Guidebook analyzes transgender Greek life

Although college is generally a time when young people fortify their own identities and ideologies, transgender college students often face more challenges than their classmates on the path to self-acceptance. And for transgender students who want to take part in some of the most respected and integral communities on their campuses — Greek organizations — these obstacles may be seemingly insurmountable.

But a new guidebook seeks to raise awareness among the Greek community about transgender students, fostering more inclusive environments for all students interested in Greek life.

Jessica Pettitt and Sarah Fielding penned “Beginning the Conversation” in conjunction with Lambda 10, the educational offshoot of national LGBT student organization Campus Pride.

Pettitt, a diversity trainer and LGBT activist, said she’d always had it on her agenda to one day investigate the issues facing transgender college students who want to be involved in fraternities and sororities. Although her workload hadn’t allowed her to pursue the topic, Pettitt hired Fielding, a senior at Marlboro College in Vermont, as an intern last summer, which she said provided the perfect chance to research the issue.

Pettitt noted that the guide’s title belies what is actually happening on many college campuses.

“The reality is that this conversation is actually going on, but it’s happening in the context that people are like, ‘Holy shit, I have no idea what to do.’ And then the conversation stops,” she said. “It’s a beginning and is better than no recognition of the issue at all, which I think is pretty profound.”

“Beginning the Conversation” first explains gender identity for unfamiliar audiences — detailing such ideas as the typical coming-out process and the differences between “transgender” and “transsexual” — before analyzing the current state for transgender college students.

Pettitt and Fielding interviewed transgender students who were involved in Greek life as well as those whose fears of discrimination had prevented them from joining, alumni who’d transitioned post-college and Greek advisors.

Pettitt said that from their research, she and Fielding found many college students are willing to accept transgender students into their organizations, but that the hierarchy under which most Greek organizations operates often stems the tide of inclusion.

“It’s a pretty strong reality that some college students may be much more inclusive of different gender identities and gender expressions but are working with advisors who may or may not be supportive of the idea. And then they also have to work with national [organizations] who may or may not be supportive,” she said. “As you crawl up that ladder, there are age differences and a lack of exposure that I think creates a lot of misunderstanding and transphobia. The idea is often that this doesn’t seem to go with the tradition and the norms of Greek life.”

Pettitt noted that national leaders, campus advisors and student leaders need to work in conjunction with one another to solidify their organizations’ approach to transgender members.

“Everyone needs to work on the topic together. Right now, you’ve got national officers throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Not me,’ and college administrators saying, ‘No, no, not me,’” she said.

Pettitt presented the guide at the first annual Out & Greek National Leadership Conference in Chicago last month, as well as at the Association of Fraternity Advisors Conference a few weeks ago. She said attendees at both events were very open to the ideas in the report and expressed a willingness to continue the discussion.

Pettit said she hopes the guide helps Greek leaders to understand that all students should have the ability to experience the invaluable advantages that fraternities and sororities can provide for all college students.

“These are amazing communities, and there are great possibilities for leadership development that exist within these fraternities and sororities. I don’t want these groups to be scared or feel like they have to reinvent the wheel. My job was just to wake them up; fraternities and sororities teach people to be men and women, but they need to understand that people don’t always stay as men or women. It’s important for them to realize that this is happening and it’s their responsibility to figure out how to address the situation. They may not know of it happening, but I promise it’s happening.”

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Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected]