The Sisterhood: Black Lesbian Sororities Foster Inclusivity & Fight Stigma
Interview by Sydney Magruder
We talk about “sisterhood” so often it seems to be almost a given—a ready fixture in our larger queer women of color community. But the mention of a specific kind of sisterhood—sororities—conjures up very particular (and not necessarily queer) images. A herd of blondes posing in front of brightly decorated Greek letters. Brown and black sisters at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with their faces turned to the sky, saluting the heavens for having chosen them. We rarely hear of the presence of LGBTQ women in these illustrious, exclusive sisterhoods. A tide, however, is rising on another shore. LGBTQ-specific sororities are becoming more and more prevalent in the community, taking notes from their organizational foremothers on traditions and guidelines.
ELIXHER reached out to several queer women who pledged traditionally Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs). Their responses were hushed, unsure, and more often than not, directing us elsewhere. One thing became clear: A culture of veiled homophobia and respectability politics permeates many branches of the organizations, effectively barring many out LGBTQ-identified women from meaningful and effective participation.
We finally sat down with Brandynicole Brooks, Social Media Manager at Kappa Xi Omega, a sorority for lesbian women founded in 2004. Brooks is a member of the Capitol Region, which covers Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Brooks shares her experience with the sorority, stigma they face, and why she still has an interest in also pledging at a “traditional” organization.
ELIXHER: How did you get involved with the organization?
BRANDYNICOLE: I’ve always had a desire to be a part of an organization that was “greater than me.” I strive each day to give back to the community in any way that I can through community service projects and volunteering with various non-profit organizations, however, I knew that my impact would be greater if I joined with some type of community service organization. By the time I found Kappa Xi Omega Sorority, Inc., I had made up in my mind that I wanted to be a part of a Greek Letter Organization but was discouraged about seeking membership into traditional Black Greek Letter Organizations because I am an out lesbian. One day, I searched for “lesbian sororities” and found the Rainbow Greek Network. From there, I began to research the different organizations open to and founded specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies.
ELIXHER: What kinds of events do you enjoy with your sorority sisters?
BRANDYNICOLE: First and foremost, I most enjoy community service events with my sorors. Kappa Xi Omega is a community-based, community-oriented organization. We focus on giving back to the communities that we work and reside in. We have signature events like Family Fun Day and our National Day of Service. Each region works with some local non-profit agency to provide voluntary support. I also love our sisterhood bonding activities like brunch, conventions and informal get-togethers. We definitely know how to have a good time together while giving back.
ELIXHER: Do any of your programs assist LGBTQ people and youth?
BRANDYNICOLE: We sponsor an annual clothing drive, “Klean Out Our Klosets,” Go Orange for Diversity, which is an event held each October 11 in recognition of National Coming Out Day, and “What You Thought You Knew,” a series of workshops that are presented throughout the year on topics such as lesbian sexual health; same-sex domestic violence; LGBTQA financial planning and concerns; and general lesbian health.
ELIXHER: Why did you feel as though you wouldn’t be well integrated into the Divine Nine because of your sexuality?
BRANDYNICOLE: I have been interested in being a member of the Divine Nine for nearly 14 years, but became discouraged along the way because of my being an out lesbian who is heavily involved in the activist work of the Black lesbian community. I felt this would be a determent to my being invited into a D9 organization. But since moving from the Deep South and now living in Washington, DC, that voice has changed and I am still holding out hope to be able to bond with my family members in a different and unique way as well as carry on a legacy, that for some Divine Nine organizations, was started over a century ago. Having the opportunity to be a part of both an LGBTQ BLGO and a Divine Nine organization would allow me to work from all aspects of the intersections I am a part of: being Black, gay, and a woman.
ELIXHER: How can traditional Black Greek Letter Organizations become more LGBT-inclusive? Have you noticed progress in these organizations and if so, what do you attribute that to?
BRANDYNICOLE: Because I am not a member of a “traditional” Black Greek Letter Organization, I can’t say that they are or are not LGBT-inclusive. I know several women and men who are members of the Divine Nine. Some were “out” during their membership intake process while others waited until months and even years after their intake to be “out.” In my experience of being interested in an organization and in talking to [straight] members of Divine Nine organizations, it truly depends on their geographical (and sometimes political) location. Some members will tell me, “You will never be accepted because you are a lesbian,” while others have said their organization (or chapter) does not discriminate. There’s a fine line, and many times it is difficult to understand what that line is. In regards to progress, I have noticed progress within my own experience, again only as an interest, but I think this can be attributed to my move from Alabama to Washington, DC. “Traditions” tend to stand stronger in the south, including the inclusivity (or lack thereof) of LGBT people.
ELIXHER: Do lesbian sororities face certain stigma from the larger Greek community? How do you overcome that stigma?
BRANDYNICOLE: I think the stigma comes from the thought that LGBT Greek Letter Organizations have set out to “copy” the traditions of some of the older, more “traditional” organizations or that those of us who have joined LGBT organizations were not “good enough” to be members of traditional organizations. This perception is the foundation of the stigma and is far from the truth. Well, my truth. Being a part of an LGBT Greek Letter Organization is about being accepted for who I am on all levels in all aspects. Being a part of an LGBT organization affords me the opportunity to bring my partner to sorority events or talk openly about my girlfriend without the fear of being shunned, rejected, or in some other way diminished. [With] a traditional organization, I have had to be very careful about what I share and do not share because being a member of this particular organization is important to me. For me, overcoming this stigma occurs in remaining true to my organization and its ideas and knowing for myself why I became a member and why I desire to be a member of a traditional organization.
ELIXHER: What common misconceptions do people have about lesbian sororities?
BRANDYNICOLE: The common misconceptions of LGBT organizations are similar to the misconceptions about LGBT people and sororities in general. Oftentimes when some think of sororities, they think of parties, hazing, humiliation, and even orgies. These same misconceptions are true for LGBT organizations.
ELIXHER: Are lesbian sororities welcoming to masculine-presenting or gender non-conforming women? Are there similar safe spaces and sisterhoods for our trans sisters?
BRANDYNICOLE: There are more than 50 LGBT organizations. There is an LGBT Greek Letter organization for every aspect of the rainbow. My sorority, Kappa Xi Omega Sorority, Inc., is welcoming to both feminine- and masculine-presenting women. There are organizations that are specific to femme-identified, masculine-identified, transmen, transwomen, bisexual, and some who are welcoming to our allies. It’s key for those interested to do their research. A great place to start is with the Rainbow Greek Network or by asking a member.
ELIXHER: Where can lesbian sororities grow? What changes would you like to see within these organizations?
BRANDYNICOLE: All organizations, not just LGBT organizations, have room to grow. But when specifically talking about lesbian sororities, I think we need to make the effort to be more visible in our community beyond mixers, parties, and fundraisers. We need to have a voice in the wrongs that are being geared toward our communities. We need to remain active through community service to our own communities as well as the global community. We need to show unity with one another while still maintaining a sense of pride in our own organizations. For me, the biggest struggle I have with some lesbian sororities is the lack of sisterhood that is seen throughout some organizations, the lack of professionalism (which decreases an organization’s credibility), and the understanding that because lesbian organizations are young (the first was founded in 2000) we all have to understand that the behaviors/first impressions/attitudes of one organization reflects on all of us.
Sydney Magruder is an African-American/multiracial femme lesbian sociologist, ballerina, bibliophile, writer, and green-tea addict in her last year of undergraduate studies at Skidmore College. She wants to write, teach, critique pop-culture, and use music, theater and dance as a means of educating the masses about race, sexuality, gender, and how young people can change the future. Until she figures out exactly how to incorporate all of those individual things into one giant thing, you can find her in ballet class, hunting down a new pasta dish to make, or hogging her family’s Netflix account with Doctor Who and Parks and Recreation.