For many college students, Greek life, a more than 200-year-old prominent tradition within U.S. higher education, is an opportunity to be part of a brotherhood or sisterhood.
In fall 2013, Aubrey DiBello, a senior cell biology and molecular genetics major, decided it was time to change the narrative, and with the help of five like-minded friends founded the Epsilon chapter of Theta Pi Sigma, the first gender-neutral LGBTQA Greek organization to be housed at the university.
Using Greek life as a model, DiBello implemented the organization on the basis of a “frarority,” a merging of the words “fraternity” and “sorority.”
“The founding principles of Greek life are amazing,” DiBello said, “and I wanted to create a safe space for anyone regardless of their individual diversities.”
And now, one year later, the LGBTQ community is continuing to make strides toward a more inclusive campus for all students.
“It is the distinction of being the university’s only co-ed social fraternity,” said Taylor Morris, a senior psychology major and member of the frarority’s first pledge class at this university. “There are co-ed academic and service fraternities, but the social ones are usually gendered.”
Though it may be small in numbers, Theta Pi Sigma is a safe, inclusive space for the LGBTQ community, Morris said.
“People might think an LGBT frat isn’t something to be taken seriously because it is so little,” said Morris. “But we are really a resource for people who are just coming out. There are a lot of people who have faced a lot of struggles, and our frat is almost a safe refuge as much as it is a frat.”
In its third semester, members of Theta Pi Sigma partake in a series of events and philanthropy projects. The frarority hosted a screening of the 1996 film “The Birdcage,” for its Queer Cinema at the Hoff Theater Oct. 28, as well as a fishbowl discussion among multicultural, intersectional individuals featuring TED speaker and famous trans story-teller Scott Turner Schofield on Nov. 10.
The frarority partakes in several volunteering opportunities as well, working with organizations that promote support for LGBTQ issues, environmental issues and early education.
At this university, gender neutral housing, bathrooms, and non-discrimination policies for LGBTQ students became accessible only in recent years. The sexual orientation non-discrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation, was amended in 2012 to protect students against discrimination based on gender identity and expression as well.
Still, many aspects of student life at the university remain gendered – The Spirit of Maryland award, for instance, is given to 10 men and women at the end of each year.
A Work in Progress
Theta Pi Sigma President Maria Lyon, a senior kinesiology major, decided to join the frarority in fall 2013 after realizing how much time she spent at the Intramural Sports program, where she has worked for several years. Though everyone at the program is “fantastic, open-minded and accommodative,” Lyon wanted to branch out from the program’s masculine, heteronormative environment.
“I looked around and realized I was spending too much time there and not enough time with the LGBT community on campus, and that was something I wanted to spend more time with,” Lyon said.
The frarority elected Lyon as president in spring 2014. Since then, she has become far more involved, she said. She now attends all of the events and meetings and strives to bond with all of the members and new pledges.
This semester, after welcoming its Gamma pledge class, Theta Pi Sigma has 46 members. As president, Lyon hopes the frarority will continue to grow, not just in numbers, but in visibility as well.
“One of the biggest things I was noticing before I had joined was that I didn’t feel the LGBT community was visible on campus,” Lyon said. “There were times you would see different LGBT events on campus, but there wasn’t this routine community that met all at once.”
Theta Pi Sigma has other chapters in University of California, Santa Cruz, Northeastern University of Illinois and University of Oregon and has paved the way for the LGBTQ college communities since 2005.
“This is an example of students who feel empowered to create something on their own,” said Luke Jensen, director of the university’s LGBT Equity Center. “And that’s probably one of the best things that can come about.”
As director of the Equity Center, Jensen focuses much of his work on the topic of gender and how it relates to the university, students and faculty. Jensen said creating non-gendered spaces is critical for both women and men.
Giving Voice to the Transgender Community
Along with its own gender-neutral frarority, the university has taken measures to increase housing options, bathrooms and policies that cater to the transgender community.
Morris, who identifies as transgender, said he feels the university deserves an “A-plus” from an administrative standpoint. As a freshman, the university accommodated Morris by giving him a single room on a gender-neutral floor, rather than placing him in a regular Honors College residence hall. A year later, the university cut through “some legal red tape” to allow Morris to room with male friends before the university changed his records to recognize his gender identity.
Morris also applauded the university’s health insurance policy, which was revised in August of this year. The policy, which covers procedures such as hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, will now cover Morris’s hysterectomy this year. What would have been a $30,000 surgery will now cost Morris approximately $2,000, making this vital procedure far more affordable.
“If I had to wait until I was 30, chances are I would’ve gotten some pre-cancer ovarian cysts where it would have forced me to do it anyways,” Morris said. “But it shows you that this is a serious issue, and I’m really glad Maryland has stepped up in that.”
With changes being made concerning health policies, Jensen and his colleagues at the Equity Center are managing the university’s “ecosystem” creating an environment that is supportive for LGBTQ students, employees and alumni.
Programs like the Rainbow Terrapin Network and workplace inclusion training are operated through the Equity Center, giving students, faculty and employees an opportunity to empower themselves. An additional training program, Trans Advocacy, focuses specifically on transgender issues.
However, while the university is increasingly accommodating for the LGBTQ community, there is still work to be done.
Theta Pi Sigma member Zoe Kresie said she would like to see more gender neutral spaces like bathrooms, as well as more sensitivity toward different gender identities from teachers, students and the institution as a whole.
“You find that teachers aren’t very aware of different gender identities,” Kresie, who identifies as transgender and prefers female or gender-neutral pronouns, said. “At first I didn’t identify with male pronouns at all, so getting misgendered was definitely a hard part for me.”
Kresie also said she would like to see more gender inclusivity on different surveys, forms, and applications at the the university.
As a volunteer at the Campus Pantry, a service that delivers groceries to students, staff and faculty in need, she’s noticed the forms required only have two options for gender: male and female.
This is not uncommon Jensen said.
This lack of options for gender identity is problematic for many students who may not identify as strictly male or female. The university application, for example, does not offer an option for students to self-identify regarding gender.
This leaves the university in the dark for statistics regarding the LGBTQ population.
“We know what the retention and graduation rates are for women and men, we know what they are for race, we know what they are for economic class, major, but no one can tell you the retention and graduation rates for LGBTQ students,” Jensen said. “Why not? Don’t we have a responsibility to people with those identities?”
Jensen currently has a proposal before the University Senate that would make gendered questions optional. Allowing students to self-identify on the application and other surveys would not only be good for inclusivity but for statistics as well, he said.
With contributions from student groups such as Theta Pi Sigma, faculty like Jensen and his colleagues at the Equity Center, the university’s many LGBTQ resources, and allies of the community, are confident that change at the university is growing increasingly visible.
“Theta Pi Sigma has been really great at being the bridge that connects [the LGBTQ community],” Lyon said. “I think we’ve really stepped up the visibility by creating one unified LGBT community.”
Daphne Pellegrino is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.