UCLA's Gamma Rho Lambda is a sorority that welcomes women of all sexual orientations and gender identities. But in a lot of ways, it's just like any other sorority. It requires you to pay money to have friends.
There’s a long pathway leading up to the main buildings on UCLA’s campus where students crowd around passing out flyers about acappella groups, dance teams, and Harry Potter clubs. It’s an unavoidable exercise in chaos: Shit gets more or less thrown into your face, and the only way through the blur of arms and highlighter-colored paper is to set a stride and avoid eye contact.
One day in my freshman year, before I’d learned how to survive the mess of “Bruin Walk,” a flyer was shoved into my direction. Along with literature from the “Campus Crusades” Christian group and, oddly, information to join one of the Korean student groups, I was given a flyer for Gamma Rho Lambda, which described itself as an “all-inclusive sorority.” I decided to go to a rush event, which turned out to be an ice cream social.
I poured sprinkles and caramel sauce into a bowl and sat on the floor next to a girl with pink hair and a girl with statement glasses talking about pet rats and anime movies. Everyone was nerdy and friendly, which was a far cry from the sorority girl stereotype. As the evening progressed and conversation began to shift toward discussion of social justice issues and average clitoris size, it soon became clear what “all-inclusive” meant: this was a queer sorority.
Gamma Rho Lambda, or GRL, is a relatively small group that focuses primarily on LGBTQQIAA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Queer Questioning Intersex Asexual Ally, because you can never have too many letters in an acronym) issues. Former historian and vice president Meghan Maloney says that she joined because, “A great deal of my ‘straight’ girl friends irritated me with their problematic statements about the queer community,” and felt that most of the other LGBT organizations around campus were too male-driven.
Although some of the members identify as allies, the majority are queer, and Meghan acknowledges that the group helped her in her coming-out process. It’s actually not a very sexually-charged group—no constant orgies, nothing like that— even though the little time I spent with GRL included conversations of erogenous zones on mice (an oddly high number of members had pet rodents) and how to use dental dams. GRL is active at the school and in the community, participating in events ranging from UCLA’s pediatric AIDS fundraiser to the Long Beach Pride Parade.
While GRL is progressive in its politics, it still adheres to certain sorority traditions. Established members, or “Bigs,” adopt “Littles” (new recruits); there are paddles, clothes with Greek letters, and an induction ceremony, which I went to even though I eventually dropped out of the initiation process. It mostly consisted of a series of trust exercises, but it was at night, like a more mysterious corporate retreat. Initiation also involved meetings on the history of queer culture and sexual health.
I was also told that I had to participate in bake sales and go to drag shows with people who I barely knew, but who had suddenly all friended me on Facebook and taken to calling me “sister.” Because even though it’s alternative and a little subversive, it’s still a sorority and that means you have to pay to spend your social life with people you don’t necessarily like.
I asked Meghan why so many queer females would want to join the Greek system, despite its history of discrimination, and she told me she was "not 100% sure why a sorority, but I feel like a lot of it has to do with creating bonds of sisterhood and family."
"People in clubs can come and go as they please, but a Greek organization offers the potential of offering a more stable group of people to connect with,” she said. “Queer people would obviously like to tap into the benefits that the Greek system provides, yet because LGBTQ people aren’t as widely accepted in traditional Greek organizations, they’re blocked from us. We’re here on campus to prove that you can be Greek and queer, that the two do not lie on opposite spectrums of each other.”
The concept of an LGBT sorority is specifically modern. In the 70s, women might have joined the “land dyke” movement and gone out into the land to farm and commune. Or bought a house to take over as a queer-only space. Now, however, there is a conflict within the queer community of people who are embracing more traditional values, such as marriage (or sororities), and those who wish to maintain their status as members of a counterculture. Academic Yasmin Nair, founder of Against Equality wrote a piece called "Gay Marriage is a Conservative Cause," claiming that gay marriage is "an economically and socially conservative issue," marriage in any form is racist and classist.
Nair doesn't explain why she lobbed such incendiary words at gay marriage, so I spoke to UCLA professor Alicia Gaspar de Alba, the chair of the school’s LGBT Studies program, about this. “I don’t think marriage equality for LGBT people or broader acceptance by the dominant society means queer folks have stopped being revolutionary and cutting-edge,” she said. “Marriage equality is no more a sign of ‘going mainstream’ or adopting values of ‘traditional American life’ than voting rights for women were…It’s better to have the choice to say ‘I do’ than to have no option but ‘I can’t.’”
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