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Policies, gender roles keep trans students out of Greek life at NDSU

FARGO -- The 12 fraternities and three sororities at North Dakota State University are similar in many ways, from their emphasis on community service to their campus locations.

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Trangender Greeks illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service

FARGO -- The 12 fraternities and three sororities at North Dakota State University are similar in many ways, from their emphasis on community service to their campus locations.

But on the topic of transgender students, their positions are all over the map.

While one fraternity at NDSU recently announced that it would now accept transgender students, another explicitly bans them unless they have "completed the transition"--a standard that trans activists say is too high.

At least eight of NDSU's Greek organizations have a nondiscrimination policy, but seven of those policies don't mention gender identity, which would protect the rights of trans students. Almost all of the policies cover sexual orientation.

Several national spokespeople and executive directors said there hasn't been a need to develop policies regarding transgender students in fraternities and sororities, which tout themselves as places to make lifelong friends, hold leadership positions and network.

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"We haven't had that level of conversation yet, but it's certainly one that we'll have as the issue either impacts our organization directly or as our members ask us to take a position on it," said Chad Harris, executive director of FarmHouse.

Harris said he didn't know of any occasion when a transgender student had applied to be a member of the FarmHouse fraternity.

"Maybe it has (happened) at the local level, but it hasn't come to our attention," he said.

At NDSU, neither staff in Greek life nor students involved with Pride Alliance knew of any trans students in fraternities or sororities.

Perhaps that's because students say the Greek system isn't perceived as open to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

"Either if you're in a sorority, you're very feminine, or if you're in a fraternity, you're very masculine," said Chad Pitts, a transgender man and NDSU graduate. "It really follows those stereotypical gender roles in society, so I think because of that, it's really seen as something not accessible for trans students and not accessible for anyone who doesn't fit that mold."

'A current topic'

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In February, NDSU's chapter of Delta Tau Delta posted on social media that they were "proud to announce" the fraternity now welcomes transgender men. More than 70 people have liked the post on Twitter.

A national board of 11 alumni made the decision in January "based on (Delta Tau Delta's) long-standing principles of inclusion and seeking honorable men with high ideals who are superior students," Executive Vice President Jim Russell said in an email.

Likewise, Sigma Phi Epsilon, which has a chapter at the University of North Dakota, passed a policy in December 2014 that reads, "Any individual who identifies as a man is welcome to seek membership in the fraternity."

"It is a current topic, and it is becoming even more of a topic," said Cassie Gerhardt, UND's assistant dean of students, who has overseen Greek life at UND for 14 years.

About 20 students in NDSU fraternities and sororities contacted by The Forum for this story either declined to comment, didn't respond to repeated messages or referred questions to their national offices.

But while some organizations are crafting policies to allow transgender students, others worry that doing so would pose legal problems.

"If an individual joins a sorority and at the time of joining identifies as female and then transitions to male, does that have an implication for the organization's single-sex status?" Gerhardt said.

As single-sex organizations, social fraternities and sororities are exempt from Title IX, meaning they can discriminate based on gender.

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The concern about losing that status might be why some, such as NDSU fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon, are more narrow in their gender requirements.

"TKE is a fraternity of men. Therefore, TKE has taken the position that your gender is what you are classified as based on any valid government document," such as a birth certificate, passport or driver's license, Chief Information Officer Alex Baker said in an email. "To clarify, if the person completes the transition from female to male, they are allowed to be a member."

Baker declined an interview on why the fraternity's Grand Council made this policy decision.

To change genders on a driver's license in North Dakota, a person must present a letter from a physician or therapist saying "gender role transition has been completed." To change genders on a birth record, the person must undergo "a sex conversion operation," according to state law.

"I think that's a pretty big burden to place on someone," said Pitts, now a student advocate at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. "To say that someone needs to essentially pay thousands and thousands of dollars to have a surgery, just to be able to join a (co-)curricular activity at school, is crazy to me."

Renee Dubois, assistant director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at NDSU, said she did not know if an NDSU fraternity or sorority had ever turned away a trans student, but if they did, she said the university would not intervene because the chapters have to follow their national bylaws.

NDSU and UND are the only colleges in the region with large fraternal systems.

'Play the game like a man'

Tyler DeWitz opted not to rush a fraternity in his early years at NDSU.

"I wasn't necessarily afraid as much as, I wasn't sure if I'd fit in," said the 20-year-old junior, who is gay. "Back when I was a freshman, I just wasn't really sure about a city kid moving to Fargo, North Dakota, and rushing a fraternity where it seemed like it was a bunch of, you know, very heteronormative guys."

That notion might be what keeps LGBT, and particularly trans, students from even applying to Greek life, Dubois said.

"Fraternity members more so are more of the, 'I'm a manly man, this is who I am,' and the stigmas that go with that," she said. "The acceptance piece is why students wouldn't necessarily join fraternities or sororities if they are (trans)."

The gender roles are apparent in the statements on fraternity websites.

For example, the creed for Alpha Tau Omega talks of binding men together and acting as "true men." Sigma Nu's website addresses membership in terms of "manpower." And Sigma Phi Delta's code of ethics includes: "He should play the game like a man. He should fight against nothing so hard as his own weaknesses, and should endeavor to gain in strength."

"Basically it sounds like you have to be this super macho masculine man in order to join," Pitts said. "So if you don't fit that, of course you're going to feel like, well, maybe that's not the place for me."

But Gerhardt said the perception is just that: a perception, not reality.

"I think it is a stereotype," she said. "I know of gay and lesbian students that are members of our fraternities and sororities, and when I talk to them, they're having great experiences. I had an email conversation with a student just recently who assumed because she was a lesbian she would not have a favorable experience, and that has not been the case."

Colton Bruhn, president of NDSU Pride Alliance, said policies are more important than gender roles in creating a welcoming environment. Adding gender identity to nondiscrimination statements, for example, would make transgender individuals feel like they could join, he said.

"And I think that's exactly what these people need when they're going through these transitions, is to have this social support," he said. "It's important to help these people join social groups and have that sort of assistance and not feel afraid to join a fraternity or sorority just because they're in the transition process."

Bruhn, who is gay, rushed Delta Tau Delta twice (though ultimately did not join either time for financial reasons) and considers it to be one of the more LGBT-friendly fraternities on campus. He can't understand why Tau Kappa Epsilon would have its policy requiring a government document.

"I think it's so ridiculous that transgender people have to encounter all this discrimination just because they're changing their sex. It's nobody else's problem," he said. "It's who they are, and they can't change that."

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