Black sororities are a cisgender, straight women’s club. There, I said it! And as a straight, cisgender Afro-Caribbean woman, I noticed how my privilege shielded me from certain challenges as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
I say this about my organization and others when I say it’s time to revisit what it means to be a National Pan-Hellenic Council, or NPHC, woman. And by that, I mean it’s time to stop clutching our pearls about lifestyles we don’t “accept” or “understand,” and admit that we have created a culture that is the antithesis of liberating black people. And I’m not the only one who sees that.
As organizations rooted in Christianity, sororities follow certain traditions that underscore heteronormative and feminine ideas about women that make it difficult to fit the mold. For 35-year-old Rachel Crouch, this made it difficult to “pass” or simply be an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
“It’s hard for me to be active because I don’t feel like I fit in. I mean the simple fact that you can’t wear pants to events, and I would never put on a skirt. And why would I want to be a part of a system/organization that makes me feel like I have to change who I am?” Crouch said, touching on the rules that often guide official proceedings of BGLO (black Greek-letter organization) sororities.
Crouch was initiated into Delta Sigma Theta 15 years ago, and admitted that she hid her sexuality in the beginning. “I actually pretended to be straight so my sexuality wasn’t the determining factor,” she said.
However, that doesn’t mean that supportive chapters don’t exist—for instance, chapters like the one of which 23-year-old Candice Delgado is part. She says her chapter had a “large LGBTQ membership, ironically,” which made her experience as a lesbian Greek woman both unique and positive. She described her sisters as supportive and respectful, who tried to help broaden her support system as black and LGBT.
As a newly initiated member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., Delgado shared that the image of an NPHC woman is mainly of a straight, cisgender woman. “Especially in BGLOs, since homosexuality is still frowned upon in the black community,” she wrote in an email.
The only time Delgado said she felt isolated was when it came to bonding over the things sisters often share; the intricacies of their sex lives and relationships. Delgado said that her sisters never made her feel awkward about it, but also being femme made it easier to “blend into the mold,” in her opinion. For Crouch, being a masculine lesbian was “absolutely” isolating.
“I was in the closet, and the only thing my line sisters and I talked about while working together was Delta and men. I had nothing to contribute to the conversation and felt out of place,” said Crouch.
So even after becoming a member, women like Crouch either have to maintain the facade to protect themselves or risk “coming out” and being ostracized. And it’s members in positions of power who make open acceptance of the LGBT community a flat-out “no,” even if certain people weren’t homophobic. So when Crouch’s sisters found out that she was a lesbian, they were generally accepting, but her older sisters, or “prophytes,” were not.
“It was horrible,” said Crouch about the experience of coming out, even with supportive sisters.
To Crouch, representation of the LGBT Greek community in BGLOs wasn’t the problem. It was how LGBT members were treated within those organizations. She said that within her 15 years of being a Delta, she has interacted with many gay Greeks and described it as “refreshing.” But this also has not motivated her to remain an active voting member.
Crouch and Delgado are black women who joined for the same reasons any straight woman would.
Delgado said that she became a member of Sigma Gamma Rho to be a part of something bigger than herself. And even after the negative experience of coming out, Crouch said that she would still encourage other young women to seek membership, and can recall positive moments where her sexuality didn’t matter.
“The national president asked my sister and I to be the resident artists for Centennial. It was an honor I couldn’t describe,” Crouch said. “That’s when I’ve felt the most accepted in Delta. Everyone loved us, and it didn’t matter that we were gay.”
But the “how” often means a difference of opinion on a conversation that isn’t so popular. I reached out to Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta and Sigma Gamma Rho and received no comment on whether they support LGBT women in their organizations.
But women like Crouch believe that change has to start at the national level, whereas Delgado thinks it should start within the chapter.
“As chapters become more accepting, then nationals will see it and will follow suit. I believe that there should be branches in both fraternities and sororities for the LGBTQ population to join if that’s where they’re more comfortable,” said Delgado, who would also describe the experience of being queer in a BGLO as “low-key supportive, almost like a mom who loves their child more than they hate who they love.”
Both Crouch and Delgado share an unwavering pride in and love for their sororities. Ultimately, BGLOs’ failure to successfully replicate experiences more like Delgado’s nationwide is rooted in the black community’s struggle with homophobia. But what little is known about the LGBT community in black Greekdom makes it even easier to ignore.
This is why research done by educators and LGBT members of NPHC organizations is even more vital in order to move forward. Brandon Stroud of the University of Rochester—an educator, femme gay man and member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity—started researching the LBGT experience in BGLOs before being initiated in 2011. After recruiting five fraternity members to survey, he shared that NPHC’s culture of silence forces LGBT members to hide, making it harder to solve the representation issue when no one wants to be labeled “gay.”
Stroud shared that during his survey, “interestingly enough, when it came to sexual identification a lot of men still identified as MSM [men who have sex with men] because the stigma of using any language associated with the LGBTQ community could place them at risk of losing family and friends and possibly relationships within their organization.”
And the stereotypes that perpetuate ideas about femininity and masculinity, in his opinion, “oftentimes may place individuals lives in danger—for LGBTQ members that means keeping your sexuality under wraps.” He cited instances of increased hazing to prove one’s worth or ability to fit the straight, cisgender mold. Stroud researched mostly fraternity men, but the impact of having to hide or be ostracized mentality resonates across the NPHC community.
Stroud thinks that to solve this issue, it’s going to take building a stronger bridge between nationals and local chapters, and dealing with homophobia and transphobia akin to their stance on hazing.
“Brothers and sisters who are ... LGBTQ and members of the orgs should speak up, but nationals must truly make commitments to change the culture and environment, and [make] sure the safety of those members who wish to be up-front and authentic about their sexual orientation [is] at the forefront, just like they claim to do with ‘hazing,’” Stroud said.
He also shared that our history is the way to get there—for instance, by highlighting members of the LGBT community, like Langston Hughes, not only for their contributions but also for their identities that ostracized them from their community, and putting forth more resources to dig into the experiences of LGBT members. And, in my opinion, revising the code of conduct, by-laws, initiatives and process for new-member initiation that directly speak to that underserved community.
Delgado said it best when she shared that BGLOs’ failure to recognize, protect and affirm the LGBT black community could play a part in their undoing. “There are so many LGBTQ copycat fraternities or sororities because they believe so much in what that organization is doing and want to be a part of it, and it saddens me that people who would put in work for these organizations can’t because of their genitals,” or who they love.