Debate surrounding alleged sexism and the possible ratification of Greek letter organizations on campus became public with a number of editorial submissions published in last week’s issue of the Muse (Vol 63, Iss 18).
The ratification of a student club or society by the Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union (MUNSU) grants the group access to union resources and the ability to make use of campus space. No fraternity or sorority has yet been ratified by MUNSU, despite previous attempts.
A letter to the editor responding to alleged sexism from James Desjardins, a member of local fraternity Sigma Theta Pi, was particularly contentious. In it, he suggests that charging lower cover for women could be seen as progressive and asserted that, “No one wants to go to a sausage fest party.” The fraternity has stressed that Desjardins had not written on their behalf, but rather as an independent member voicing a personal opinion.
Sigma Theta Pi distanced its official stance from Desjardins’ comments while supporting his right to have his own opinion. Zack Morse, a co-president of Sigma Theta Pi, pointed out that Desjardins, as with any student on campus, is entitled to speak his mind in the paper as long as he does not claim to do so on behalf of the fraternity.
“Any message that is put out by our leadership is considered an official statement,” Morse said. “If a member put out a message that was not representative of our values, but was acting on the behalf of the fraternity or any organization such as that, they would have to be dealt with and reprimanded.
“He wasn’t acting on behalf of the fraternity and it’s his right to voice his own opinions the same way any other student at MUN can write in to the editor,” he said. “I have to respect his autonomy.”
Noah Davis-Power, external director of communications for Memorial University’s Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Resource Centre (LGBT-MUN), says that the actions of a single member may be indicative of the mentality of the community, whether it is an official stance or not.
“He’s maybe not speaking for the group, but he’s speaking as a member, which is a reflection of the group,” said Davis-Power, who also had a letter to the editor published on the subject in last week’s Muse. “Likewise, if someone at LGBT-MUN took an anti-trans stance, it would be a very poor reflection on us.
“The group is judged by those who its membership is made up of.”
Among Davis-Power’s worries was the possibility that Desjardin’s statements could represent a stereotypically chauvinistic environment within the fraternity that could be unwelcoming to some students.
“Fraternities as a rule are not very gender inclusive or really very politically correct in any sense,” he said. “Based on [incidents at other schools] we can look at that track record and ask ‘Would it be the same at MUN?’ We [at LGBT-MUN] don’t want to risk it.”
Dr. Nicholas Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History Of White College Fraternities, agrees that the type of environment that worries LGBT-MUN can be a reality for many campuses. He says that instances of violence, which while certainly are not the norm, can account for negative perceptions held by some regarding fraternities.
“I would stop short of saying that they are inherently sexist, but any time that you have an organization that employs sex-based criteria for membership […] it runs the risk,” said Syrett, who is an history professor specializing in issues of gender and sexuality at the University of Northern Colorado.
“It is unfortunate for fraternities that most of the time newspapers do not cover all of the good things that they do,” he said. “When you see newspaper stories about fraternities, and when sociologists publish their studies about fraternities, these things are absolutely still apparent. There are still gang rapes that happen at fraternities. There are still parties where the sole purpose is to get women […] drunk so that men can have sex with them. That’s definitely still contemporary.”
Morse understands the concerns and says that “there’s no getting around” the fact that the common conception of fraternities is that they are inherently sexist organizations. He believes that the only way to alleviate concerns at MUN is through positive action.
“The only thing we can do to combat that is to present ourselves in a way where we don’t make people feel uncomfortable and offend other groups,” Morse said. “I understand that it won’t be an overnight process—I can’t sit down with everyone on campus in one day—but over time, I think that view […] will diminish as people get to see what we’re actually all about.”
Syrett does allow that there are definitely groups that have been able to function as wholly inclusive organizations, though he does maintain that most remain exclusive to some degree.
“I think that it is possible and there are examples I have read about, where some fraternities have […] worked quite hard to make sure that that’s not true of their organization,” Syrett said. “I think that it’s possible for fraternities to not be sexist; but I think that by the way that they’re set up, most of them probably are somewhat [sexist].”
Members both of LBGT-MUN and the Greek Philanthropy Society (GPS)—the proposed umbrella organization that would represent the interests of Greek letter organizations if ratified—have voiced concerns that the gender equity policies of MUNSU may be applied selectively.
Davis-Power expressed concern regarding the perceived double standard by referencing the Coors Light Cold Party that was held on November 3, 2012 in the Breezeway.
“The fact that MUNSU allowed this to happen––an event held by a company (Coors Light) who uses the objectification of women as part of their sexual marketing tactics—is simply not a good thing,” he said. “Especially when they willfully deny the ratification of a group for the same reason. When you have student groups on campus you have to hold everyone to the same standard when it comes to following MUNSU expectations and policy. You can’t deny one group for potentially doing it, then turn around and participate.”
Ashley Marsh, co-president of Nu Delta Mu expressed a similar sentiment regarding MUNSU’s stance.
“The denying of Greek life at MUN because of our alleged sexist behaviour at our parties […] is kind of unfair,” Marsh said. “The residence societies at MUN are all guilty of throwing degrading and sexist parties […]. For [MUNSU] to actually allow this kind of stuff without any repercussions and deny us because of this alleged behaviour, I think it is kind of a double standard.”
Rebecca Stuckey, director of student life with MUNSU, responded to concerns of hypocrisy in an email to the Muse.
“MUNSU will not employ advertising or promotional tactics that make for a chilly atmosphere on-campus for its events,” she said. “Although MUNSU cannot foresee all aspects of private events that are hosted in our rented space, we have worked to ensure our expectations and the ramifications for non-compliance are better known and more clearly adhered to.”
Davis-Power maintained opposition to any Greek societies that would be gender-exclusive on campus, but clarified that he has been working towards easing the concerns of LBGT-MUN with Max Page, who has been serving as a tentative representative of the GPS.
“Page has actually been in contact with me […] and I’ve explained to him the concerns that we have at LBGT-MUN about the gender parity and acceptance of trans folk,” he said. “I explained to him the gender spectrum and where people may or may not lie on it. I explained to him the sexuality spectrum and he did reiterate those thoughts to [the GPS].”
The collaborative process has also included MUNSU. Members of the board of directors were present for the first of two GPS meetings, according to Page, but were unable to attend the second.
“Members of the board and executive were invited to attend our committee meetings and we had a very positive response from these people,” Page said. “MUNSU has extended a large contribution to the organization by sending people to the first meeting.”
Stuckey was invited to those meetings, but unable to attend due to a busy month for the union. She has been clear that MUNSU’s position remains that in order for the GPS to expect ratification, it must not engage in any form of gender exclusivity.
“On our bylaws, we’re not allowed to ratify any group that’s discriminatory,” said Stuckey. “Where it’s only open to one gender, that makes it discriminatory toward [others] so, therefore, doesn’t comply with our bylaws.”
In order to gain LGBT-MUN’s support, Davis-Power also says that the idea of gender exclusivity must be addressed.
“They’re completely gender binary and because of that, they’re gender exclusive,” said Davis-Power. “There doesn’t exist such a thing as a penis scanner. Therefore, trans men who wanted to join Sigma Theta Pi, would they be accepted based on their gender expression?”
Trans persons are welcome to pledge at Sigma Theta Pi, according to Morse. He did stress however that membership is based mostly on personality and how well a potential candidate meshes with the group.
“I know a lot of people who are straight who I don’t like—it’s based on personality,” Morse said. “If someone who was transgendered was a good personality fit and wanted to be part of our organization, it would be based on that fit and not any considerations of gender identification.”
Despite a welcoming message, Syrett says that many who don’t conform to a particular brand of masculinity may be dissuaded from joining fraternities based on the environment that the groups create.
“These are—by definition—all male organizations so they tend to attract people who would like to spend a lot of time with other men and who value a certain kind of masculinity,” said Syrett. “Fraternities do have a reputation for behaving in certain ways, so when people arrive at university or college, those who are attracted to that kind of behaviour and to this kind of environment, those are the ones who are going to rush.”
In separate interviews with the Muse, representatives of each Nu Delta Mu and Delta Psi Delta, the two local sororities, stressed their inclusive natures. Laurabel Mba, who is a media relations officer with Delta Psi Delta, actively encouraged any person who wants to join to become involved.
“It’s a place where you can be okay being yourself,” said Mba. “As long as the person is generally a good-hearted person, that’s all that really matters.”
The Greek Philanthropy Society has set up an email address for the student body to express comments, questions, or concerns. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.