The Sigma Phi chapter at the University of Michigan is being sued by its national headquarters for admitting female and non-binary members into the traditionally male fraternity.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Oct. 20, claims the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi continued to use Sigma Phi’s trademarks for fundraising and merchandise purposes after the chapter was cut off from the national organization for admitting female and non-binary members.
The complaint alleges that the national organization sent the University’s chapter a cease-and-desist letter in December 2019 that the University’s chapter agreed to abide by.
Sigma Phi’s General Convention, the organization’s governing body, voted to deny a motion to allow female members at the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi in September 2019.
“As to whether the Constitution, as written, permitted females to join Sigma Phi, the General Convention voted ‘No,’” the complaint reads.
In an interview with The Daily, David Nacht, the lawyer representing the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi, said the chapter has been informally cut off from the national organization’s resources but not de-chartered. For the chapter to be officially de-chartered, the national organization would need to pass a vote in its other student chapters and its alumni chapters, Nacht said.
The leadership from the national organization, Sigma Phi Society, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
The University’s chapter of Sigma Phi filed a brief on Oct. 28 arguing the chapter is still allowed to use Sigma Phi trademarks because the chapter is still chartered, a sentiment that LSA senior Theodore Zangoulas, the chapter president, emphasized.
“We maintain that unless our charter is revoked by (Sigma Phi Society), which it has not been, that we have the right as a chapter of Sigma Phi to use the trademark Sigma Phi,” Zangoulas said.
The University’s chapter of Sigma Phi was founded in 1858, while Sigma Phi Society’s trademarks have been used in commerce since 1920. Nacht said there is disagreement over whether the national Sigma Phi organization even has control of the trademark because of the time gap.
According to the national organization’s complaint, the national organization revoked insurance coverage for the University’s chapter.
“Michigan Sigma Phi… (continues) to operate without liability insurance coverage, subjecting both its members and National Sigma Phi to undue exposure,” the complaint reads.
Zangoulas disputed this, saying that the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi has purchased third-party liability insurance.
Denise Page Hood, U.S. district court chief judge, heard oral arguments from both parties Thursday. She plans to issue a written opinion this week.
The University’s chapter of Sigma Phi first started admitting women and non-binary members in 2016, according to Zangoulas. He said the decision came about after an initiated member later came out to the fraternity as transgender.
“I think that really sparked the members at the time to say, ‘Why are we discriminating on the basis of gender?’” Zangoulas said. “And so, in 2016, the first gender-inclusive pledge class was brought in.”
Nacht praised the chapter for taking the progressive position of admitting female and non-binary members.
“Fraternities often are accused of engaging in bad conduct,” Nacht said. “This particular fraternity, my client, is a leader in civil rights. This case is very important because in overstepping their bounds, (the national Sigma Phi organization) has waded into a storm in which supporters of a less discriminatory approach to fraternity membership will be galvanized with their cause.”
LSA junior Hannah Winkler, who manages media relations for the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi, said her experience as a female member of Sigma Phi is similar to that of a member of any other gender. The only difference comes with dealing with alumni and not being able to attend the national convention, Winkler said.
Winkler said the University’s chapter of Sigma Phi is a diverse group of friends of all genders.
“I feel like I’ve gained a lot more from being in a co-ed environment than I would from being in a sorority,” Winkler said. “Having a gender-inclusive space creates a better environment for learning about yourself and the world and discovering who you are and who other people are.”
Winkler said the response from the national Sigma Phi organization is misogynistic.
“It’s just another instance of them trying to kind of exclude women from this organization that I’ve been a part of for two and a half years now,” Winkler said. “It’s really just another attempt from (the national organization) to stop women from being part of their little boys’ club.”
In 1956, Williams College’s chapter of Sigma Phi began admitting Black men. At the time, the national Sigma Phi organization threatened to revoke the Williams College chapter’s affiliation but reversed course after community pushback.
Nacht and Zangoulas both drew parallels between the threat against the Williams College chapter in the 1950s and the current suit against the University’s chapter.
“We’ve never tried to make any other chapter be co-ed and ultimately, the definition of what a fraternity is has changed over time,” Zangoulas said. “There was a period of time where a lot of fraternities didn’t allow African Americans to be members. We’ve noticed a lot of parallels between those arguments and the arguments you see today.”
Zangoulas said admitting women and non-binary members is a necessary step for the organization.
“We have a maxim in Sigma Phi which is ‘lead or die,” Zangoulas said. “We would rather lead this organization into the future, and we see the future of this organization, or at least our chapter, as being co-ed.”
Daily Staff Reporter Jared Dougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.