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UM fraternity in legal fight after admitting women, non-binary members

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Stephanie Stoneback was a sophomore at the University of Michigan when a member of Sigma Phi invited her to pledge the fraternity, whose members at the time were mostly men.

Stoneback accepted and became part of Michigan Sigma Phi's fall 2016 pledge class, which included five men and four other women. The unusual move came after a fraternity member who was male began to identify as a woman while rushing and pledging the fraternity earlier that year. Another member began to identify as non-binary, meaning their gender identity did not fit male or female.

"It did feel sort of like we were pioneering something," said Stoneback, who served as president of the fraternity from 2017-18. "But honestly, it really just felt like I was joining a group of friends."

The Sigma Phi house for the University of Michigan chapter in Ann Arbor.

Since then, Michigan Sigma Phi has initiated dozens of others members who are not men and have taken up the cause of gender inclusivity in a fraternity, according to Stoneback.

Sigma Phi Society — the New York-based national organization that touts itself as the oldest Greek fraternity in the country — is now attempting to sever ties with the UM fraternity in a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

At a hearing Thursday before U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, a lawyer for the UM fraternity will argue for the judge to lift a preliminary injunction issued Oct. 23 that ordered the chapter to stop using the fraternity's name and its Greek letters.

Sigma Phi Society said the UM fraternity members' actions are causing harm to the national organization and its trademarks, used in commerce since 1920.

"National Sigma Phi has suffered irreparable harm to the valuable Trademarks, including infringement and dilution thereof, and to National Sigma Phi’s image, identity, and goodwill," said the lawsuit.

While the lawsuit is steeped in arguments around issues of trademark, it raises a host of questions, including whether women should be allowed to join a fraternity on a college campus, and what happens when a fraternity member is a man who transitions to a woman, or is nonbinary.

It is not clear how many other fraternities across the nation initiate people who are not men. But Todd Shelton, spokesman for the North American Interfraternity Conference, called Michigan Sigma Phi's actions "atypical."

"We do believe students are best served by a broad range of student organizations on campus — including both single-sex and co-ed — and organizations should set their own membership criteria," Shelton said. "Nationally, over a quarter million students choose to enjoy a positive and enriching single-sex fraternity experience which best fits their needs."

The legal battle also comes as many fraternities across the country have been the subject of negative news involving sexual assault, excessive alcohol use and hazing, said David Nacht, a lawyer representing Michigan Sigma Phi.

"These are progressive University of Michigan fraternity members," said Nacht. "That is not a phrase you hear often. These are people who are standing up for civil rights, inclusion and gender equality. And we just want to give them a right to do so and have a voice."

Dinsmore & Shohl, the law firm for Sigma Phi Society, declined to comment.

But within one of the court filings, the society's lawyers wrote: "In a nutshell, Defendants want to continue to operate as a Sigma Phi Chapter, identify as a Sigma Phi Chapter, and use the Trademarks — without following the rules. Respectfully, Defendants cannot have it both ways."

After the first five women were initiated in Michigan Sigma Phi in 2016, the fraternity decided it needed to be gender inclusive, as membership was dwindling, the fraternity was struggling to find people to live in the rooms in the house, and finances were low, according to a response to the lawsuit.

"The shift to gender-inclusivity reignited interest in the organization," lawyers for Michigan Sigma Phi said in response to the lawsuit.

During summer 2017, Michigan Sigma Phi attempted to try and amend the constitution and bylaws of Sigma Phi Society so each chapter could decide its membership. The UM chapter won the support of the fraternity chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, according to lawyers responding to the lawsuit.

A 60-day notice to active members and alumni was required before the vote, and the UM fraternity learned the best way to do that was through the fraternity's national publication but the notice was "mysteriously delayed" and "the proposal was not noticed in time," according to the chapter's response to the lawsuit.

The UM fraternity continued to oppose gender-based discrimination, elected Stoneback as the president and resumed efforts to amend the constitution and by-laws of the national fraternity, the chapter said in its filing.

"At the 2019 General Convention, the female members of Michigan Sigma Phi were not allowed to participate or even allowed into the room during the Convention’s meeting, and the proposal was not placed before the General Convention for a vote," the response to the lawsuit said.

But the lawsuit says that during its 2019 national convention, Sigma Phi Society voted on motions brought by Michigan Sigma Phi. 

The society affirmed it is an all-male organization, that its constitution does not allow females to join, and that it would not amend the document to let women become members, the suit says, adding that Michigan Sigma Phi violated the rules and permitted women to join and live in the fraternity house.

After the convention, Michigan Sigma Phi lost permission to use the trademark fraternity letters and insurance for the fraternity house in October 2019, according to the lawsuit. But the fraternity continued to use the Greek letters, the suit says.

The national fraternity sent a cease and desist letter to the UM chapter in December 2019, telling Michigan Sigma Phi that "no gatherings, parties, events, rush, pledge events, or any other activities of any kind or nature are to occur using the name Sigma Phi, the Greek letters of Sigma and Phi, or any other intellectual property of Sigma Phi anywhere on or off the University of Michigan campus,” according to the lawsuit.

But Michigan Sigma Phi continue to operate without liability insurance coverage, "subjecting both its members and National Sigma Phi to undue exposure."

Days after the 2019 cease-and-desist letter, Michigan Sigma Phi's then-president, Anthony Cece, reportedly complied and covered up the Sigma Phi letters on the fraternity house. Soon after, Cece, along with other board members of the fraternity, resigned, according to the lawsuit.

Cece did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The national fraternity learned that Michigan Sigma Phi began using the fraternity's name again without complying with the fraternity's constitution, the lawsuit said.

The chairman of National Sigma Phi met with leaders of Michigan Sigma Phi between February and July of 2020, but the fraternity continues to use the fraternity's trademarks, according to the lawsuit.

UM is home to 17 social fraternities represented by the university's Interfraternity Council. Michigan Sigma Phi, founded at UM in 1858, previously was a member of the university's IFC but left in the early 2000s, Stoneback said.

Stoneback — who lived for 2 1/2 years in the fraternity house at 907 Lincoln Ave. and is an alumna working for a publishing company in New York —  remains active on the fraternity's alumni board and supports the chapter's stance.

"It is my view the majority of the alumni and the undergraduates … would like to support gender inclusivity," said Stoneback. "I believe our will is being thwarted by the national organization through a suit that is using trademark laws but is about something a little different."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com