In February 2022, Kaylee Farmer was focusing on homework with headphones on. Out of the corner of their eye, they caught their sorority sister Cassidy* waving frantically for their attention. Farmer pulled out an earbud, as Cassidy sputtered out, "Are you hearing this?" Cassidy pointed to the Zoom screen on her laptop. A high-level Greek Life meeting was taking place and there was a big announcement: nonbinary students would no longer be allowed to rush sororities at Farmer's school, Drake University.
Farmer's eyes widened. They were shocked. They're nonbinary and had always found the campus — including their sorority house, Kappa Alpha Theta-Beta Kappa (Theta for short) — to be inclusive. In fact, in 2019, Drake's elected Panhellenic Council made a point to pass a bylaw that specifically allowed nonbinary students to openly rush at Drake, though they'd never technically barred nonbinary people from joining before then.
But this news — this felt hostile. "I wouldn't have been comfortable coming out without the support from the people around me in my chapter," Farmer tells Refinery29. "I always felt comfortable, but this new lack of support is hard to grapple with.”
Farmer would later learn this directive to reverse the 2019 bylaw came from a governing body outside of their university: The National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) — a national, separate body from Drake's Panhellenic Council. The Drake panhel was simply following orders — although it seemed to some students that they weren't doing much to push back.
In a later meeting about the decision, when someone asked what the news meant for recruitment, Rudy Trejo, who advised fraternities and sororities at Drake at the time, said sororities could still recruit nonbinary people, but it would have to be a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" situation — invoking a discriminatory Clinton-era military practice which didn't allow LGBTQ+ servicepeople to be out (the armed services repealed this policy in 2011, after years of campaigning from human rights activists). A few people Refinery29 spoke to heard this reference in the meeting, and found it to be "problematic," including Farmer, a senior at the time, and Cassidy.
Trejo has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Refinery29. Liz Cadwell, Drake’s director of fraternity and sorority life said she couldn’t confirm the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” comment, but added that the college (and its organizations, including sororities) “does not and has never enforced a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.” “We celebrate and embrace the identities of all our students, and Drake has encouraged and supported advocacy by sorority members who wish to change policies through their respective organizations,” Cadwell added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the NPC told Refinery29 in a statement: “The National Panhellenic Conference is committed to welcoming all women, including individuals who identify as women, regardless of their age, ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, body type, sexual orientation and abilities." That doesn't exactly sound... inclusive of nonbinary people.
Sororities aren't exactly known for being inclusive. On the contrary, they are quite literally exclusive clubs. This especially tends to be true of "elite," prestige houses in colleges in the South, says Alan DeSantis, PhD, author of Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige (a book for which he essentially embedded himself into Greek houses). When it comes to these elites, think: 'Bama Rush, the now infamous TikTok phenomenon. Their demographics are rich, insular, and mostly white. They have strict rules, often enforced with the idea of protecting a sorority's "brand.”
However, some houses — particularly less sought-after sororities or those on smaller, more liberal campuses — buck the stereotypes that suggest sororities are non-inclusive Animal Houses chock full of nepo-babies with acrylic nails. No, they don't give everyone who rushes a bid, but they're working to repudiate sororities' history of exclusion — from entrenched racism to Mean Girls "you can't sit with us" vibes — with a veneer of inclusivity. And some chapters even practice what they preach. They raise money for more liberal charities, accept a somewhat diverse range of members, and hang out with “GDIs” (“goddamn independents,” also knowns as “geeds,” who either didn't rush or didn't get in — this feels like a good time to mention I was a GDI at Drake myself, although I graduated in 2017, before Farmer or anyone else I interviewed arrived on campus).
Like most in Gen Z, some folks in modern Greek life are more open to the idea of various identities and even include pronouns on their name tags during recruitment (Drake's Panhellenic Council still does this, even with the rule change, Cassidy tells Refinery29 (although she acknowledges this still leaves a possibility for discrimination).
But even if the ethos on the ground in some sorority houses is becoming more welcoming, like any sorority, they're influenced by national governing bodies (and rich donors with pull).
Although Greek national structures can be convoluted, especially for those not in the thick of it, the basis is generally this:
On the campus level (so just at Drake University, for instance): Many campuses have various chapters, also known as houses (such as Theta, Delta Gamma and Kappa Kappa Gamma). Above these houses is the campus's Panhellenic Council, which includes elected members from all the different houses on a campus and which governs the university's Greek life (think of this like a city council, which has some power but not as much as the state or federal Congresses above it).
On the national level: Each house, or chapter, has its own national team that makes its own rules (there are 26 national Panhellenic sororities total, each making its own guidelines — so national Theta has its own mandates, which might be different from Delta Gamma’s). And the top rung of the ladder is the NPC, the largest sorority umbrella organization in the Greek system, which features representatives from all 26 of the national houses, including alumni (it's important to note, this is separate from the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) — which refers to the Divine Nine, or historically Black sororities and fraternities — and there are other Greek organizations that are also separate from the body overseeing these 26 predominantly white, social sororities).
Those in loftier national positions in individual houses and with the NPC often have more old-school, right-leaning viewpoints and share an ethos with big-name, elite sororities, DeSantis says. "These groups are conservative by nature, and they have loving nostalgia of a time when 'men were men' and 'girls were girls' and we loved America and our moms and dads," he tells Refinery29.
These same groups are often the ones with the pursestrings, the power and the benefit of a convoluted, bureaucratic system in which it's hard to make change.
Months before Farmer listened in on the Zoom meeting about the bylaw reversal, Drake's student newspaper, The Times Delphic, published an article with the headline on October 6, 2021: "Sororities invite nonbinary students to rush." Some within sororities at Drake believe this article is what alerted The National Panhellenic Conference to the bylaw, which had been passed a few years earlier.
Elyse Dye, who was a senior last spring and the Diversity and Inclusion Chair at Theta, was quoted in the article. Dye voted on the 2019 bylaw and later came out as nonbinary, they tell Refinery29. At the time, when they spoke to the newspaper, they believed the bylaw was a way to build community and reach students who might not know rushing was an option. When they found out about the bylaw reversal and the article's suspected role, their stomach dropped. "I felt guilty at first, and then conflicted about my membership in general in Theta," they say. "It was a wakeup call that felt like, at least nationally, they don't want me there."
Dye wondered if their Times Delphic interview had done more harm than good. On one hand, raising awareness was important. And their message had reached people. Andi Turnbull, for example, was a first-year student at Drake who identified as nonbinary when the newspaper article came out, and told Refinery29 that it had changed his mind after assuming he couldn’t rush. "Being nonbinary at college is already hard, and I figured that non-professional fraternities and sororities was one more thing I wouldn't get to be a part of," he said. "But then I suddenly was feeling some hope about joining." He thought he might find friends and community in Greek life. But after hearing the bylaw was revoked, he chose not to go through recruitment after all. "There are so many anti-LBGTQ+ laws being introduced [nationally] and now even at Drake — a totally liberal beacon — we're taking inclusivity away," he said. "It sucks."
Turnbull has since come out as a trans man and found a community outside of social sororities. He adds that he's heard from some in Greek life that they'd be open to him joining, regardless of his identity and the bylaws. "Some fraternities on campus are accepting and open, even more since I have come out as a trans man," he says. But, after everything that’s happened at Drake, he still doesn't plan to actually go through recruitment for a social sorority or fraternity.
This isn't just a Drake problem. Grant Sikes, a 20-year-old student, went viral last fall for rushing at the University of Alabama as a nonbinary student. Her #BamaRush #OOTD TikTok videos featured pink skirts from Lulu paired with Greek T-shirts. Like Turnbull, Sikes was looking for community — "a family away from home" – and already knew several sorority members. She'd heard that several sororities, including Theta, Zeta, and G Phi, had bylaws like the one revoked at Drake that allowed nonbinary students to rush. But after an intensive rush process, Sikes was cut from recruitment on "Pref Day" — when sororities invite select potential new members (PNMs) to "preference parties," in which they share rituals and conversations as one of the final steps in recruitment. She was devastated. "I don't think I've ever cried that hard in my life," Sikes says. She believes that "without a doubt" her nonbinary identity had to do with her rejection. Representatives from the University of Alabama's Fraternity and Sorority Life office and members of their Panhellenic Council did not respond to Refinery29's requests for comment.
Sikes says there's a difference between Greek organizations' actual values and "what they quote unquote 'stand for,'" and she believes there needs to be a closer look into those in positions of power. "It's a no-brainer that every single chapter in the whole system is going to scream 'diversity,'" Sikes says. "They're going to say, 'We want Black people! We want everyone in our chapter!' But when it comes down to it, it's a front. I mean, if you followed 'Bama Rush, how many Black girls did you see? How many nonbinary people did you see?"
The Drake bylaw was reversed swiftly after the fateful Zoom meeting Farmer listened in on. "There was no alternative choice from nationals, they made the decision for us," now-21-year-old Cassidy adds. "We did not have the option to send it to chapters to be voted on, like normal bylaws changes are."
An NPC spokesperson confirmed to Refinery29 that the NPC “worked with Drake University Panhellenic to clarify a change made to their bylaws that allowed for nonbinary individuals to participate in Panhellenic recruitment.”
Cadwell, the official from Drake, said: “Our students are active leaders and participants in Drake University’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in everything we do; the move by the Drake Panhellenic Council to support the inclusion of nonbinary students in sorority life reflects that commitment….While Drake University does not have control over the policies set forth by individual chapters or national organizations, we encourage students involved in Greek life to engage in open dialogue about these vital topics and advocate for change.”
After the bylaw reversal, there was a period of upset. But then, there were exams. Date parties were coming up. Everyone began to move on.
This is partially because making change within the sorority system is a daunting task, says Alan DeSantis, the Inside Greek U author. There's little accountability because there are so many parts to the system (and places to point fingers), according to sorority members at Drake. The NPC — which has a Council of Delegates with representatives from each of its 26 houses — will often say that it can't make changes because the national chapters or individual houses won't vote to do so…and the houses will say they can't make changes because "Nationals" won't vote on the issues. There's always another entity to shift the blame onto. Plus, because Greek systems are traditionally shrouded in secrecy (Theta won't share its house rules with Kappa and vice versa, and so on), it's difficult to bring people together around one mission, such as inclusivity.
When asked if the NPC’s Council of Delegates is planning to have a discussion or vote on the status of nonbinary students joining sororities any time soon, a spokesperson for NPC told Refinery29 on June 13: “The agenda for the next meeting has not been set.”
The NPC’s spokesperson separately told Refinery29 that the NPC’s 26 member organizations each set their own “policies and procedures for determining membership… Regarding governance, each member organization has its own procedures and timelines for submitting proposed updates to governing documents and other policies."
As one member of Drake's 2022 Panhellenic Council told Refinery29: "It's incredibly convoluted and difficult to get things changed, and it almost always takes two years." One opportunity for change could be the upcoming National Panhellenic Conference leadership conference, which will occur this coming October. In April 2021, the National Panhellenic Conference declined to hold a scheduled vote that would have allowed its member organizations to officially recruit nonbinary people.
For these reasons and more, Farmer found the messaging from Drake’s Panhellenic Council at the time disheartening and disingenuous, as they were essentially just told to "take it to Nationals," a headache of a process that Farmer says felt impossible due to the bureaucracy of the system.
The complications of this are reflected in part of a statement that Drake Panhellenic Council's 2022 President Claire Hill sent to Refinery29: "The Council of Delegates are the only ones that can change this policy. Each organization also has their own way of setting policy, which I wouldn’t be able to speak fully to."
Hill added that anyone who identifies as a woman, including trans women, can still go through recruitment and that current nonbinary members would remain in their community. "I think many people in this community wanted this bylaw to stay in place," she told Refinery29. "We have worked very hard to attempt to reverse the historic exclusion of certain marginalized populations here within our Panhellenic community. While this is the policy set by each NPC member organization, I do hope our members talk with their respective inter/national organizations to start the conversation at the correct level." But it wasn't clear how to actually go about starting the talks, Farmer says.
Cassidy, Farmer's roommate in Theta, adds that most sororities at Drake are largely ignoring that the bylaw was removed in their recruitment operations, and they'll still accept nonbinary students. However, due to recruitment rules, those students still have to sign a document at some point saying they "identify as a woman," which Cassidy says is technically a recruitment rule. A spokesperson for NPC said: “NPC does not require Potential New Members to submit any specific documentation prior to Panhellenic recruitment. Recruitment registration processes and recruitment rules are established at the campus level.” Drake’s Cadwell didn’t respond to this part of Refinery29’s request for comment.
Cassidy says that Drake's recruitment numbers in fall 2022 were down and believes the bylaw change had to do with it. "The reversal of that bylaw just showcases our community as an unsafe place to be, even though we work really hard to make sure that's not the case at Drake," Cassidy says. "A lot of people didn't sign up for formal recruitment, and I don't blame them. I wouldn't have joined either — it's totally valid. And totally unfair that people have to sign something saying they identify as a woman."
Although she's hoping rules will change, she's also fearful that the pendulum will continue to swing in the other direction and take an even more conservative tack.
Meanwhile, Sikes is planning to start a campaign calling on sororities to be more inclusive, but it's an uphill battle — especially from the outside.
Until the bylaw reversal, Farmer credited the people they met in Greek life with helping them feel comfortable to come out. They'd met lifelong friends, including Cassidy, through their sorority. Although they were upset by the Drake bylaw change, they weren't forced to leave their sorority and graduated as a member. Even after the bylaw reversal, "being inclusive of everyone possible is something my chapter has always felt strongly about, and they always let me be me," Farmer says. "I feel I'll have these relationships for life."
Sikes won't get to experience this. But she's found communities outside of sorority life.
After going viral, she has heard from hundreds of nonbinary people around the country, and has found the beginnings of the family she was looking for — both online and on her campus.
She's not letting her experience bring her down — and she doesn't want it to stop other nonbinary students from rushing in the future. "What I went through was emotional. It was a rollercoaster. It was a test. But I'd encourage anyone who's nonbinary to rush," she says. "Things aren't going to change at all unless we keep trying."
*Names have been changed to protect identities