With the start of the school year comes rush week, the recruitment period for fraternities and sororities. At the University of Alabama, recruitment has exploded into a social media extravaganza known as “Bama Rush Tok,” an event covered by The New York Times and other media outlets fascinated with the style, drama and nitpicky rules governing the rush process.
In the Bama Rush Tok world, where popularity and pizzazz factor into the selection process, some TikTok users dubbed Grant Sikes, a nonbinary student at Alabama, “the main star.”
But Sikes, who has racked up millions of TikTok views posing in pink skirts and doling out makeup tips, wasn’t accepted into any sorority. Sikes—who lists she/her pronouns on Instagram—was reportedly cut from membership consideration last week.
With Sikes out, the question of inclusivity in Greek life—a culture known for exclusivity—looms. Where do nonbinary and transgender individuals fit in a world that thrives on distinguishing males from females? How are fraternities and sororities approaching the era of gender fluidity?
LGBTQ+ Acceptance in Greek Life
Sikes—who did not reply to a request for comment—is hardly the only individual to miss the cut for a sorority. It happens to thousands of women on campuses across the U.S. each year. For example, local media reported that roughly 8 percent of participants who attended the first session of open house events during fall 2022 recruitment didn’t receive a bid to join a sorority. But for transgender women or nonbinary individuals, winning acceptance into a sorority remains especially fraught.
Transgender women have spoken up about not being selected for sororities at a number of institutions in recent years, including the University of Michigan and the University of Utah. And even when transgender women have been offered membership, pushback has occasionally ensued; in 2016, the national leadership of Alpha Omicron Pi clashed with the local chapter at Tufts University, which extended a bid to a trans woman, prompting members to quit en masse. A year later, Alpha Omicron Pi closed its Tufts chapter and has not returned to campus. (The national leadership for Alpha Omicron Pi did not return a request for comment.)
But the Tufts chapter took issue with the national leadership on the issue of transgender inclusion in Greek life, ultimately prompting Alpha Omicron Pi to reverse course amid a campus backlash. Greek life experts say, however, that national organizations typically set the policy for local chapters to follow.
Conversations around inclusivity have expanded since 2016, experts say.
“Over the last couple of years, our organization has studied the fluidity of gender and gender identity,” said Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, a support and advocacy organization for sororities that serves 26 autonomous members that set their own rules. “In 2016 NPC had a gender identity study group that gathered information and helped develop questions that member organizations could use in reviewing their own membership eligibility criteria, or for membership into the organization. And in those years since that study group did their work, all 26 of our organizations have moved to becoming trans-inclusive.”
The North American Interfraternity Conference, which has 6,000 chapters, struck a similar tone.
“Nationally, our member fraternities are committed to creating and maintaining an inclusive environment. Like society as a whole, perspectives on LGBT+ acceptance continue to evolve within the fraternity community. While membership decisions and policies are made by individual fraternities, all NIC members support the NIC Position on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” Todd Shelton, spokesperson for the North American Interfraternity Conference, said in a statement.
The DEI policy Shelton mentioned references gender identity and expression, which concludes that “the definition of a ‘men’s fraternity’ is left to the discretion of the member organization.”
Though 2016 may represent a flashpoint for gender identity issues in Greek life, outside experts have been working on LGBTQ+ inclusion for much longer. Stevie Tran, a transgender woman and attorney with Tran Arrowsmith, has been focused on gender inclusion for the past 12 years.
“During that time, transgender visibility has increased significantly, bolstered by the various trans-inclusive policies and protections enacted on the federal and local levels. This growth in representation of transgender folks has led to greater conversations about inclusion, generally, within the educational setting, including fraternal organizations,” Tran said by email.
Tran added that since each Greek organization is unique, so, too, is their approach to such issues.
Policy vs. Implementation
While national leadership establishes policies that guide local chapters, those only go so far, experts say. For example, national leadership may create policies that expand recruitment eligibility to transgender and nonbinary students, but that doesn’t guarantee their inclusion. Membership selection is a secretive process determined at the local level, meaning that doors to LGBTQ+ participation are only as open as the minds of chapter leaders.
In states that are less LGBTQ+ friendly—which includes Alabama by reputation—that means transgender and nonbinary students may have opportunities for participation in a fraternity or sorority but may not be selected for membership if there is resistance at the local level. And Alabama is less than 10 years removed from accusations of maintaining a segregated sorority system that excluded Black applicants as recently as 2013.
“This concept of mutual selection is the thing that really becomes complicated, this idea that chapters get the unique opportunities to select their own members,” said Jason Bergeron, executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisers, a professional support organization for college employees working in Greek life. “Those members need to be selected within the context of nondiscrimination, but it’s still a selection process, so it can be easier for the local chapter to exclude sometimes because it might be grounded in other fit issues.”
Fit—in this context, said Bergeron—may be an excuse to exclude someone from membership.
While Bergeron said there can be a disconnect between national organization policies and local chapter actions, he noted that it goes both ways, as the 2016 situation at Tufts demonstrated.
“There was local behavior driving a more inclusive approach around membership selection that wasn’t being reflected more broadly within the national organization,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron noted a number of factors driving the growing acceptance of transgender and nonbinary students by national Greek organizations, including calls for racial justice that have expanded to respect diversity more broadly, social media buzz about issues that used to go unnoticed and a new generation of students with different ideas about gender.
“I think undergraduate members are feeling like they want to exercise their voice more in national and international policy. And they’re also using that opportunity to tell [national organizations] when they feel like they’re not meeting expectations,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron also emphasized that each of the thousands of fraternities and sororities across the nation is different. While Bama Rush Tok offers an amplified view of a selection process at one flagship institution, the process can look radically different at another college.
At California State University, Long Beach, for instance, a fraternity brother was named homecoming queen in 2019.
LGBTQ+ acceptance in Greek life, as in much of American society, is mixed. Tran cited victories in recent years for transgender students but also a flurry of legislation targeting the same population.
“The past decade, importantly, has seen numerous fraternal organizations enact transgender-inclusive membership eligibility requirements,” Tran said. “On the individual level, the trans experience really depends on the region of the country and specific college or university involved, in addition to the fraternal organizations present on that campus. That said, this decade has also seen a spike in openly anti-transgender legislation targeting transgender people and youth across the country. Therefore, ongoing education and visibility will be key as fraternal organizations and educational institutions work to support an increasingly diverse student body.”
Bama Rush Tok Fallout
University of Alabama spokesperson Shane Dorrill noted in an emailed statement to Inside Higher Ed that membership in student organizations is open to all students “without regard to race, religion, sex, ability status, national origin, color, age, gender identity, gender expression, sexual identity, or veteran status except in cases of designated fraternal organizations exempted by federal law from Title IX regulations concerning discrimination on the basis of sex.” Dorrill also noted that “each sorority has its own membership selection criteria” as a private organization.
The university does not collect data on LGBTQ+ participation in Greek life.
In an Instagram post last week, Sikes said being dropped from recruitment was not a surprise. Ultimately, Sikes—who also took to TikTok to debunk various rumors that came out of rush week—closed the chapter on the Bama Rush Tok experience with an air of positivity.
“I’m hopeful of a future where everyone is welcomed for just being themselves—everywhere,” she wrote on Instagram.