While there have always been members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in fraternities and sororities, it is only in the last decade that they have been acknowledged. Increased openness on the part of the LGBT community and changing societal attitudes may directly correlate to the increase in research on sexual orientation and the collegiate experiences of those who identify as LGBT.
During a recent presentation at the American College Personnel Association’s annual conference in Atlanta, Dr. Susan Rankan, research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University, highlighted the evolving experiences of LGBT people in Greek-letter organizations.
According to Rankan’s study, “Experiences of LGBT People in Fraternities & Sororities from 1960 to 2007,” more than one-third of undergraduate students came “out” of the proverbial closet while they were undergraduate members of their fraternity/sorority, while 29 percent came out during recruitment or rush. Almost half of alumni members indicated that they came out after graduation.
“Things are getting better. Undergraduate chapters are becoming friendlier and chapter climates are changing. For whatever reason, alumni sorority and fraternity members waited until after graduation to expose their sexual orientation. Current undergraduate students are coming out while they are still in school,” Rankan said.
During the late 1990s, several national fraternities and sororities added sexual orientation to the non-discrimination language in organizational bylaws, by implementing chapter LGBT education services and by training staff members on LGBT issues. There are over a dozen fraternities and four sororities that have implemented this initiative.
Greek life for LGBT members is often portrayed as a struggle for acceptance in hostile and violent environments. However, study participants revealed a less adversarial experience. Approximately 50 percent of undergraduate students described their chapter as non-homophobic, compared with 43 percent of alumni that reported that their chapters were homophobic. The majority of participants reported that their campus chapters held prejudices against transsexuals.
Nearly three-quarters of undergraduate students, and more than half of alumni reported that they never feared for their physical safety. Many participants, however, were provoked with derogatory remarks, verbal harassments, graffiti, property damages and threat of expulsion from their chapter. The most common sources of harassment for undergraduate students came from other fraternity/sorority members.
“Student affairs representatives must watch these instances of harassment. Mixed with alcohol, these incidents can quickly become hate crimes. Institutions must establish zero-tolerance policies,” said Shane Windmeyer, cofounder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization for student leaders and campus organizations working to create a safer college environment for LGBT students.
During the time of the study, 42 percent of undergraduate students indicated that they never concealed their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression to avoid intimidation, while 40 percent of alumni reported that they often concealed their sexual orientation or gender expression during their time as undergraduates.
“All participants, regardless of current status, indicated they were very satisfied and satisfied with their undergraduate fraternity/sorority experience as opposed to unsatisfied or very unsatisfied.
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