For Emily Su, becoming a founding member of MIT’s Delta Phi Epsilon chapter was an opportunity to build something new and principled. They were particularly taken by the organization’s emphasis on justice, as well as its motto: “To be, rather than to seem to be.” For Su, who graduated in 2017, it was a call to live one’s values.
Su, who is nonbinary, was among the students who pushed Delta Phi Epsilon to welcome both nonbinary students and trans women in 2017, drawing national attention. Now, more than three years later, a rule change could pave the way for even more gender-nonconforming students to join sororities on their college campuses.
The National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization comprising 26 member sororities, will vote on a policy change April 10 that would allow each sorority to define “woman” however they choose. The NPC is already open to trans women members, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, because it specifies that any “individual who consistently lives and self-identifies as a woman” can join.
That language, however, isn’t inclusive of nonbinary students, who may be drawn to joining sororities for a number of reasons, but don’t identify as women themselves.
The policy could affect many people around the world, said Nicole DeFeo, Delta Phi Epsilon’s executive director, including alumni of sororities and anyone who goes through a recruitment process on a college campus. According a 2018 CNN report, 145,600 undergraduates nationwide joined a sorority during the 2016-2017 academic year.
“We want to be on the right side of history as we welcome and embrace current and future members,” DeFeo said.
Roxanne Donovan, president of Delta Phi Epsilon’s international governing board, said she was confident that other sororities would join them in not just accepting the rule change, but employing it within their own organizations.
“We have to give them all the tools to open their doors as wide as possible,” she said.
Delta Phi Epsilon began actively welcoming nonbinary students into the sorority in 2017, after members of the MIT Zeta Delta chapter, including Su, wrote a letter to sorority’s governing board in December 2016.
From the beginning, the sorority had queer and non-gender conforming members, Su said. That’s why they and other members of the sorority were shocked when the group was blocked from attempting to recruit a nonbinary student by the organization’s governing body and a council representative who were overseeing the process.
“We weren’t aware that this wasn’t supposed to happen,” Su said. “And does that mean we’re not welcome here? Does that mean that we could get kicked out at any moment?”
The group was confident that they were on “the right side of history and on the right side of science,” Su said. A historically Jewish organization, Delta Phi Epsilon’s founding members were excluded from joining other sororities, leading them to build their own organization emphasizing the ideals of sisterhood, inclusion and justice.
“To exclude an entire group of people from the Greek experience that has brought us so much, merely based on gender, is just as unjust as excluding people based on religion,” read the 2016 letter.
A few months later, Su said, Delta Phi Epsilon announced it would accept nonbinary members at each chapter’s discretion.
This explicit welcoming of nonbinary members is important, Su added.
“A lot of society right now is structured based on binary gender, and so for nonbinary folks, that sort of leaves you in this weird in-between where you have to pick one,” they said. “There’s no home for nonbinary people in Greek life.”
Su said their sorority sisters relied on each other when they were struggling with classes or other areas of their lives; when Su started coming out as queer, they found community and support with other queer members of Delta Phi Epsilon that just didn’t exist in other networks.
MIT electrical engineering and computer science senior Leilani Trautman said Delta Phi Epsilon’s commitment to inclusion is what drew her in. Trautman was just 16 when she arrived at the school from San Diego. Trautman joined the sorority alongside one of her best friends, a nonbinary student. Since then, Trautman has held leadership roles within Delta Phi Epsilon, and has worked with its organizational leadership to iron out how inclusive policies play out in practice.
DeFeo called the potential policy expansion critical, especially at a time when state governments are attempting to enforce gender norms through restrictive, anti-trans legislation. Within the first few months of 2021, Republican lawmakers have put forward more than 70 bills targeting transgender people, Axios reported, with trans youth receiving the brunt of the attention, particularly in sports.
Within the NPC, there have been challenges getting other sororities on board with making their policies more inclusive, said Donovan. One primary concern voiced by other organizations was that admitting nonbinary students may threaten the groups’ Title IX exemptions; legal experts assured them such policies would not impact their long-standing carveout.
Expanding access to sororities is not just important to validating trans and nonbinary members, Donovan said, but an important acknowledgment of the world we live in. One recent poll found that half of Gen Z, and more than 50 percent of millennials, reject the gender binary.
College is a time “to be seen, to be accepted as you are, to explore and discover who you are,” Donovan said.
“If we’re not doing that, we shouldn’t be there, because we’re supposed to be about creating a sense of belonging.”