was an enthusiastic participant of Panhellenic Association’s Winter Recruitment. Last Thursday, Davies visited half of the 12 chapter houses, delighting in a series of compressed get-to-know-you conversations meant to familiarize potential new members with each sorority. The next day, he was back in line outside the stone houses, eager again for people to get to know him and begin to see him as a potential member.
On Saturday, Davies learned that six sororities had asked him back, a typical amount in the recruitment process according to PHA’s recruitment handbook. But on Sunday morning, Davies got a call from a University administrator requesting a meeting. Davies said he was told he had not been asked back to any of the chapters, for reasons of “fit and eligibility,” with the administrator putting emphasis on the latter.
“They say every woman gets a bid,” Davies said. “But I’m not a woman.”
Davies says his gender identity cannot be confined to one of two boxes. He identifies as a boy, he said, but “only to the point where society needs to see a gender in me.” He does not feel comfortable in a fraternity setting, but the idea of being part of a sorority — with its close-knit atmosphere and dedication to philanthropy — sits right with him.
“I understand the fact that I still have a woman’s body, and living in a house full of boys … there’s potential for harm,” Davies said. “But I would feel comfortable in a sorority setting, and I identify with a lot of the values they have.”
Months after disclosing his gender identity to family and friends in central Wisconsin, Davies found himself facing a generational split on expression of gender. While Northwestern PHA leaders have indicated their support for allowing people who do not identify as women to join a sorority, some of their international and national headquarters are hesitant.
During Fall Quarter, Davies reached out to PHA about participating in recruitment, assuming at first that his chances for getting accepted were slim to none. But he had a sense during his meeting with PHA executive board members that Northwestern PHA leaders were behind him, he said. He got the sense that the obstacle to him joining a sorority would not be on campus but rather at international and national headquarters.
In December, PHA wrote a letter to The Daily expressing a desire to include non-binary, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in their community, but noted a conflict between their association and the sororities’ national and international headquarters. In accommodating different gender expressions, PHA notes that they have come to an “impasse,” explaining that each headquarters has a different perspective on who is eligible to join.
“While some national headquarters have adopted more progressive ideas about gender expression as it pertains to eligibility, some are not yet willing to depart from more traditional definitions of womanhood and sisterhood,” the letter says.
A spokesman for the National Panhellenic Conference, which oversees Northwestern PHA, said each individual organization has full authority over its gender inclusion policy. The issue has been in flux, particularly over the past six months, as some transgender individuals have sought to join sororities across the country, the spokesman said.
So when Davies officially joined the recruitment process, he said there was little certainty as to whether he could be offered a bid or even asked back to the second round. Despite PHA’s support, Davies knew people questioned why he, a boy, wanted to join a sorority.
On a personal level, Davies said he was searching for family. During Winter Break, Davies returned home to Appleton, Wisconsin, to be handed a four-page lease agreement by his mother, who had not responded well to his transgender identity. Rather than live as a subletter in his own home, Davies said he called a hotline that would help him find a safe place to stay with other LGBTQ individuals.
His own biological family has had trouble making peace with his gender identity, but the Northwestern community has proved far more welcoming, Davies said. The entire first floor of his residence hall, Jones, has gender neutral bathrooms; the university’s health insurance will cover his top surgery with the proper paperwork; and most people here tend to see him as simply a boy. It made him think that his admittance to a sorority here could be possible.
“If any campus is going to do it, it’s going to be Northwestern,” Davies said.
As an activist, Davies’ choice to go through recruitment was also rooted in a desire to deconstruct the gender binary that rules Greek life across the country. The history of sororities is rooted in women’s exclusion from fraternities and the need to create a space of their own, Davies explained. But now, as the gender binary gradually fades, sororities must carve out a role as a haven for people of all genders who aren’t eligible to join a fraternity or don’t wish to do so, he said.
“In the world we live in, I think that sororities should instead be an organization for anyone that doesn’t identify as a cisgendered male to feel comfortable in a fraternity setting,” he said.
During the days in which Davies traveled from house to house with the pack of bundled-up potential new members, some sorority leaders contacted their headquarters to determine whether their policy leaves room for someone who identifies like him.
PHA sororities’ policies on gender inclusion can range from non-existent to narrowing membership to only self-identifying women to explicitly excluding males.
Alpha Chi Omega’s headquarters, for example, says its chapters can accept anyone who qualifies to participate in each university’s sorority recruitment process, the sorority’s spokeswoman said. Pi Beta Phi’s headquarters, on the other hand, declares itself a “women’s organization for individuals who live and self-identify as women.”
Delta Gamma’s own statement from headquarters notes that women and “transgender persons who identify themselves as women” can become members, but it specifically excludes males from joining.
Zeta Tau Alpha and Kappa Kappa Gamma headquarters both provided non-discrimination policies protected by law, but did not include statements as to whether members need to identify as women.
Six other PHA sorority headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.
DG headquarters’ single-sex policy is based on a part of Title IX that addresses social fraternities and sororities, its statement says. The section lists fraternities and sororities as exceptions to the law prohibiting exclusion from participation, based on sex, in any education program or activity receiving federal money.
Shanlon Wu, a former Department of Justice prosecutor and current student defense attorney, said because the intent of Title IX is to create a safe environment for all students, he believes sororities and fraternities should honor a transgender student’s preference.
“They should defer to the student’s sensitivities because there’s no reason not to,” Wu said. “I think that schools have an obligation to assume that a student who self-identifies that way is sincere.”
On what grounds Davies was rejected from each of the six sororities he was called back to remains unclear. Davies said that although he was disappointed he did not get a bid, he believes the very fact he went through PHA recruitment paves the way for future change.
During his three days in the PHA recruitment process, Davies said he spoke with about 45 sorority members. Most of those conversations, he said, were centered on his own gender and issues of identity more broadly. He found himself mostly avoiding small talk, discussing topics such as feminism, his transgender identity and how that could play out in a sorority setting.
Outgoing PHA President Nina Seminara said Davies’ participation in recruitment was an “important step” in rethinking who is eligible for the sorority community.
“We hope that in the future, PHA, its chapters, and their respective national headquarters will continue to become more inclusive and reflective,” the SESP senior said in a statement to The Daily.
Some headquarters are looking to adapt. Delta Delta Delta’s headquarters said in a statement Wednesday that it gives its individual chapters full freedom to make membership decisions “at a time when society is wrestling with questions about how the changing concepts of gender identity impact traditional distinctions between men and women.”
Davies said he will continue to work toward greater gender inclusivity in PHA. He said he was offered the opportunity to work with PHA’s diversity and inclusion chair and he plans on reaching out to international and national headquarters to see if he can change minds at the top. The important thing now, he said, is not getting into a sorority himself but paving the way for others at Northwestern to do so.
“I have no doubt that in the years to come, trans male people will be welcomed in sororities for the values that they show,” Davies said. “The discussion is going to keep going.”