When a sorority at Tufts University advertised its fall recruitment activities as being open to all female-identifying women in September, one transgender woman heeded that call, rushing the Delta Chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi (APII) and quickly receiving a unanimous bid offer by all members.
But the reaction from the AOII International organization, according to disillusioned Delta Chapter members who spoke with Yahoo Beauty, was one of clinging to tradition at the expense of expansive diversity — something that has caused a shakeup, complete with many meetings, resignations, and near-disaffiliation from AOII.
“Women, former and present, of the Delta Chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi, stand for inclusivity, kindness and support,” Tai Williams, a Tufts senior who self-suspended her Delta Chapter membership in response to the upheaval, tells Yahoo Beauty. “We do not tolerate exclusivity and prejudice… We had every intention of welcoming any female-identifying member into our sorority.”
The story began at the start of the school year on the Medford, Mass., campus, according to the accounts of several students, including Kristin Reeves, a junior double-majoring in drama and sociology. Until last month, she was also the president of the Delta Chapter of AOII. Reeves stepped down from her position and chose to self-suspend her membership from the sorority in the wake of what happened after the sorority elected to offer a bid to a female-identifying transgender peer.
Reeves tells Yahoo Beauty that a representative from AOII International was present during Delta Chapter’s fall recruitment activities, which took place from Sept. 14 to 16. During this recruitment period, a young woman named Samantha (who has been given a pseudonym for the sake of privacy), visited the AOII house, participating in its rush activities.
Samantha was friends with many members of Delta Chapter already — so much so that Amanda Danielson, a senior who is the vice president of communications for Delta Chapter, tells Yahoo Beauty that Samantha noted during recruitment that many people thought she was in AOII already.
According to Reeves, the representative from AOII International expressed that she was unsure if the organization had a policy in place on extending bids to transgender women, and said that on Sept. 16 she had reached out to AOII headquarters for clarification. Reeves says that this was done without any prompting from any of the women in the chapter.
That evening, Reeves says, she was told that AOII International had no official policy on allowing transgender women in the chapter and, because of this, Delta Chapter was asked to “hold off” on extending the bid to Samantha. The chapter unanimously decided to extend Samantha a bid anyway, Reeves says.
The next day, Reeves recounts having had a conference call with Delta Chapter’s chapter advisor, an international vice president of the AOII organization, and a representative of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), the umbrella organization for 26 women’s sororities in the United States. She says she was told at this time that “by extending a bid to a transgender woman, we would be putting NPC and AOII [headquarters] at risk of losing their Title IX status as a single-sex organization, which would prompt the possibility of lawsuits.” Reeves says she told the officials on the call that Delta Chapter would still want to extend Samantha a bid. In reply, Reeves says, the VP from AOII told her that she hoped “AOII would be able to continue at Tufts.”
Later that afternoon, Reeves called an emergency chapter meeting, at which point the members of Delta Chapter once again unanimously decided to extend a bid to Samantha. Reeves says that she informed AOII headquarters that the chapter would be moving forward in extending the bid, and that president of AOII International called her and communicated that the organization had reevaluated its previous decision and that Delta Chapter was “allowed to extend the bid” to Samantha.
At this point, Reeves recalls, the membership of Delta Chapter began discussing the possibility of disaffiliating as a chapter. But AOII International will only accept disaffiliations if it is a unanimous decision of a chapter’s membership, Reeves explains, and the Delta Chapter was not able to reach a unanimous agreement. As a result, many women in the sorority began to discuss self-suspending their individual memberships from the organization.
Ultimately, on Oct. 12, another representative from AOII International came to visit the Tufts chapter. Reeves says that during this meeting, Delta Chapter members were told that in the next 48 hours, they would each need to individually decide if they wanted to remain members of AOII or self-suspend, and that each member would need to meet individually with the AOII International representative to inform her of her personal decision. Ultimately, Reeves says, approximately 40 women of the 80-person chapter, herself included, decided to self-suspend.
In a statement, Courtney West, a spokesperson for AOII International, tells Yahoo Beauty, “While a number of collegiate members of Delta Chapter chose to leave Alpha Omicron Pi, it was our understanding that they wish to pursue the establishment of a local sorority on campus. The Fraternity wishes them well in that endeavor. There are still many women in Delta Chapter who are dedicated AOII members. The chapter will continue to recruit members who embrace diversity, are passionate about social action, and are dedicated to maintaining their high standards of excellence. The student in question [Samantha] was extended a bid from the Delta Chapter to join Alpha Omicron Pi (and chose to join) and at no time was the chapter threatened with disciplinary action or to be sued. Alpha Omicron Pi believes that all individuals are unique, with inherent worth and dignity, and should be treated with respect.”
When asked to confirm or deny the series of events described by Reeves, West referred back to her statement.
Dani Weatherford, the Executive Director of the National Panhellenic Conference, tells Yahoo Beauty, “As sovereign entities, the member organizations of NPC are free to set their own membership criteria and some have already made the decision to include transgender women. But NPC does not set membership criteria or policies for its member organizations. The only over-arching standard is that NPC members are all women’s organizations.”
Weatherford adds, “As society’s understanding of gender identity evolves, all sorts of organizations – including sororities – will learn and respond. Right now, we’re seeing that process play out in real-time – with sororities and with other organizations. Organizations of all types are wrestling with gender identity and what it means for their current members and their current policies.”
The NPC executive committee has also recently appointed a study group on gender identity comprised of campus officials, student advisors, and legal experts to serve as advisors to the NPC community as they “thoughtfully consider membership policies and procedures,” Weatherford says.
Samantha did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo Beauty.
“Most women decided to leave because they no longer felt comfortable in the organization after they had been hesitant to change,” Reeves says. “I, personally, left because I knew I could not rationalize continuing to contribute my own time, energy, and money to an organization that was unwilling to change in the name of ‘tradition.’”
While Reeves stepped down from the board of Delta Chapter and self-suspended her membership, Danielson chose to stay, explaining to Yahoo Beauty that, as she understands the situation, the AOII International representative present at Delta Chapter during recruitment was not the first one who brought up legal concerns regarding offering a bid to a transgender woman, nor was this representative the one who contacted AOII International about the situation. Rather, she notes, the AOII International representative who had been on-campus was “very upset by the delays in welcoming Samantha” that emerged as the chapter awaited further instruction from AOII International in regards to the bid.
Danielson recalls that during the emergency chapter meeting called by Reeves, Reeves shared with Delta Chapter members that AOII International had “threatened to revoke our charter” if the group extended a bid to Samantha.
“I was angry and upset at AOII upon hearing this,” she says, “as were my sisters. Many women wanted to vote to disaffiliate at that moment and it nearly happened. But other sisters, such as myself, wanted more detailed information about what AOII International had said and we also wanted to wait to see if they allowed Samantha to have a bid.”
However, Danielson adds, “Every sister, myself included, agreed that we would leave the chapter if AOII didn’t allow Samantha a bid because we felt that she embodied our values. The Social Action Chair of our chapter wrote a letter that we sent to AOII International with a list of women we voted to extend bids to, which included Samantha, saying that we would stick with Samantha and give her a bid no matter what.”
Danielson explains that Delta Chapter was later informed that AOII International had never threatened to revoke Delta’s charter — that the member of AOII International who had spoken with Reeves and had said “We want to see AOII continue [at Tufts]” had not meant this statement as a threat, but as a way of communicating that AOII International valued Delta Chapter within its organization. She adds that she and her sorority sisters were “relieved that within 48 hours of this period of uncertainty, AOII International ultimately said that NPC had checked with its lawyers and Samantha could be extended a bid without risk to our Title IX exemption.”
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, Counsel for Education at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), says that some involved in this situation have missed the point. “I feel like the International Chapter is missing a fundamental component, which is that transgender women are women,” Onyeka-Crawford says. “There isn’t any conflict here [in regards to a sorority being able to operate as a single-sex organization].”
She explains to Yahoo Beauty that, while Title IX exemptions are sometimes granted to universities with religious affiliations whose religious tenets don’t allow for mixed-sex environments, the existence of Title IX does not prevent Greek organizations from operating as sex-separate organizations. She adds that while Title IX does allow for sex segregation in certain, limited capacities — such as single-sex housing — under the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX, access to sex-segregated spaces must be consistent with trans students’s respective gender identities.
She notes that the Department of Education’s recently issued guidance on accommodations for transgender students doesn’t apply to sororities and fraternities which are allowed to set their own policies regarding the gender specifications of its membership, and “can admit trans students if they so choose.” Because of this, she notes that there might be “confusion” around whether a chapter or an international organization has the right to restrict its membership on account of sex or gender, but that she would hope that the national and international organizations would be “responsive to chapters that want to be more progressive and more inclusive.”
Furthermore, Oneyka-Crawford adds, “Inclusivity is always the better option than exclusivity. Affirming the struggle for trans rights is part and parcel with the struggle for sex discrimination. It’s all in the same spectrum. As cisgender women, extending that welcome to trans women would go a long way in making sure trans women and students feel safe [in educational environments]… There is nothing that prohibits a sorority or fraternity from extending membership to someone trans — and doing so should be encouraged.”