This is only one of four Theta Pi Sigma chapters nationwide, as it is a new concept of having a completely gender-inclusive sector of Greek life.
Words by Julia Comnes, Photos by Kaylee Domzalski
A Theta Pi Sigma chapter meeting is hardly a scene that conjures up the terms “fraternity” or “sorority.” It involves about 10 people of various genders, sitting in a circle of desks in a fluorescent-lit classroom of McKenzie Hall.
On a campus flanked with over 20 mansion-like houses bearing Greek letters on their faces, this gathering is not what most people imagine when thinking of Greek life at the University of Oregon.
But being different is exactly what Theta Pi Sigma prefers.
Theta Pi Sigma is a Greek organization, but neither a fraternity nor a sorority. It is University of Oregon’s first and only gender-inclusive Greek organization, and its mission is in creating a welcoming space in Greek life for queer, trans and gender-non-binary students.
Louis McBennett, the president of the organization, says that Theta Pi Sigma aims to subvert the way Greek life normally operates. “‘Fraternity’ and ‘sorority’ are so specifically gender segregated,” he says.
“Theta Pi Sigma is not just meant to exist and be outside of that but also to make a safe Greek organization for trans and gender-non-conforming students. Generally, trans students can’t join Greek life otherwise,” McBennett says.
The first Theta Pi Sigma chapter was founded at University of California, Santa Cruz in 2005 and is advertised on its website as the “world’s first queer gender neutral frarority.” There are other Theta Pi Sigma chapters at the Northeastern University of Illinois and the University of Maryland, and the University of Oregon’s chapter is one of only four in the country.
Despite having a smaller national community than most Greek Life, McBennett says that University of Oregon’s Theta Pi Sigma doesn’t really communicate with the other schools’ chapters or other Greek organizations in general.
“We’re not very involved with the rest of Greek life. We don’t interact much with the fraternities and sororities,” says McBennett. He says that he doubts most University of Oregon Greek organizations are even aware of Theta Pi Sigma.
Corbin Couraud, Theta Pi Sigma’s Finance Coordinator, says he’s been asked multiple times, “Who’s Theta Pi Sigma? Is that a made-up one? Did you make that up?”
Theta Pi Sigma’s motto is “Death Before Conformity,” and it applies this when faced with many of the expectations other Greek organizations have.
For one, Theta Pi Sigma is significantly less expensive than other Greek organizations.
“Our dues per term are $45 and zero cents,” says McBennett, saying that the dues of other Greek organizations are “exponentially higher.” A 2014 USA Today article estimated that the average new fraternity member will pay $605 per semester and the average new sorority member will pay $1,280 per semester.
“Sometimes we see the flocks of sorority girls where they all have matching dresses, and they look on-point as hell,” McBennett says. “But they all had to go out and purchase those. And so, there’s a certain economic status expected of you to be able to be part of those organizations.”
“We don’t have any sort of dress code or expectations of the members that cost additional money,” McBennett says.
McBennett says that a lot of Greek organizations’ dress codes are about conformity. “I get the appeal of that, having that look of being a family,” he says. “But for us, we’re all about individuality and not making people conform at all, and even pushing people to express themselves.”
Another thing that sets Theta Pi Sigma apart is its size: currently, it has only 10 consistent members.
“I like how personal it is, with how small it is,” says Dylan Williams, a student who joined Theta Pi Sigma in fall of 2015. “I think close spaces are really important and are really beneficial, like, emotionally and mentally to have.”
“If there were more people who felt like this then it would be cool if they joined too. But in a way, it doesn’t matter to me,” says Jason Kirkendall, another new member.
McBennett says he wishes the organization were bigger.
“I think we do a fairly good job of getting the word out within the queer and trans communities,” he says. “But I really wish we were more of an option to people who are interested in Greek life but would enjoy a gender-inclusive option.”
“I think having more allies joining it would be a good thing as long as long as it still remained a space that queer and trans people felt safe in,” McBennett says. “I just want it to be more publicly known about by other communities.”
Theta Pi Sigma identifies itself as an activist organization. McBennett says that because it’s a Greek organization, the school doesn’t fund Theta Pi Sigma, and “we don’t have to go through school administration as much.” He says this allows it to be more radical than some of the school-funded student unions.
Couraud and McBennett say that bathroom takeovers are Theta Pi Sigma’s most consistent radical activity.
“A bathroom takeover is when there’s an event, some sort of student event happening that is aimed at LGBTQ students, and taking over the bathroom means putting signs up to make the bathrooms gender inclusive to make the space safer for transgender students,” says McBennett. He says it can be radical because the school doesn’t always give them permission to do a bathroom takeover.
But among its members, the main benefit of Theta Pi Sigma is the community it creates.
Each weekly chapter meeting starts in the same way. “We have a system at the beginning of every meeting, where everyone introduces themselves, even though we all know each other” says McBennett. Every single time we say our name and our pronouns.”
Then each member says something exciting that happened to them that week, something “not-so-exciting” that happened to them that week, and something that they’re excited about in the future.
“We make an effort to check in with everybody,” says McBennett.
The meetings include new member orientation, since six of the current members joined Theta Pi Sigma last term. Next, there’s time for announcements.
Typically, there’s a discussion topic of the meeting. Around Halloween, the members talked about Halloween costumes, addressing how Halloween costumes can culturally appropriate or offend trans people.
“It varies by week but we like to, as an activist group, get into an engaging discussions about the world,” McBennett says.
Tricia Knope, another new member of the organization, says that being in the organization has been very educational. “I haven’t known very many trans people before this and I think it’s just shown me more faces to the idea,” she says.
“It takes people where they’re at and nobody has to dress like anyone else, dress a certain way, be a certain way, be a certain gender, be a certain sexuality or anything,” says Knope. “It accepts everyone where they’re at.”