LGBTQ Students At CU Boulder Pledge To Find 'Home' On Campus

Oct 8, 2019

It's the second night of rush week for Theta Pi Sigma, a Greek letter organization at the University of Colorado Boulder. More than a dozen students have split into two groups to play a Google version of Family Feud. Senior Naya O'Reilly huddles with one of the teams.

"Do we want a name?" O'Reilly asked the group. "Team name anyone?"

O'Reilly identifies as a non-binary femme, using the pronouns they/them/theirs.

After arriving at CU, O'Reilly said they didn't fit in on the majority white campus and endured discrimination and microaggressions. O'Reilly, who is mixed-race, black, Filipina and Mexican, even considered leaving for a time.

"I was like, I don't like CU. I feel like I don't belong here," they said. "Theta Pi, thank God, became my home and cemented my place here."

Theta Pi Sigma, one of about 20 Greek letter organizations on the Boulder campus, is open to any gender and sexual identity.

O'Reilly was part of the first pledge class in the spring of 2018 and has been president of Theta Pi Sigma since then. They specifically chose the organization to make friends and feel comfortable. Theta Pi Sigma is not a sorority or fraternity, and members are called "siblings."

"They wouldn't have called me a brother or a sister," O'Reilly said. "I didn't have to fall within a binary for them. I could be genuinely who I am, no matter what that was with them."

Theta Pi Sigma was originally founded at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2005 and according the website, the first all-gendered Greek letter organization. There are about six chapters at colleges across the U.S.

Senior Naya O'Reilly is president of Theta Pi Sigma, a Greek organization at the University of Colorado Boulder open to students of all genders and sexual identities.
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC

Phi Beta Kappa , founded in the 1776, was first fraternal organization in the United States and first to use a Greek letter name. By the turn of the 20th century, said Kathleen Gillon, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maine, fraternities and sororities were a college staple. But only for those permitted to attend.

"Traditionally fraternities and sororities were created around traditional notions of both gender and sexuality," said Gillon, who researches Greek life. "So, typically this was a white student, cisgender students, Protestant students, upper-class students."

As higher education opened its doors to more and more students of color, Greek life began to reflect this diversity. The first black and Asian American fraternities were founded in 1906 and 1929. This was in response to students being excluded, Gillon said, within their academic and co-curricular experiences. Over the past century, Greek letter organizations have blossomed to include all gender and groups.

"We see queer and trans or non-binary, gender non-binary students responding and creating organizations that allow them to identify and socialize and engage in ways that are authentic and representative of who they are," Gillon said.

Members of Theta Pi Sigma and rushees participate in a game night during rush week.
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC

Eli Harvey is at the Theta Pi Sigma rush event. He identifies as a pansexual, African American, non-binary transgender man. Harvey is a freshman and potential recruit, but before learning about Theta Pi Sigma, he considered joining a fraternity.

"The fact that I'm not cis but you know, not all the way transitioning yet," Harvey said. "It's hard to try to find people or specifically fraternities that will be like, yeah, come and join."

So far though, Harvey is enjoying the rush process and plans to attend all the Theta Pi Sigma events. He's met new people and feels comfortable talking about gender, sexuality and race.

"They really try their hardest to invite all of us into a space where we feel welcome and safe," Harvey said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

Harvey is part of another all-gendered community on CU Boulder's campus. He lives in Spectrum, a residence hall for LGBTQ students. Freshman Char Donaldson, who is white and transitioning from male to female, also lives there. The dorm has made living on campus "really, really" easy for Donaldson, who says they have met many people who are accepting and similar to them.

Naya O'Reilly and members of their team participate in game night as part of Theta Pi Sigma’s rush week.
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC

Donaldson is also having fun at the game night but is on the fence about pledging Theta Pi Sigma.

"I'd have to know about it because I know it's a really fun group," they said. "But I don't know about the responsibility and I have to spend time doing school and stuff like that."

Theta Pi Sigma currently has 20 active members. President Naya O'Reilly believes the organization is shaking up Greek life traditions.

"I hope and do believe that Greek life is going to start slowly molding itself to look more similar to Theta Pi Sigma, because everyone should be given a chance to be a Greek."