Sisters of the University of Georgia’s chapter of Gamma Sigma Sigma said they joined the non-Panhellenic Council service sorority to reap all the benefits of traditional sorority membership with fewer of what they considered drawbacks: pricey dues, group in-fighting and discriminatory selection processes.
In February, some members said they started experiencing some of the downsides they joined Gamma Sigma Sigma to avoid.
After a tweet about a member’s racist blog post went viral, the organization fractured. Over the month, many general members of the chapter and all but one member of the chapter’s executive board resigned. A group of departing members has since founded a separate service society.
The UGA chapter of Gamma Sigma Sigma’s website has not been updated to reflect the changes in leadership, but on March 19 the organization announced in an Instagram post adding a diversity statement to their website.
Jordyn Priester, a freshman at UGA, was one of the few Black women in the sorority at the time. She said most members of the sorority found out about Aubany Tomsovic’s blog post through social media when screenshots of the blog were posted on Twitter.
She added that she felt marginalized by the blog post even though the post didn’t explicitly mention Gamma Sigma Sigma or say the names of any women in the organization.
“Even though it wasn't a direct member, she was talking about a group of people that made up a part of Gamma Sig,” Priester said.
On Feb. 2, a Twitter account from a UGA student posted a tweet that included screenshots of a blog post written by Tomsovic, a junior at UGA and the now-former social chair of Gamma Sigma Sigma. The post was retweeted over 100 times and liked by over 400 as of April 29.
An alumna of UGA added screenshots she took of the blog in late September 2020 to the Twitter thread. She said she came across the blog through a post Tomsovic made on her Facebook account.
Tomsovic posted racist, nationalist sentiments, stating the enslavement of Black people in the United States “does not begin to compare to” Sept. 11, 2001. In the post, Tomsovic also referred to one of her professors as “the victim” because “when she was looking for a home to buy she would not even look in neighborhoods that were named with the words ‘plantation’ or ‘cove.’"
Tomsovic wrote in the post that Black people should not get their own holiday celebrating independence because “July 4th is about America. Not about race. Without America, the slaves would still be under British control and who knows how long slavery would’ve lasted.”
The blog and blog post no longer exist. The Red & Black confirmed Tomsovic’s ownership of the blog and authorship of the post through video recordings of a subsequent Gamma Sigma Sigma meeting concerning the topic, at which Tomsovic spoke.
The Red & Black contacted Tomsovic multiple times. She responded with an email on Feb. 19 stating “no comment.” The Red & Black last reached out on April 13 and received no comment.
Tomsovic has retained legal counsel with Busch, Reed, Jones & Leeper, according to Shaun Foley, an associate in the firm, who confirmed in an email that the firm represents Tomsovic.
Meredith Gray, a district director of Gamma Sigma Sigma who oversees several chapters in the southeast, including UGA’s chapter, also declined to comment.
Jaiden Gill, a sophomore at UGA and member of Gamma Sigma Sigma, described her dismay after reading the screenshots on Twitter.
“It's definitely not something I expected to be reading at this day and age from someone who represented me and represented Gamma Sigma Sigma,” Gill said.
Gill said she felt insecure after she read the post. Gill, who is Hispanic, wondered how Tomsovic felt about members of color in the organization.
“What does she think about me as a woman of color? What does she think about my other sisters being a woman of color? How does she feel about us?” Gill asked.
Some members of the sorority’s leadership were aware of the post for months prior to their surfacing on social media.
A lack of action
Renata Mitchell, a Black woman and national president of Gamma Sigma Sigma, said in a Facebook message to The Red & Black that the national chapter reviewed Tomsovic’s blog posts when it was first notified in September 2020. The national board, Mitchell said, did not have the authority to act on these complaints.
“We reviewed what was submitted and what we were being asked to do to remedy the issue, and we came to the conclusion that because the organization is not mentioned in any way that it's not an issue. Just to be sure, we consulted our legal team, and they agreed with us,” Mitchell said.
The national board heard nothing more about the blog or the post until they received a barrage of emails from members of UGA’s chapter in February 2021.
The national board responded to these emails with the same response they offered in September: The board could not remove Tomsovic for her opinions.
“The fact that the exec board and the national board knew about it, and didn't do anything about it or make it public to us — that really surprised me,” said Lily Guthrie, a senior at UGA and early alumna of Gamma Sigma Sigma.
Mitchell said the national board response explained that Tomsovic is, “entitled to her freedom of speech,” and offered a sentiment that, “We won't always work with people that agree with us or think along the same wavelengths as us.”
Frank LoMonte, a professor of media law at the University of Florida, said in an email to The Red & Black that sororities, such as Gamma Sigma Sigma, are not governed by the First Amendment. In short, members do not enjoy constitutional protections on their freedom of speech.
“They're private clubs and they can enforce their own membership standards, including removing people who express unwelcome ideas, if they choose,” LoMonte said.
A difference in perspectives
On Feb. 9, a week after the post resurfaced on Twitter, Carter Schwalls, an early alumna of Gamma Sigma Sigma, made a motion during a Zoom chapter meeting to remove Tomsovic from her position as social chair.
Members of the sorority’s national board attended the Zoom meeting to address the issue of Tomsovic’s post.
Precious Cristwell, the national board’s parliamentarian, said she did not view the statements Tomsovic made in the blog post as racist.
“I don’t feel like it was racist, and I, as a Black woman, would not be voting to get rid of her,” Cristwell said during a recording of the meeting shared with The Red & Black.
Priester said she had a different reaction to Tomsovic’s post.
“I think I cried. It was just really hurtful to see that someone who I was talking to in the initial breakout rooms when I first joined a Zoom [meeting] for Gamma Sig … to see that she had actually said those things. It was upsetting,” Priester said.
Priester felt that Cristwell attempted to speak for how other Black women in the sorority should feel about Tomsovic's post.
“It was like she was saying that our feelings were kind of not as valid because it didn't hurt her in that way. And she didn't see it the way that we saw it,” Priester said. “But that doesn't mean it wasn't hurtful to me or the other Black members of Gamma Sig.”
During the meeting, members of the chapter voted and passed a motion to remove the position of social chair — which Tomsovic had held. After more debate and a request for a recount, Cristwell suggested consulting the chapter bylaws, which they found had not been updated in five years.
The outdated bylaws did not recognize the social chair as an official position within the sorority, so the position, along with many others that were not recognized in the bylaws, was thrown out by default.
The action felt like a hollow victory to members who advocated for Tomsovic’s removal.
The next steps
Following the chapter meeting with national officers, Schwalls said energies in the chapter shifted from reformation to reflection.
“I went to bed that night feeling so beat down, and I woke up the next morning and thought, ‘There's no way that we can do this. You can't change an institution whose leaders and structure will not allow you to reform it,’” Schwalls said of the meeting.
After multiple Zoom meetings, a group of current and former Gamma Sigma Sigma sisters decided to start over and create a new service society in which they could have local control.
Their new community service society, Chi Zeta, is open to all genders at UGA. Schwalls, who is acting as interim president, said members of Gamma Sigma Sigma can skip the recruitment process and automatically become members of Chi Zeta until the end of the year.
The group created a diversity and inclusion chair, a designated position for supporting inclusivity initiatives, said Sabrina Haider, a sophomore at UGA and member of Chi Zeta.
“Gamma Sigma Sigma did not have a diversity and inclusivity chair. Based on recent events, a lot of the founding members thought it would be a really good idea to have this type of role in our new organization, because we do promote diversity and inclusivity. And we want all UGA students to know,” Haider said.
The position is currently co-chaired by Haider and Gill.
“I want to make sure that every single person and every single person of color feels like they have someone to go to if another member is showing them discrimination based on their skin color or their background,” Haider said.
For now, Chi Zeta members are working to create the space they always expected from Gamma Sigma Sigma. On March 4, UGA Engagement, Leadership and Service, a department of Student Affairs, officially registered Chi Zeta with UGA’s Involvement Network.
Guthrie and Schwalls transitioned into early alumna status, but many other members, including Priester, left the service sorority altogether. The sorority — founded in 1952 and started at UGA in 1958 — still exists, but membership at UGA declined after the Feb. 9 meeting, according to Schwalls.
Abby Ryder, the president of UGA’s chapter of Gamma Sigma Sigma, said in an email to The Red & Black that the chapter is, “currently working through a transition of officers” and will be reviewing and revising chapter bylaws with the help of members.
“We are moving forward while re-focusing on the ideals of service, friendship, and equality,” Ryder said in the email.
Priester said her overall experience with the blog posts was painful, but she found comfort in seeing the number of women who took a stand against the contents of Tomsovic’s blog post.
“I think that overall reaction just showed how important that whole topic and those ideas were to a lot of the members of Gamma Sig,” Priester said. “Just to see that this wasn't something that they would stand for, and that they weren't going to be affiliated with a group that wouldn't take the action that we felt needed to be taken.”