By Sophie Whisnant
The carpet leading into the Gaylord Texan Resort in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine was obnoxiously, unapologetically Texas; woven into the fabric was a pattern of cowboy boots, horseshoes and Texas flags.
Three young women from UNC-Chapel Hill followed the custom carpet runner to a conference room for the final dinner of the three-day national meeting of Tri Delta leadership. They expected yet another three-course meal shared with hundreds of their sorority sisters from across the United States and Canada.
Exhausted from a full day of meetings and leadership training workshops, they instinctively headed for a table in the back, content to finally be alone with a delicious raspberry cheesecake. The plan? Eat the Gaylord’s cheesecake, zone out during the dinner speech, and check their Snapchats instead.
But when National Tri Delta President Kimberlee Sullivan started talking, the UNC-CH delegation — and everyone else — forgot all about cheesecake and Snapchat.
Starting immediately, Tri Delta was officially changing its policy to allow chapters to grant bids to potential new members who identify as female, not just those who were assigned female at birth.
Cheesecake hung on forks suspended in the air.
It was about time, said Amy Queen, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of chapter development.
“The room just kind of burst into claps,” Queen said. “Everybody seemed really excited that an organization founded so long ago could keep up with current changes in our society.”
Making changes to tradition.
Mirroring change isn’t something always associated with sorority life, particularly in the South. Tri Delta was founded in 1888 at Boston University, but its headquarters have always been located in Texas. It was the first sorority to create a non-discrimination policy, which has protected people of any race, sexual orientation, religion or ability. But an update of this magnitude, coming from the Bible Belt, signifies a greater step toward inclusivity for Tri Delta chapters across the country.
“It made me happier to be a member,” said Abby Mueller, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of finance.
Returning to their rooms in the sprawling Gaylord Texan resort, which, oddly had a jungle theme, the Tri Delta reps were energized.
“Everybody was pretty proud of an organization that could take change like that,” said Queen. “I think it was progressive that Tri Delt [is doing this before] some other sororities.”
Mueller said she expects the change to sit well with her sorority sisters at UNC-CH.
“Our chapter is more open and diverse, a lot more so than other chapters,” she said.
But UNC-CH business and political science major Meredith Freeland wouldn’t say the sorority is diverse. Freeland, who dropped out of Tri Delta at UNC-CH last year after three and a half years, doesn’t see the change having any impact on the way Greek life operates on campus.
“I don’t think it means much at all,” she said. “A policy can say anything without doing much. It’s like with racial diversity. Obviously Tri Delta’s policies allow for members of all colors but the reason we don’t see much diversity in many chapters is because allowing for diversity is different from encouraging it.”
Freeland said sororities are still viewed as places of homogeneity—“people who look, feel and think differently are made uncomfortable.”
“This is exactly what drew me to Tri Delta in my recruitment: I was told ‘all the girls here are so different and unique, nothing is the same about everyone. Some sororities have a stereotype but I can’t think of ours. Well, maybe we all own a pair of Converses.’ That really spoke to me,” Freeland said. “Disrupting the pattern is hard. Who wants to be the gender non-conforming person to join a sorority grounded in historic womanhood?”
Bringing the changes home.
As they returned to campus, Queen and Mueller discussed how the change was great, but might not be relevant to the Chapel Hill recruitment process.
UNC-CH photojournalism major Alice Hudson considered rushing as a freshman but wasn’t impressed by the diversity of sorority membership.
“A lot of top tier sororities don’t have a lot of racial inclusivity,” she said. “A trans person might get a bid but I’d be surprised if they went through with it.”
“I just think it would be really hard for them to be among the only trans people within a cisgender group that has such a deep rooted history and traditional set of values,” Hudson said.
But Freeland is somewhat hopeful.
“I think this is really a good step…language is powerful,” she said. “The way we talk about things matters.”
From talking comes policy change, she said, “it opens the door for the conversation and forbids outright discrimination.”
Although she dropped out of Tri Delta in her senior year, Freeland said the experience was beneficial.
“I got a lot out of my time in a sorority but …my world became so small, so white, so wealthy,” she said. “All of my friends looked like me.”
The Greek culture hasn’t been historically receptive to the LGBT community. Freeland remembers a male friend who was gay but adamant that anyone who knew about his sexuality keep it a secret because he was afraid he wouldn’t get any bids.
“This is obviously troubling for a million reasons,” she said.
Resistance to change.
Back in Grapevine the morning after the news, chapter presidents met to start their final training session. The leader of the sessions had been calm and serene, until this morning when her complexion was flushed and there was panic in her voice.
After the bomb had dropped the night before, her inbox was flooded with emails from Tri Delta adult volunteers, outraged at the updated policy. She asked the group to talk amongst themselves so she could get some work done.
The presidents weren’t nearly as frazzled as their adult leader. Some discussed their indifference with the change. But most expressed their excitement for it, saying they couldn’t wait to go home and tell their chapters.
As Queen packed up and headed home to Chapel Hill she thought about what the new policy would mean for her chapter.
“I feel like people in our sorority would say they are in full support of this change,” she said. “But if we ever had a trans person rush, they would 10/10 drop them.”
Edited by David Fee