Last spring, the assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at Northwestern invited the presidents of every campus Greek chapter to a national Out and Greek conference in Chicago. No one responded. That was when assistant director Danny Miller decided it was time to have a conversation about sexuality and the Greek system. After sharing his concerns with a few students, they formed the Northwestern Greek Allies (NGA).
“The main purpose of NGA is to make LGBT students feel like they’re welcome in the Greek system and that they can have a positive experience in a fraternity or sorority,” Miller said.
At the first meeting last spring, 25 people showed up to hear a panel of LGBT students and ask questions. Now, almost a year after the group’s formation, it’s slowly gaining momentum. With just a few members and bi-weekly meetings, NGA isn’t planning any large-scale social justice action items, but rather focusing on the small steps they can take to increase tolerance in the community.
In observance of National Day Against Homophobia last week, the group’s leader, SESP senior Becca Cadoff, gave a presentation to all the presidents of the Panhellenic sororities. She then handed out bags of bracelets made of braided rainbow yarn to pass out to members of each sorority. NGA has given the same presentation to many of the fraternity and sororities on campus. The group is even planning a poster campaign to combat the use of offensive language on campus.
But perhaps the most significant impact NGA is making on campus is through the Safe Space program, a seminar which teaches fraternity and sorority members how to be a supportive friend for a member who is LGBT or questioning. After someone completes the program, they can place a decal on their door to show the chapter that their room is a safe space. NGA has trained 55 people so far.
“With LGBT issues it’s a hidden identity,” Miller said. “You wouldn’t know by looking at someone that they’re gay, and that makes it hard for the Greek community. Safe Space tries to show you how to be a friend to someone who wants to come out.”
“The point is to try to force people to think about these issues,” Weinberg senior and group member David Weintraub said. “Obviously as widespread change it’s hard. We can’t force all chapters to attend, some aren’t going to listen, but if it has change for a couple people that’s definitely positive.”
McCormick senior Rob Metzler said he hopes people will complete the Safe Space training because there might be people in a chapter who need to come out but don’t know how.
“Someone who is gay or questioning could really, really thank you someday for completing the training,” he said. “Your best friend could be gay and you don’t know it. People should do it to be there for their friends.”
Considering the historically homoerotic nature of Greek rituals,* it’s hard to figure out where gay students can fit in, especially on a campus where Greek life is so pervasive.
“Hazing has been historically connected to homoeroticism,” said Northwestern gender studies and sociology professor Héctor Carrillo. “What we have to think about is what frat culture is like today, and how easy it may now be for gay people to come out and still be accepted by their brothers.”
Some schools even have LGBT-themed fraternities and sororities. For example, Alpha Lambda Zeta is a sorority for lesbians and Delta Phi Upsilon is for gay men of color. Such chapters have been colonized at many colleges across the country, from Arizona State University to Syracuse University.
Since Northwestern offers no such option, Miller said that NGA has been talking about trying to change the heterocentric nature of Greek life by rethinking the way houses pair up for events.
“Usually people know what they’re getting into when they rush — they know that fraternities and sororities pair up,” he said. “But why can’t two fraternities pair up for a service project?”
Despite the difficulties that come with being gay and Greek, Metzler and Weintraub both said they’ve had positive experiences in their houses.
“I feel like I joined the house that was right for me,” Metzler said. “If I had to change one thing, though, I would tell people that they can change how their friends talk to each other. If they’re dropping ‘faggot’ and stuff, you can talk to them about it because they’re your friends.”
The main challenge NGA faces, though, is gaining membership and involvement going forward. With Cadoff graduating and the group’s co-leader, Weinberg sophomore Max Sutton-Smolin, going abroad in the fall, the group will have to find new leadership.
SESP sophomore Sammy Kaiser, another group member, said she wants to see more membership going forward.
“It’s important for people to realize that being in a group like this doesn’t say anything about you except that you’re forward-thinking,” she said. “In high school, being in Gay-Straight Alliance meant you were gay. I hope that isn’t an issue for Greek Allies, but if it is, people should know that’s not the case.”
“It’s a cause that I wish that more people — especially gay members in fraternities — would get involved in,” Weintraub said. “It’s important for each subsequent year to tell freshmen that they shouldn’t make the decision to rush or not solely because they’re gay.”
* The above has been changed from “Greek life” to “Greek rituals” to clarify the intended message, which deals with the homoeroticism of some hazing practices. Thanks to commenters Vince and m for pointing out the confusing phrase.