New colony of sorority founded by students
By Mary Susman
Each weekend last year, current UC Berkeley sophomore Sydney Lai would go to fraternities with friends, where she would flirt with guys and enjoy her nights - all the while playing a game with her identity.
Lai is a lesbian, and although she said she likes the satisfaction of fooling men at fraternity parties into thinking she is attracted to them, the game bores her after awhile. Yet much of the Greek scene is focused around heterosexual lifestyles, sometimes leaving students who identify as queer feeling disenfranchised.
"Aside from the sisterhood, which is what attracted me, a lot of the socializing is with frats, which is for me I guess just wasting that time," Lai said. "I don't want to spend all my time flirting with guys."
So Lai founded her own lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally sorority colony of Gamma Rho Lambda this semester with a mission to reclaim what it means to be both a sorority sister and a queer woman.
"What binds us together is not so much our sexual orientation, but the fact that we advocate as well as identify with that group," Lai said. "We wanted that sisterhood."
Gamma Rho Lambda was founded in 2003 at Arizona State University. Zina Alam, vice president of communications for Gamma Rho Lambda National Sorority, said after becoming the "only nationally-based, active queer and ally sorority" in 2006, it now has 11 groups nationwide at both liberal and conservative college campuses.
"Some schools, they already have a lot LGBT groups, so they want something more," Alam said. "Some don't have any. They call (the sorority) the safe zone, they call it their second family and it's the only family that understands them and accepts them for who they are in more conservative communities."
Group membership for each chapter ranges from eight to 30 members, according to Alam, who said the sorority has gained about two new colonies a year since 2006. The national sorority also receives two to five inquiry emails a week from students wanting to start their own chapters, she said.
"We just let people come to us," Alam said. "We don't go out and colonize. The people at the universities have to help recruit and be motivated themselves."
The campus Gamma Rho Lambda colony - which will become a chapter after three semesters - was recognized nationally in February with an alpha class of 18 students.
"The sorority has become my life," Lai said. "Honestly, I spend probably more time on this than I do on classes."
Although the sisters live separately, they have weekly meetings and are planning for a service project in the future. As the alpha class, the group has added responsibility. According to Lai, everyone has to go through new member education like any other new sorority, except for one difference. While they learn the Greek alphabet and their sorority drinking song, they also learn about queer issues.
Lai said the group is already becoming close, especially after internal bonding activities, which range from hikes to karaoke nights at a sister's apartment to a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The sorority is joining an already active queer community at UC Berkeley - there are over 10 student organizations for queer students - yet the founders of Gamma Rho Lambda believe the sorority provides a unique space for queer women.
"A sorority is a lot more serious. A club, you can come and go, and you don't really feel that involved," said sophomore Melissa Gioino, one of three founding "mothers" of UC Berkeley's colony. "A sorority - it's more of a commitment."
While Gamma Rho Lambda is the first queer sorority at UC Berkeley, it is not the first queer organization within the campus's Greek system. A gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, existed briefly in the 1990s. Currently, Sigma Epsilon Omega, a gay fraternity founded in 2007, has 40 active members, according to junior James Kealohi, president of the fraternity.
"It's nice to have a group of friends that share the same values and opinions as you," Kealohi said. "At the end of the day, SEO is a tight group of gay people and close friends."
Kealohi said he rushed various fraternities and considered joining a traditional one, but when he went to his first rush event at Sigma Epsilon Omega, he knew he belonged there. After one year, he became president.
Sigma Epsilon Omega, Kealohi said, was immediately accepted within the Greek system, and several students within the Greek community said it is generally accepting of queer students.
Sophomore Sean Oh, Interfraternity Council vice president of external affairs, said he has never heard of any conflicts within UC Berkeley's Greek system between queer and straight students in fraternities, but he encourages the formation of queer-specific fraternities.
"Every house has an individual culture," Oh said. "If they want to start their own, that's fine. It's all about where you fit in."
At the same time, Oh said no effort is made to be inclusive specifically of queer students. Yet many, including sophomore Jonny Park, say the environment of UC Berkeley is uniquely accepting of queer students compared to other campuses where queer students are more frequently rejected from the Greek scene.
Park, who identifies as a guy who likes guys, is a pledge of the fraternity Theta Chi, a traditional social fraternity. He said he never planned to pledge a fraternity, though he did rush SEO.
"I understand the need for LGBT-specific frats and sororities, but I personally don't necessarily believe in them," Park said. "I feel like fraternities and sororities should be frats and sororities - they shouldn't be gay or straight."
Park said he thinks having openly gay brothers is beneficial for traditional fraternities because it exposes everyone to different perspectives.
"I hear of a lot of people who are in the closet and are afraid to come out of the closet," he said. "I feel like these are brotherhoods - they're not straight frats - and once you're a brother, you're family."
Gioino is currently the only non-queer sister in Gamma Rho Lambda; she has been a queer advocate ever since some of her close friends came out during high school.
Nevertheless, Gioino said that being a straight student in a lesbian sorority means she often has to defend her own sexual orientation. She said her friends and family members often ask "Are you gay? It's okay if you are," although most do not trust her answer.
Moving forward, Lai said they will integrate more into UC Berkeley's Greek community by having fraternity exchanges because the sisters "want to fit in with what sororities do," Lai said, adding that there are girls in the sorority who are attracted to men. The group also hopes to gain recognition as a sorority for queer women and those who do not fit in with traditional sororities.
"We were a bunch of queer women who knew of other queer women, but we didn't identify with the specific cliques," Lai said. "I guess, in a way, we formed our own clique."