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Defining Sisterhood

News & Features | November 4, 2016

“Sisters. Living our Values. Changing the Future,” is Alpha Omicron Pi’s Vision Statement, which is fitting considering it was the close friendship of four Barnard women that established AOII in 1897, according to the organization’s official website. Close-knit friendship still characterizes the sorority, particularly the Tufts AOII Delta chapter, which is committed to establishing community on campus.

These values drew Harper Hopkins to the Delta chapter. She was already friends with many of the members, and they encouraged her to rush this fall. “A lot of people actually thought I was already in AOII,” Hopkins said, but she had not previously considered joining because she is a trans woman, and “[trans women] don’t join sororities.” However, after conversations with her friends, who supported the idea, Hopkins participated in fall open bidding, which is a more informal process than the structured spring semester recruitment. According to former AOII President Kristin Reeves, a representative from AOII headquarters attended the September 14–16 fall recruitment events, one of which Hopkins attended. This representative, of her own volition, contacted the international organization (sometimes also referred to as Nationals) to find out if there was a policy regarding transgender women and if they are considered eligible for a bid. Hopkins added that part of the bidding process requires local chapters to send a list of all new members to the international organization before the pinning ceremony for the pledges. The international organization researched the names of the potential new members, and an issue arose when they could not find Hopkins at Tufts. They only found records under her dead name (the name given at birth).

On the night of September 16, AOII’s International Headquarters responded that there was no official policy and requested that the Delta chapter refrain from extending a bid to Hopkins. Despite the request from AOII headquarters, “[Tufts Delta Chapter] all unanimously agreed to extend the bid out anyway,” Sally*, a former member of AOII, said. For Hopkins, this was a “great moment…finding out that all of Delta more or less decided that they wanted me there.” At no point in this process did Tufts Delta question Hopkins’ right to rush the organization, but supported and stood by Hopkins in the initial days and following weeks as AOII headquarters attempted to clarify a position.

The next day, September 17, Reeves spoke on the phone with another member of AOII headquarters who told Reeves that “by extending a bid to a transgender woman [they] would be putting the National Panhellenic Council and AOII headquarters at risk of losing their Title IX status as a single-sex organization.” When Reeves insisted the chapter would extend the bid, the representative remarked that she “hoped AOII would be able to continue to exist at Tufts,” according to Reeves. Reeves called an emergency chapter meeting the same day, where everyone “still unanimously decided to go along with extending the bid.” The next day, after Reeves told headquarters the chapter was still committed to extending the bid, the AOII International President called her with a new announcement: “They had reevaluated their previous decision and that [Delta was] allowed to extend a bid.”

As Hopkins explained, “When someone a little higher up found out, they very quickly backpedaled and tried to mend bridges.” AOII headquarters informed Delta that they could extend a bid to Hopkins as there were no existing bylaws that “explicitly forb[ade] it,” therefore the chapter had the autonomy to “choose who…to extend a bid to.” Since there was no official policy, Anna Gooch, a former member of AOII, pointed out that “if AOII [headquarters] eventually decided that transgender women would not be allowed to join, [they] would have to revoke [Hopkins’] membership in the organization.” While these initial discussions occurred over the course of a couple of days, for Hopkins and other members—new and old—the conflict and uncertainty about AOII’s future stretched over weeks as the chapter discussed disaffiliation. Hopkins and Sally both emphasized a lot of the details surrounding this incident were unclear as they were unfolding, particularly for new members, like Hopkins, who did not have access to organization information.

The Observer reached out to AOII International Headquarters, requesting more information about the situation. When initially questioned about the response to Tufts Delta chapter’s decision to extend a bid to a transgender woman, the assistant director of public relations, Courtney West, replied affirming the organization’s beliefs that “all individuals are unique, with inherent worth and dignity, and should be treated with respect.” She articulated their commitment to anti-discriminatory policies based on “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, learning/physical abilities, or religion.” There was no acknowledgement of the incident at Tufts.

AOII headquarters’ failure to support Delta’s decision and affirm a transgender woman’s right to rush a sorority exacerbated dormant tensions between the local chapter and the international organization.

This is a recurrent theme on the Tufts campus, not only for AOII, but also for other Greek Life organizations at Tufts, which have disaffiliated or lost members who are uncomfortable with some National policies and their implementation. The superimposition of an international structure often leads to conflict; Hopkins clarified that Delta has a history of disagreement with Nationals, and while the majority of conflict occurred before she arrived at Tufts, she understood it to be conflict over some of National’s problematic policies that were “racist, homophobic, [and] very classist.” This is not specific to AOII, but is an issue other Greek organizations have navigated and continue to navigate on the Tufts campus. This fall, while Hopkins was rushing, the Tufts chapter was already discussing disaffiliating from the international organization, a process that would result in establishing a “local sorority with its own bylaws and procedures,” and most importantly, “its own organizational structure completely free from the restrictions of nationals,” according to Hopkins. Tufts is already home to multiple local sororities and fraternities who have no affiliation with a national Greek organization.

While AOII headquarters did not ultimately explicitly forbid Delta to extend a bid to Hopkins, members could sense the organization’s “reluct[ance],” which just added “another thing on a laundry list of bad behavior and bad policy on Nationals’ part.” Even though the headquarters ultimately agreed to extend Hopkins a bid, many members were left feeling uncomfortable and upset from the entire exchange.

Aware of the ill feelings and frustration, Hopkins described how AOII International Headquarters sent a representative to the chapter this October. According to Sally, the Vice President of Executive Direction was sent to speak to new and old members of the Delta chapter, and an “ultimatum” was issued. Hopkins said that members had “two days to decide whether to remain a member of AOII Delta chapter and AOII international or to self-suspend,” which is member rescindment—no paying dues or attending organization ritual events.

Sally added that during this meeting, it was clear that the goal “was to convince [Tufts AOII members] to not leave the chapter and think everything was okay,” without addressing the situation. Tufts University affirmed its support of any group that developed from this situation, as long as they accepted transgender students. About three weeks ago, prompted by this meeting and earlier conversations, there was “an exodus” where “a large portion of the chapter” left, which included Hopkins and many of the newly initiated members. Reeves confirmed that “40 women (of the 80-person chapter) elected to self-suspend.” However, Nationals denies the existence of this ultimatum; in the same email exchange with the Observer, West responded, “At no time was [the Tufts] Delta Chapter threatened with the disciplinary action referred to.”

Many of the people who left Delta, which still exists as a local chapter of the international organization on Tufts campus, do not have a formal representative but are “hanging out” and communicating with those still in the chapter, all of whom acknowledge the behavior of AOII headquarters as problematic. Hopkins emphasized that the decision to stay or leave was motivated by personal reasons and that she “absolutely respects everyone’s choice to stay or leave,” and is “great friends with many of the people who stayed.” “The problem,” Hopkins stated, “existed at a national level…that had control over policy and to some extent finances when it came to the local chapter.”

For Hopkins, it was AOII headquarters’ resistance to creating a “formal policy explicitly stating that trans women were allowed to be initiated into chapters” that ultimately prompted her decision to leave. While the organization’s rationale was that they had “never defined a woman before and [did] not intend to start now,” which sounded “superficially…pretty good,” Hopkins pointed out that “there are chapters all over the country…at schools in more conservative areas…where if a trans woman wanted to join, they would say ‘well, no.’”

Reeves questioned the efficacy of the policy as well, as “it is now at the individual chapter’s discretion to decide whether or not they want to allow transgender women into the chapter.” And if there is no policy expressly requiring local chapters to accept trans women, then they can deny them bids. This experience, Hopkins said, should be a “stepping stone,” to the understanding that “a lack of a position favors the oppressors in pretty much every situation.” Hopkins continued, “It is the ability and the responsibility of anyone in a position of power or privilege to acknowledge that and to work to make their positions as non-neutral and as non-oppressive as possible.”

The separation between the members who left and those who stayed was not dramatic or contentious; Hopkins stressed that those who stayed part of the organization were not against her joining the sorority and had valid reasons to remain. Those reasons were not to support an oppressive organization, but to commit to changing the environment. “The current and former women of Delta chapter were never anything but kind and loving to me,” Hopkins said. “[Those who stayed] are people who are using their positionality to change things for the better.” Similarly, members who left “are not people who are running away from a bad situation, they are people who have left an environment that’s unhealthy to them.” “Those two roles,” Hopkins confirmed, “do not exist in opposition to each other.”

*Name has been changed