Students walk across the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty)
A toxic fraternity, which claims to be one of the oldest in America, is suing a chapter that admitted women and non-binary members for causing “irreparable harm” to its “image”.
In 2016, Stephanie Stoneback was asked to pledge the fraternity Sigma Phi at the University of Michigan, and she accepted. By 2017, she told The Detroit News, she was the fraternity’s president.
Although fraternities typically only admit male members, Michigan Sigma Phi decided to change its rules after one of the people who wanted to join in 2016 came out as a trans woman. Later, another member came out as non-binary.
Stoneback said: “It did feel sort of like we were pioneering something. But honestly, it really just felt like I was joining a group of friends.”
But now, the chapter is facing a lawsuit from the Sigma Phi Society, the national organisation for the fraternity, which believes admitting women and non-binary students is causing “irreparable harm” to its “image”.
The organisation, which claims to be the second-ever Greek fraternal group in the US, said in the lawsuit: “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.”
It is called for the Michigan chapter to no longer be able to use “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”.
“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,” it added. “Respectfully, defendants cannot have it both ways.”
But David Nacht, a lawyer representing Michigan Sigma Phi, said: “These are progressive University of Michigan fraternity members. 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.”
Stoneback, who lived in the fraternity house for more than two years and has now graduated, said that she has heard from other alumni that they support the Michigan chapter.
She said: “It is my view the majority of the alumni and the undergraduates … would like to support gender inclusivity.
“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.”