The historically black sorority Zeta Phi Beta Incorporated issued a “diversity statement” in January that stated, “an individual must be a cis-gender woman” to join.
After facing backlash and hearing community criticisms, the organization released an updated policy on Sunday.
In the statement to Essence magazine, a representative from the sorority apologized for the previous policy, and indicated that transgender women are currently part of the organization: “Since our founding on January 16, 1920, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., has sought to create a sorority that embraces and values all of our members. Sadly, a previous diversity statement made by our organization fell short of that goal and for that, we offer our deepest apologies.”
Zeta Phi Beta is still amending its national guidelines regarding membership.
Philadelphia resident Eran Sargent is a transgender woman and a member of the Blue and White Family, which encompasses members of both Zeta Phi Beta and its brother organization Beta Phi Sigma. As such, Zeta Phi Beta’s updated policy is important to her.
“Their new policy I think is indicative of the changing times we are living in where there is more awareness for gender diversity, and specifically transgender inclusion,” Sargent said. “Trans women are women, so it makes sense to me that Zeta would be a leader in recognizing and celebrating inclusion.”
The organization began in 1920 at Howard University in Washington D.C., and includes over 100,000 members within 800 chapters in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Five women started the sorority in order to bring about social change and create a sisterhood for black women.
“I think that if they would have continued with excluding trans women from membership, it would further perpetuate inequality, when that indeed goes against the purpose of these organizations,” Sargent said.
“If the goal is to address social problems, particularly within the black community, then being open to all women would send the message that this organization is in tune with gender equity and black liberation in 2019,” she continued.
As private organizations, fraternities and sororities are able to establish their own membership policies as they see fit. The issue of whether a Greek organization allows trans members to join has become a crucial conversation in recent years. Members of the LGBTQ community have responded with resources for college groups, including fraternities and sororities.
One such resource is Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 “for and by student leaders,” with a mission to provide information and programs to educate and guide LGBTQ college students throughout the U.S.
“One of the issues that Campus Pride has raised is making policies with regard to gender identity accessible and visible to individuals,” said Doug Case, coordinator of Campus Pride’s Lambda 10 Project.
As part of Campus Pride, the Lambda 10 Project is a national educational resource for LGBTQ issues relating to fraternities and sororities. Campus Pride is currently conducting a survey of fraternities and sororities on national and international levels to determine what their policies are in terms of potential LGBTQ members, including transgender and gender nonbinary folks.
Even though some fraternities and sororities have drawn up policies that address inclusion of LGBTQ members, such policies are not necessarily made readily available on organization websites.
“What Campus Pride has been doing is encouraging organizations to be explicit in their policies as to how they define gender,” Case said. “The organizations as private associations have a right to define gender as the organization chooses.”
Campus Pride provides sample fraternity and sorority policy statements that are inclusive of members regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Included in those examples are definitions of those identities.
Case pointed out that a complicated issue has been how Greek organizations address nonbinary membership and policies. Within Campus Pride’s recommended policies is a sample section that includes nonbinary individuals in membership.
“Some national organizations have adopted Campus Pride recommendations virtually word for word,” Case said. “Our premise is that no student should be denied the opportunity to participate in fraternity and sorority life, and certainly not based upon their gender identity.”
Case advises the San Francisco chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity for gay, bisexual, transgender and allied men, which was one of the first fraternities to welcome transgender people. In its current membership of about 20 to 25 members, one third of them identify as trans or nonbinary. The organization’s woman counterpart, Gamma Rho Lambda, which accepts all women regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and race, was one of the first sororities to welcome transgender women.
On local levels, some colleges and universities are starting to educate their fraternities and sororities on national policy, including membership guidelines. At West Chester University, which has a chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Cara Jenkins Sullivan and Director of the Center for Trans and Queer Advocacy Tiffany Gray plan to do just that in the coming semester.
“[We] have made plans to do some general education for all of the fraternities and sororities — do they know what their national policy is, and how does that manifest when they’re looking for new members on campus,” Sullivan said.
Although transgender membership in college Greek life is reportedly small, it is starting to increase little by little, as are new national policies that include members of LGBT communities.
“People who are trans can move the ball forward by continuing to live our truths and being as visible as we are able to be,” Sargent said.
Sargent works in the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. She attended Miami University in Ohio, and graduated in 2015.
“Members of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. on my college campus were the most open and accepting and really helped me to find myself and contributed to the woman I am today,” Sargent said. n