While CWRU moves forward on Greek transgender acceptance, national organizations lag behind

Senior Lyall Glait is one of the few transgender students involved in Greek Life at the university. The senior systems biology major and president of Big Games Club rushed in the spring of his freshman year, and became an official member of Phi Kappa Tau in the fall of 2012. A standard fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau’s mission includes the upholding of values typical of Greek Life: scholarship, philanthropy, social diversion and brotherhood.

Glait was reluctant to rush at first.

“Like a lot of people at CWRU, I got here and was like, I have no interest in the Greek system at all,” he said. “Especially because…I figured out that I was transgender the summer before I got to college, so the years leading up to that had been like, of course I’m never joining a sorority.”

However once at CWRU, Glait reconsidered. A friend of Glait’s from his first SAGES seminar had been encouraging him to show to fraternity rush events, and, as he said, “I just figured eh, why not? These seem like nice enough people.”

When Glait showed up to the first couple of rush events, he was welcomed with open arms. As he would later find out, the friend who had encouraged him to show up had already been consulting with the fraternity’s current members about the possibility of Glait joining the fraternity.

“They apparently had to contact Nationals about it,” he said. “I was surprised they were taking it so seriously…because I wasn’t taking it that seriously yet.”

As far as Glait is aware, he was the first person in Phi Kappa Tau to be transgender. But his experience in regards to Greek Life at CWRU isn’t an unusual one. In terms of policy, regulations that affect Greek Life exist at four different levels: the university level, national level, council level and individual level. Most fraternities and sororities at CWRU have a national counterpart to which they report, so the members of Phi Kappa Tau checking in with Nationals to see if Glait could join isn’t unheard of.

However according to Ethan Pickering, the president of Interfraternity Congress, not every Greek chapter places the same weight on national policies.

“There are some fraternities who are very receptive to their national organizations and follow, to a T, what their national organizations want,” he said. “Others do not necessarily follow to a T. And then there’s some in the middle.”

According to Pickering, the inclusion of a non-discrimination policy in a fraternity’s or sorority’s constitution tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

Of the 18 fraternities and nine sororities on CWRU’s campus, none of their national organizations have non-discrimination policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. Out of the fraternities, only four have an official non-discrimination policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, marital status, disability or sexual orientation. Three have unofficial non-discrimination policies in which they encourage members to embrace values of inclusion and diversity, and 11, including Phi Kappa Tau, have no non-discrimination policy.

Sororities are a bit more evenly divided. Of the national sororities, four have no non-discrimination policy, and four have an official non-discrimination policy. The ninth sorority, Sigma Psi, is a local chapter only.

Despite the fact that national fraternal organizations have yet to address this issue, CWRU has policies which are receptive to transgender students in Greek Life. The university itself has an official policy of non-discrimination, explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. And in this, as with many other issues, the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council (PHC) follow the leadership of the university. Individual sororities and fraternities create their own constitutions, bylaws and regulations, but they are overseen by IFC and PHC.

“From an IFC perspective, we’re totally inclusive and we would an encourage all the chapters to do so as well,” said Pickering. “It’s a little bit more of their choice, but if anything emerged, we would be taking the side of, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this; we’re an inclusive community.’”

“You could even argue that we do a better job with the LGBT community rather than other ethnic communities or races, that with the diversity side, we might have more of a problem there than we do with LGBT [community],” he said.

Not many problems with regards to the Greek systems’ inclusion of LGBT students have arisen, Pickering said. But if they ever do, “We’ve got a warrior in the room to make sure [that discussion] is happening.”

That warrior is Lizzy Benway, PHC’s vice president of Social Responsibility.

“She’s the perfect person in kind of that way,” said Pickering. “I know she, along with our recruitment coordinator for the last recruitment had a lot of discussions, actually.”

In terms of individual fraternity attitudes, Pickering said, “There are certain chapters that are much more open, and it changes as the culture changes … Some that come right to mind, I think Sigma Nu and [Beta Theta Pi] do a great job of making sure that … that’s like their type of community.”

“It’s also a little different on the IFC side because we have informal recruitment. So members tend to lean toward the groups that seem to be much more favorable for them, whereas on the sorority side, it’s formal recruitment, so people end up in places, rather than necessarily choosing.”

In terms of recruitment policies, Pickering thinks that the pros of informal recruitment outweigh the cons. Though the sororities at CWRU are more diverse, because they practice formal recruitment, Pickering says that he is in favor of “having a diverse spectrum of where all the fraternities sit because I think it allows people to go to a place where they’re just more comfortable and can be more themselves, rather than sometimes drowned out by just a general view.”

However Pickering was upfront about the cons as well.

“With the way that informal recruitment goes, if someone doesn’t feel safe somewhere, they move as quick as they can,” he said. “That could be a little bit of a negative thing, because then maybe we don’t know where we need to fix things.”

IFC is trying to be on top of the issue, however. They recently ran a survey where all the IFC representatives of each individual fraternity wrote down what they thought about CWRU’s diversity climate. According to Pickering, about 25 percent said that there are absolutely no issues and that they have continued discussion. Another 25 percent said that they don’t think there are any issues but that there is no discussion. Another 25 percent said that they do think there are some issues that could be fixed.

“We hope, and we also think, that we don’t have nearly that type of problem,” Pickering said. “But we still wanted to have that discussion and talk about it … Chapters are allowed to have their own opinion on where they want to go, but we want to make sure that all in all, the community is a safe community and that everyone has an opportunity to be involved.”

“We’re here to care about each other,” he continued. “The whole purpose of having a brother or a sister is [having] someone to lean on and [having] a support group.”

In the next five to 10 years, the biggest changes to the Greek System that Pickering would like to see have to do with that “culture of care.” He wants the two main issues IFC is handling right now, diversity and inclusion and sexual misconduct, to be improved in the future as the culture of care becomes more pervasive in the Greek community. The goal, he said, is “that everyone feels safe where they are and they can be a community that cares about each other and cares about things that matter, rather than anything that really doesn’t matter.”

In terms of culture of care however, Pickering thinks that CWRU is ahead of the curve. “I think really in the entire spectrum of caring we’re really closer than a lot of schools,” he said. “We look at these things and kind of understand it. We’re a very progressive community in a lot of the different things we do. I mean, most school’s wouldn’t have a sexual misconduct focus group, and we completely went into that.”

And the success Greek Life has had in being open comes down to CWRU’s community, he said. “I think the CWRU community is completely reflective of the Greek life community works,” he said. “I mean, it’s the same students.”

According to Pickering, Greek Life represents about 45 percent of campus. He says that the reason the Greek system has had such success in being open and inclusive is because the school and the students have made that a priority in the overall community. “The campus does a really good job,” Pickering said. “And I think we try and magnify it, if anything, through Greek life.”

Glait agrees. “I can’t speak for other schools,” he said, “but CWRU’s atmosphere in general about LGBT issues is really good.”