Erik Eykel, 21, a junior in the University of Washington’s Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, lamented how UW’s Greek system took “a huge PR hit during COVID.” 

In 2020, UW fraternities and sororities were at the center of major COVID-19 outbreaks in the summer and fall, leading to Interfraternity Council punishments, several hundred positive cases and reports of sorority sisters quarantining in basements. The 2020 reckoning on systemic racism spotlighted fraternities and sororities when critics highlighted their exclusionist and racist roots

This ignited an on-campus debate about whether to abolish UW’s Greek system, mirroring a national conversation about racism, sexism and homophobia in Greek life as a whole. 

“I just wish people would recognize that there are students in Greek life trying to move the system forward and make it more inclusive,” Eykel said. 

Eykel came out as gay the summer before his sophomore year. Now, as a senior, he serves as vice president of UW’s Greek Pride, a club for LGBTQ+ fraternity and sorority members. 

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The club exists to connects queer students living within the heterocentric and sometimes-homophobic Greek world to each other. In doing so, Greek Pride combats some of the system’s historical exclusion, said club President Sean Haney, 21, of Phi Kappa Psi. 

“I really see Greek Pride as one of the ways that the Greek system survives,” Haney said.

Back in the fall of 2019, two gay sorority women in a relationship founded Greek Pride. Right after their first club meeting in 2020, the world went online and Greek Pride’s growth flatlined. In the past year, with the return of in-person classes, the club saw its membership numbers grow to about 20 people. 

Around 13% of the UW student body participates in the 45-house Greek system. According to Greek Pride’s social coordinator, Erica Schieche, 20, of Chi Omega, at least one person in every house is queer. Is that enough people to change centuries of tradition? Not quite. 

When Haney first joined his fraternity, he had “a twofold reaction.” He said he was “initially pleasantly surprised” he wasn’t being bullied, but “it dawned on him” that not being discriminated against wasn’t the same as being treated equally.

It’s within the institution where the major flaws lie, Haney said. 

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A system built on heterosexual relationships

At its most basic level, Greek life organizes itself based on the gender binary: men are in fraternities, women are in sororities. “Already, we’re starting in a place that’s not accepting of people who don’t fit into those boxes,” Haney said.

Many of the system’s annual traditions act as a way of introducing men to women and fostering opposite-sex relationships. Each fall, fraternity freshmen choreograph dances to serenade sororities, like a flock of (usually shirtless) birds wooing potential mates. 

The serenades were silly, fun memories for Haney, but he couldn’t help feeling left out. 

“It’s very obvious as a gay person that no one is helping me here,” Haney said. “No one is interested in facilitating a full social life for us or catering to this community.”

While the Greek system plays up inclusivity and equality on paper, Haney and other Greek Pride members don’t feel it’s as welcoming to nonheterosexual members.

“Homosexuality is almost passively discouraged by being completely ignored,” Haney said. 

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Other social calendar staples for Greek students include “Grab-a-Dates” and quarterly formals. While same-sex couples can go to these, it’s “rare,” according to Schieche, who is bisexual. 

“When someone does [bring a same-sex partner], it’s usually someone who is out and very vocal about it,” Schieche said. 

The gossip mill runs rampant though, and anyone bringing a same-sex partner as a date would create “news,” she said. “It would be a statement.” This attention ends up discouraging many queer people from bringing romantic partners to these dates. 

Greek Pride as an alternative

In Greek Pride, queer students carved out a gayer, more comfortable existence within a traditional system. It’s nice to talk with people about gay culture, history and art when normally that “knowledge just sits dead in you,” Haney said. 

While UW’s Greek system is progressive compared to other schools, queer students can feel alienated. 

As a lesbian in a sorority, Phi Mu’s Haidyn Hall, 20, said she regularly encounters people who assumed she “was hitting on them when I was only looking for friendship,” she said. 

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As a byproduct of making queerness more visible and accessible, the goal is that Greek Pride ends up enacting change. 

Hall said being in the club helps educate people about LGBTQ+ issues. Sometimes, fraternity men will find out she’s in Greek Pride and ask her “what letter she is,” referring to the letter of the “LGBTQ+” acronym. Hall finds these interactions lighthearted and thinks they foster an environment where a man will talk to her “about his own relationship with his sexuality.”

One of the other points of pain for queer students is how some in the Greek system fling homophobic slurs around, Eykel said. But, in the three years he’s been at UW, he’s seen a decrease in how often people use “gay” in a derogatory way or use homophobic slurs. 

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better at calling people out and promoting good values,” Eykel said. Greek Pride now supplies fraternities and sororities with educational materials on inclusivity. 

Eykel, who is his fraternity’s recruitment chair, said he’s added two other gay members to his fraternity. He made a point during the process to “make them feel safe in my house and let them know there are other people like them in the UW Greek system.”

This year, Haney worked to institutionalize Greek Pride within UW’s Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council, the governing bodies for the sororities and fraternities. Now, these organizations fully fund Greek Pride and work to advertise its existence to all new students.

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Greek Pride is organizing a Greek-system pilgrimage to the Seattle Pride Parade on June 26 and wants queer students to join, but also allies. The idea is “to get people in Greek life more involved in Seattle’s queer community and more knowledgeable about it,” Schieche said.

That’s important to Schieche because she still runs into people who don’t realize queer people participate in Greek life. 

“There’s still a disconnect between queerness and frats and sororities as things that can go together,” Schieche said. “We’re trying to change the idea of what Greek life is and what it can be.”