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Inside the Queer-Centric Frat That Dared to Question What a Frat Even Is

Students say the University of Michigan’s Sigma Phi chapter is a vital, lifesaving space, and that going all-gender was the obvious thing to do. The national organization responded by suing them.

Inside the Queer-Centric Frat That Dared to Question What a Frat Even Is

Having grown up in northern Michigan, Theo Zangoulas was no stranger to cold winters. Still, despite the freezing temperatures, he was dressed in his favorite outfit: black jeans, a flannel shirt, black leather boots and a leather motorcycle jacket. He left his chin-length blond hair down, as he often did, framing his face. It was early December 2018 at the University of Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor. The air was frigid and still, noise muffled by the snow-packed edges of the buildings and roads. Theo was meeting a friend for a show at the Sigma Phi fraternity house, and he wasn’t sure what to expect.

Theo, a shy sophomore, had no intention of joining Greek life. He had known that he was queer since he was 13, but due to his conservative upbringing had yet to come out publicly. His perception of fraternities was consistent with what movies and media had long portrayed: environments where, as he puts it, “straight dudes hung out and played beer pong.” But he was drawn by the music, excited to see a band he’d never seen before, curious enough to take a chance.

The house at 907 Lincoln Avenue appeared deceptively small from the street. Theo paused, unsure where to go. It was so quiet, he wondered if he was in the right place. “I actually remember standing outside on the sidewalk,” he says, “unsure if I was even going to go inside.” Still, he walked up to the front of the house. When no one answered the front door, Theo shuffled along the icy driveway to the back. Navigating his way to a propped-open door, he was glad to find some people sitting behind a plastic folding table nearby.

Theo’s hands were cold and gloveless as he handed them his student ID, noting a tarp blocking views of the rest of the house. A beat-up metal colander rested on the table with a sign suggesting a $5 donation for the band. Straight ahead, he saw a staircase descending into the basement, and he followed it down, becoming enveloped in what he describes as “a warm blanket of sound.”

Frat members performing a cover set at a house party, 2017. (Photo by Joseph Xu, courtesy of Sigma Phi alumni)

Anxious and out of breath, Theo scanned the room, taking in the scene. He was surprised, and relieved, to see it was very much not a bunch of straight dudes hanging around playing beer pong. The space was large but intimate, with wood paneling on the walls and white Christmas lights strung along the floor. A few students were standing around a built-in bar piled with band merch instead of alcohol. “It was definitely very obvious that the people around me were punks,” Theo says. “Lots of black, probably more than a couple pairs of Doc Martens in the room. Probably some blue hair, some piercings, some leather jackets, you know, things like that.”

Theo stood alone, nervously waiting for his friend, not yet aware of what he now calls “punk time,” the shared understanding that everything starts at least half an hour late. “It took a lot of convincing to get myself to actually go inside,” he recalls, “and a lot more convincing to get myself to actually talk to people once I was inside.”

His friend eventually joined him as the show was starting. After enjoying the music for a while, they wandered up a spiral staircase to “the great room” where a group of people sat together talking, smoking and drinking. Three couches in the shape of a U framed a boarded-up fireplace with a large television above it, playing a loop of odd and offbeat YouTube videos. “I was pretty much immediately struck by, like, what is this place?” Theo remembers thinking to himself. “It’s a giant house with a bunch of punk kids running around, and queer kids.”

Theo can’t quite describe what made him know immediately how queer Michigan’s Sigma Phi chapter was — there weren’t pride flags on the walls or any specific tip-offs. “Knowing a place or person is queer really is like a weird sixth sense in a way,” he says, “and it’s hard to describe that to people who aren’t queer.”

Theo Zangoulas (center), outside the house after a party.

The night became a blur of alcohol and mischief, running around with friends, listening to the band, and meeting new people. The air smelled like old cigarettes, and odd posters hung on the walls, each with a blown-up, grainy, black-and-white photo of a frat brother’s face with “SIGS ARE SICK, GO AWAY” typed in capital letters across it. Where exactly that saying came from, no one seemed exactly sure.

“I remember going all over the house and it being kind of a maze and just being like, wow, this place is crazy,” he recalls. “There are hallways going every which way.” As he crossed between a hallway lined with brick on one side and floor-to-ceiling glass on the other, Theo acutely felt the juxtaposition of two worlds. Peering through the glass, he saw an icy courtyard surrounded by the walls of the frat building. Outside, the sky was December dark, winter pushing itself into the panes. He caught glimpses into the rooms across the courtyard, their windows filled with light and people. Inside, the noise and chaos of a community in motion seemed to make the warm, brightly lit rooms of the house even more welcoming than they already were.

Theo kept returning. First for more shows and parties, and eventually for rush events and to pledge. It was at a Sigma Phi party one month later that he first kissed another guy in public. Eyeing him from across the room, Theo recalls the guy wearing something flashy, a sparkly crop top maybe. Kissing him seemed surprisingly natural. Theo describes the moment as rooted less in confronting queerness and more about the thrill of discovering a crush, then acting on it, just like so many other college kids before him. He says, “You know when you see somebody and then you’re like, oh, they’re kind of cute, and then you finally kind of seal the deal?”

Later though, the impact of that kiss felt more significant. “That was kind of a big moment, because it was like, I kissed a guy at a party in the basement and nobody cared, and it was fine,” he says. “I think that the frat was one of the first places where I was able to be myself in public.”

At the Sigma Phi house, Theo was fully immersed in a culture in which being outside the norm was not only welcomed but celebrated. The house — and the people inside it — made Theo feel as if he had entered a separate and protected space. He is one of many students who describe the University of Michigan’s Sigma Phi house as the first place they felt that kind of safety and acceptance. And notably, those students are not all men. Unlike the vast majority of fraternities and sororities at colleges around the nation, people of all genders have pledged here. Everyone is referred to as “brothers,” as the members feel no need to distinguish between those they consider family.

“The most important thing I feel exists at our chapter is that our community is exceptionally queer,” says Amanda Vogel, a bisexual woman who joined the frat her sophomore year. “We used to joke that as a chapter we could count on one hand the number of members who were straight.”

For Amanda, becoming part of Sigma Phi was a catalyst for her own evolution toward becoming more comfortable with her true self. “It was as a brother where I first began to recognize my sexuality and felt encouraged to do so,” she says. “My gender expression, interests and worldview have all become more colorful and open because of my time there.”

Although being queer is of course not a requirement for joining Michigan’s Sigma Phi chapter, it is a rare and precious thing to find a space within traditional Greek life that openly welcomes people of all genders and sexualities as members. For Amanda, it was an experience she continues to treasure. “I can remember sitting on a couch we had moved into the dining room for one of these nights, listening to ‘Flamingo’ by Kero Kero Bonito over our PA system, watching all of my brothers dance together and sing,” she says. “I wish I had the words to express the profound love and pride I still feel toward those moments. Scanning any of these parties, you would see a room full of visibly queer people who are all learning and growing and shaping the way they face the world together. It felt so raw and so important to recognize that what we were doing did not exist anywhere else in the world at the time.”

“It was the first place in my life where I witnessed queer people dressing in any way that suited them. Skirts on men and suits on lesbians, a rainbow skirt on my brother Lily and a fur coat with pearls on another,” Amanda says. “I used to cry at these parties, watching my brothers dance, because I knew what we had was entirely unique.”

Most Greek life societies are built around the assumption that there are two genders — male and female — and that creating separate spaces is imperative for connection, growth and community. The model is foundationally designed around the idea that being cisgender (when a person’s gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth) and heterosexual is the default. While there is nothing inherently harmful about preserving single-gender spaces for those that desire them, the multitude of issues that spawn from allowing outdated stereotypes to govern how we interact as a society can be damaging.

The evolution of this new kind of frat at Michigan comes as many young people are moving beyond the gender binary, and also as universities across the country grapple with debates about whether traditional Greek life is a positive or negative force on campus.

Sigma Phi pledge class of 2018 and friends party together.

The Abolish Greek Life movement, started anonymously by students at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer of 2020, attempted to spark a national outcry related to the ways in which queerphobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ableism and sexual violence are often perpetuated within the culture of Greek life nationwide. Individual universities have taken steps to suspend or dismantle specific Greek life societies, often following incidents of violence or trauma. At other schools, such as Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, fraternities have opted to disband themselves.

Some colleges have responded to the question of gender inclusivity and safety within Greek life by creating new societies that are coed from the start. In 2011, a group of students at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, started Eta Pi, a fully gender-inclusive Greek society. Other Greek life organizations, such as University of Pennsylvania’s chapter of Pi Lambda Phi (better known within the community as “Pilam”) have approached the issue by incorporating unofficial nonmale members into their society, which one member described as “honorary female members.” And at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, where all students are required to live in university-approved housing, the administration itself has required all residential fraternities to shift to a gender-inclusive model.

Those invested in improving and supporting Greek life rather than banning it are grappling with the question of how best to respond. The problem has less to do with Greek life overall and more to do with what Greek societies are expected and encouraged to reinforce, despite a desire to evolve.

Sigma Phi members celebrating the last show of their house band, Bonzo, before the members graduated and moved away, 2017.

“When I first got to college, I never dreamed of joining a Greek life organization … structurally, I think it is constructed to foster harmful environments,” says Jill Choi, a queer, nonbinary student who rushed Sigma Phi the winter of their sophomore year.

Jill says that for them, joining Sigma Phi offered them a new experience, one that they felt they had missed out on in high school. “Before I joined Sigma Phi, I didn’t have many friends⁠. I was the kind of kid who spent most of their time on Tumblr instead of actually socializing,” they say. “I started high school in the middle of the school year because I have a chronic illness and was bedridden for a while, so I didn’t have any friends going into school. I was pretty much an outcast at school — I was not only ‘alt’ in a weird, alienating way instead of a cool or interesting way, but I also missed school frequently due to my poor health.”

Although uncertain about joining Sigma Phi at first, Jill says that once they became more immersed in the fraternity’s world, things changed quickly for them: “When I gave it a shot, I was certain I would make friends there. We all listened to the same music and shared common interests and views, which were aspects of a community that I sorely lacked before. These were people who I felt I could relate to, who I felt comfortable around, who I could grow with.”

“So many people there were visibly queer,” Jill says, “I was just like, okay, I can tell this is not the really heteronormative, patriarchal society that one would associate with a frat.”

Now graduated, Amanda continues to advocate for the importance of spaces like Sigma Phi. “I used to tell my friends and family that yes, there are traditional fraternities and sororities that exist,” she says, “but where would all the queer people go for a social organization experience?”

Michigan’s Sigma Phi chapter was founded in March 1858, and in many ways it has always been an alternative to traditional Greek life. Dr. John E. Gunning, who was initiated in the fall of 1966, says that the brothers at Sigma Phi “were unique and different from the other houses I rushed and were accepting of a broad range of interests in individuals.” His brothers’ interests and careers included “engineers, architects, an accomplished musician and band leader — who led us to first place in the fraternity-sorority singing competition at Hill auditorium” among many other things. Dr. Gunning says that Sigma Phi, unlike many other fraternities, “did not seek to convey a ‘macho’ image.”

Dr. Gunning has remained involved with Michigan’s Sigma Phi chapter and is currently the secretary of the chapter’s alumni board.

Dr. John Gunning, bottom row – right, and the Sigma Phi class of 1966. (Image courtesy of Dr. John Gunning)

The chapter remained open only to men until the fall of 2016, when what began as a gradual culture shift became an intentional change. Three years before that, in around 2013, active members began asking whether it might sense to open the pledging process to anyone. Although people of all genders were welcome at the house and were part of their community, the members decided to hold off on making any official changes for the time being.

When Steph Stoneback first visited the fraternity in 2015, she was drawn to the community’s diversity and surprised to find that it was only open to men. “I didn’t even realize it was an all-male society,” Steph says. “When I was going there, I just always saw all kinds of people at the house at the social events. I didn’t know that the only people that lived there were men.”

Steph is eloquent and thoughtful, with long brown hair, metal cat’s-eye glasses and an easy laugh. She speaks earnestly about her love for her fellow Sigma Phi brothers and the impact that the fraternity had on her life. Following her parents’ difficult divorce during her high school years, Steph often felt isolated and without a place that felt familiar. “I didn’t have a total sense of home, especially after my dad moved out of the house that I grew up in,” she says. “And then my mom moved into a different house, and I never really moved into either of those places. I never had my childhood bedroom that I would always go to. I think the frat really was that place for me. Once I went to college, I never wanted to leave.”

Early in the spring of 2016, something happened that made the all-gender question one that Sigma Phi could no longer push down the road: An active member who had been assigned male at birth began transitioning. The actives were immediately supportive and accepting of the individual and wanted to create an environment that felt safe for her. “Everyone was very accepting of her from the get-go,” Steph says.

Steph says that the member’s gender transition was a significant catalyst for the changes that came afterward, during a time in which the house “really took a look at their membership.”

The following fall, the head of house opened the pledging process to all genders. Overall, there was little conflict within the fraternity surrounding this change. While that decision might seem momentous to an outsider, for most members of the Michigan chapter of Sigma Phi, it felt like the natural next step in a process that had long been in the works. For a community that had spent years creating an inclusive and alternative space, becoming coed was simply another way of encouraging members and pledges to show up unapologetically as their full and authentic selves.

Gathering in the house’s backyard for a bonfire, 2019.

While the member who transitioned that year was an alum by the time Amanda was an active member, several other members have transitioned in recent years. “Accepting trans people was a nonissue during my time at the house,” says Amanda. “There was never a question of their belonging in our house. Many brothers transitioned during my time as an active, and it was celebrated and loved. I never felt a shred of doubt that my trans brothers belonged in the house, and they made the frat so much more than what the house was without them.”

Steph was one of five women in the first coed pledge class, which also included five men. “I saw people beyond their gender,” she says. “Obviously gender is really important, and our identities shape how we interact with experiences, but the authenticity of the relationships in that house made it feel like you were just welcomed, and these were just your friends, and you were just talking to them.”

Another woman in that first coed class was Lily Stackable, who agrees that the decision to allow all genders to become active members felt completely natural: “It really just happened organically for us in a way that the people that are active now could not imagine a house that was all male.”

Both Lily and Steph — like Theo and Jill — did not originally intend to join Greek life. But when presented with the opportunity to be part of a gender-inclusive space, they changed their minds. Lily, who met Steph while pledging, grew up in Traverse City, Michigan. She is a firecracker — small, blonde, quick witted and funny, a good balance to Steph’s grounded calm. Steph and Lily have remained close since pledging Sigma Phi. Steph describes Lily as “an agent of chaos” and an “insanely badass sidekick who is way smarter and has cooler powers.” In high school, most of Lily’s friends were guys. The idea of being part of a community that was made up entirely of women wasn’t something she was comfortable with. “That seemed very claustrophobic and not very natural to me,” she says.

But not everyone shared the comfort that the active members felt regarding gender inclusivity.

In October 2020, the National Sigma Phi organization filed a lawsuit against Michigan’s chapter. The lawsuit claims trademark infringement, stating that Michigan’s chapter violated the terms of the constitution and bylaws when they admitted women to the fraternity. National’s position is that the terms of the bylaws state that Sigma Phi is an all-male society, and that admitting other genders is against those terms. Michigan, however, is arguing that the constitution refers to individuals and that assuming that applies only to one gender is a false interpretation. While legally this is a question of whether Michigan’s chapter has the right to use Sigma Phi’s intellectual property, such as the name and Greek symbols, there is perhaps a bigger dispute beneath that in the question of whether gender changes the integrity and cohesion of a society. For members of the Michigan chapter who have shared their thoughts here, becoming gender inclusive has only further reinforced what they already loved about Sigma Phi. For others, particularly many of those in an older generation, the admittance of all genders is seen as a violation.

Lawsuits related to gender inclusivity within Greek life are not unique to Michigan, as other universities have faced similar challenges. At Wesleyan University, following the administration’s request that all residential fraternities become gender inclusive, one of their fraternities sued the university in response, claiming the request was discriminatory. The university reached a settlement in March of 2022, seven years after the lawsuit was first filed.

The national Sigma Phi organization’s position was disappointing to Michigan members who had found a home in the chapter. For Theo and others, Sigma Phi had created a place where they were able to be themselves within a community for the first time. “I don’t think I fully understood just how important the idea of a found family was,” Theo says. “It really made me lean into the frat.”

Steph became head of house in the fall of 2017, the year after the chapter started admitting women. Sometimes referred to as “house manager” in other societies, the head of house facilitates meetings, delegates tasks, and is a liaison between the chapter and the local alum board. She became the “mom” of the house, while also juggling the regular demands of college life. Steph’s steadiness, kind face and deep appreciation for her Sigma Phi brothers made the role an easy fit.

Lily also found stability within the frat that she hadn’t been able to find otherwise. She struggles with anxiety and depression, and during her freshmen year, things became increasingly difficult when her stepmom, whom she is very close with, was diagnosed with cancer. She says, “It was hard being away from my family while she was going through treatments.”

Illustration © Ryan Raphael

Sigma Phi offered her a space where she felt she could always return. “I knew no matter what happened at school or with anyone else, I could go home and go hang out with Steph in our room and it would be okay,” she says.

For Lily, the Sigma Phi fraternity was also a place where people could be as weird as they wanted to be. She hosted “bug wars” there, collecting two different bugs from the dustiest corners of the house and placing them in a glass jar together, while everyone gathered around to watch them fight, cheering for their favorite contestant. (“Ants always win,” she says definitively.)

House members speak fondly about the time Jack Kim, who is from South Korea and often didn’t leave campus for the holidays, walked several miles on Thanksgiving to get groceries to make a meal for those without anywhere else to go. Unable to drive and without a car, legend says he hiked to Trader Joe’s in the snow and then walked all the way back carrying a large, heavy turkey. Then there was the night they threw a “Satan party” before an alum barbecue, with a giant pentagram spray-painted on a tarp they hung outside. That is, until an enthusiastic and intoxicated member brought it inside and laid it face down in the dining room. The next morning, when members tried to remove the tarp, they found that the humongous pentagram had stained the floor. Frantically working to erase the mark before the alumni arrived, Steph and Lily rushed to the store for scrubbing supplies.

“Honestly, to this day, if you remove the entire table, there’s kind of a light spot …” Lily says, laughing. She trails off and Steph finishes for her: “a whisper.” (A whisper, that is, of a gigantic red pentagram.)

A poster depicting the pentagram that was part of a past pledge project that stained the house’s wooden floor.

Another key part of pledging is the class project. Before initiation, each pledge member presents something that they have created to the rest of the fraternity — a piece of art, a performance, a speech, something significant they have done or made as a gesture of their commitment to the frat and their growth as an individual. Some people keep their projects relatively straightforward; others go all out.

Lily collected more than 50 forks from the dining hall, stealing a few each day, convincing other pledges to assist her in the endeavor. She stuck them to a giant cardboard box or canvas (she can’t remember exactly which) and spray-painted it gold. Another pledge painted a rendition of a giant toilet and named it “La Toilet,” which is still hanging in a bathroom at the house. Yet another cocreated a swing for the yard, highlighting the importance of having solo time within a busy community. Then there was the infamous day of the ranch performance art, when a pledge class member stripped down to his boxers and poured giant five-gallon buckets of ranch dressing all over himself. He rubbed the ranch in his hair and around his body, filling the room with dressing.

“I feel like one thing you don’t think about is how much that smells,” Lily said. “The smell is pungent.”

Some ran out of the room, puking in the front yard. Others were shouting and laughing. The pledge thought he had prepared for any errors by taping garbage bags down so that the carpet wouldn’t get ruined. But the ranch seeped through the seams, and if you look in the right spot, you can still see a stain. “I think his purpose was kind of like, he came to the house, and he found it as a space where he could be himself,” says Lily. “And so he wanted to do something crazy. Everybody there accepted him for the person who he is. And so he was like, so I want to do this crazy thing.”

Since unabashed self-expression is key to what makes Michigan’s Sigma Phi so special, Theo took the pledge class project as an opportunity to try out the version of himself he’d been cultivating since discovering the fraternity.

One night in April, the group sat around the U-shaped dining room table, a treasured item and one of the few things that survived when the fraternity moved from its first house to the current one in 1964. It’s the place where pledge class members learn important Sigma Phi songs, taking advantage of the room’s terrific acoustics. Theo leapt into action, dressed in drag: a button-down-flannel-turned-belly-shirt, some bright red lipstick, and an old mop thrown over his shoulder. He jumped up on the table and began to perform Dolly Parton’s “Working Girl” while everyone cheered and clapped.

The performance took everyone by surprise, even Theo. He wasn’t out to many of the members at the time. Others described him as nice but initially very shy and quiet when he would come to the house. He laughs remembering how surprised people seemed. He recounts how Amanda, whom he is now close with but didn’t know well at the time, later told him, “I was so confused — I thought you were straight. And I was like, why is this straight guy doing bad drag?”

Halfway through the song, Theo realized that he hadn’t planned what he was going to do for its entirety. He remembers thinking, “Wow this song is way longer than I thought it was.”

For everyone else though, the performance wasn’t long enough. Theo was showing up as his true self: charismatic, funny, compassionate — and queer. “I felt like that was a turning point where he just came out of his shell,” Lily reflects. “After that he was loud and I don’t know, it was just like a new Theo. All of a sudden, he was the way he is now.”

Steph says similarly, “It was so funny, everyone was like, what? Just so special. And from then on, he just never left the house. I swear he was there every day for weeks. Like, he felt so accepted and loved and celebrated and it was just, it was a beautiful moment.”

Illustration © Ryan Raphael

Still, while becoming part of Sigma Phi was incredibly affirming, it could not completely take away the distress Theo was facing elsewhere. Coming out to his parents, especially his dad, was a persistent fear. “That was the thing that I had really, really feared since I was 13 or 14 when I started to grapple with my sexuality,” says Theo.

When Theo first started attending the University of Michigan, he struggled to confront not only the harmful societal messages that he, like many queer folks, had received throughout his life but also his own negative internal messages. “It was just one of those things where you’re sort of untraining yourself from years and years and years,” he says.

Just a few weeks after that first visit to Sigma Phi in December, Theo met up with his parents for Christmas break. Without much preplanning, Theo came out to his mom in the guest room at his aunt’s house, and he was relieved when she was kind and ultimately supportive. Then she asked the question Theo had been dreading: Was he going to tell his dad?

Theo knew his dad would likely be hostile and unsupportive, and he feared his reaction. Theo’s mother agreed to keep it between them for now. Theo returned to school and began pledging. Within Sigma Phi, he was exploring who he wanted to become. Outside of that circle, he was struggling more and more with depression, anxiety and panic.

Two months later, in February 2019, Theo’s depression reached an unprecedented level. One morning, having divulged how much he was struggling to his mom, she asked whether he would feel better if he told his dad he was queer. Theo agreed and got off the phone. Hours later, his dad called. When his mother told his dad Theo wanted to talk, he asked if Theo was gay. Unsure what to say, his mother acquiesced, and watched as his dad picked up the phone. Theo’s dad’s response was exactly as Theo had feared it would be. “I just remember him saying, ‘We’ll fix this,’” Theo says, shaking his head back and forth.

Steph Stoneback and Lily Stackable (back row, second and third from right) with friends after a party at the house.

In March, Theo’s parents visited again and had a long and excruciating conversation with Theo about his sexuality and his dad’s lack of acceptance. Theo left feeling despondent and afraid, as if nothing would change. He kept asking himself, “Am I going to just have to come to terms with the fact that I might have lost my family?”

By April, even as he performed his Dolly Parton drag and became initiated into the frat, things outside of Sigma Phi became unbearable. Theo was failing classes and struggling to keep up with his schoolwork. He felt alone and trapped. A week before finals, he woke up one day and couldn’t get out of bed. Anticipating a future in which his dad continued to reject him, he had lost all hope.

Depression plays by its own rules and often is the loudest voice in the room, even when there are other, kinder voices around. That day, Theo’s depression was louder than anything else he could hear.

On April 23, 2019, Theo tried to take his own life. He was hospitalized for several days in a mental health unit where he received care and stabilization. “It was pretty much my rock-bottom moment,” he says.

In a small private hospital room flooded with florescent overhead lights, Theo and his parents sat together and tried to confront the conflict between them, their physical positioning epitomizing their painful divide. “I was sitting on one side of the room,” Theo recalls, “my mom was sitting across from me, and then my dad was kind of further away, at the far end of the room.”

Theo was clear and direct with his dad about the impact of his queerphobia. “There was lots of fighting and lots of tears, and my dad had a very, very hard time because I just flat out told him you are largely responsible for this,” says Theo.

Those conversations didn’t solve everything, but they allowed Theo to be honest and work toward a future where he was able to affirm himself without shame. After he was discharged, Theo began the work that so many of us must do — finding ways to listen to the softer, kinder voices within us, instead of the ones that yell.

Theo felt he’d been given a second chance to create the life he wanted. “I really felt like I had been knocked down to rubble and I could rebuild,” he says.

For many members of Sigma Phi, the frat offers a refuge and a chance to experience a community that sticks together through hard times.

Emma R. (left) and Jill Choi (right) during a mock marriage at the house 2020.

“It was a house where people had a lot of trauma,” Steph says. “We were all able to relate to each other but not make it a spectacle. It was always something that was an unspoken thing. Like we’re just going to protect each other and support each other.”

Now a high school teacher and vice president of the Michigan chapter’s alum board, Steph credits the fraternity with giving her the skills she needed to become confident in her career. “Knowing how to just be a calm presence that everyone can trust, being able to both set high expectations for your community and be like, ‘This is what we have to do, you guys need to show up and do it,’ but still have compassion for them at the same time and still be a warm person — that is something that I use all the time in teaching,” she says.

Lily now lives in Lansing, Michigan, with her boyfriend, who was also a Sigma Phi member. She works as an accelerated engineer.

For individuals who were members of Sigma Phi before it was coed, the frat played just as much of a formative role in their lives. The decision to open the pledge class to all genders did not come from an assumption that it was the only way to do things, or that all Greek societies should do the same. Several Michigan Sigma Phi members expressed their belief that becoming gender inclusive was simply what was needed for the Michigan chapter, not a prescription for the world or other Sigma Phi chapters. Steph says, “Out of a deep love for this society, we think we have to lead it into the future instead of just letting it die or letting it not meet the needs of the students at our particular campus.”

An older alum, who graduated in 2007 and wishes to remain anonymous, says that when the chapter became coed, “My initial reaction was kind of surprised, it’s never something we really talked about when I was there. But then also I was just like — the house is for the actives. It’s really not for me anymore. I got my experience.”

Friends, including Steph Stoneback, third from left, at a house Halloween party, 2018.

Many older alums, especially those affiliated with the national organization, do not share those sentiments. At the time of publication, the lawsuit that was filed in October of 2020 is still ongoing. While the national organization did not respond to our request for an interview, a deposition transcript from January 20, 2022, accessed via publicly available court records, offers some insight into their position. In the transcript, Brendan McCurdy, who has served as chairman of the Sigma Phi Society since 2013, answered a question posed by the Michigan chapter’s lawyer about how women being admitted as members is “diluting the Sigma Phi brand.”

McCurdy responded by saying, “If you go into an auto showroom and want to buy a Cadillac and the guy is selling you a Volkswagen, what does that do to the Cadillac brand? It completely diminishes what a Cadillac is. You’re driving out with a Volkswagen; you’re not driving out with a Cadillac. So, if you want to join Sigma Phi and it’s an all-male institution with a 200-year tradition, and you find out there’s women there, it’s not Sigma Phi, is it? It’s something different. That is how it dilutes the brand.”

While many actives and recent alum are passionately fighting to keep Sigma Phi gender inclusive, they are up against a forceful group of people who want it to be otherwise. (No current students were available for comment, due to the ongoing lawsuit, and the Michigan chapter has paused the formal rush and pledge process while the lawsuit unfolds. The alums who spoke with me emphasized they were sharing their individual experiences and opinions and they were not speaking on behalf of the Michigan Sigma Phi chapter.)

The anonymous 2007 grad, reflecting on what shifted his perspective, recalls something he read on Facebook during one of the many volatile fights within the Sigma Phi groups. The comment said, “If the house has lifesaving potential, why would we want to deny that to anyone?”

When Theo, who graduated in December of 2021, reflects on his college experience, he especially remembers what he calls “the perfect summer,” the months following his suicide attempt when he first moved into 907 Lincoln Avenue. He says, “Joining the frat and that summer, it really felt like, oh, this is the first group of friends that I’ve made where I am really myself.”

Theo’s relationships with other members deepened and he found himself wrapped up in a community he had spent much of his life hoping to find. “By the time I was in high school, I knew I was gay,” he says. “I was very consciously hiding this part of me, which takes a toll on you and … it really made me hold everything … all my friends at arm’s length and never really get too close to anybody.”

Before Sigma Phi, Theo says he always felt that there was “this part of me that was holding something back.”

One hot summer night, Theo and some Sigma Phi brothers piled into Lily’s big black SUV, as they often did in the evening, and headed out to get fast food. The car was old and smelled musty, so they rolled down the windows and blasted music as they drove. It was a beautiful Michigan summer night, and as they rode down Washtenaw Avenue toward town, Theo could see the sky lit with orange and purple colors, fading to dark as the night set in.

Theo Zangoulas (second from left), with friends at a BBQ in the house’s backyard, 2019. (Photos courtesy of Theo Zangoulas, Amanda Vogel, Lily Stackable, Steph Stoneback and Jill Choi.)

For Theo, as for many, Sigma Phi was a house full of strangers that became a home full of brothers. Brothers of all genders who are now a found family, united around the shared values of love, truth, friendship and always allowing yourself to get a little weird. “I had come out of the shadow of being in the closet and then also sort of come out of the shadow of my suicide attempt, and for the first time felt sort of free,” Theo reflects. “Like I could really be who I am.”

With everyone loud and laughing around him, the quiet streets of that first cold winter night felt worlds away. Theo stared out the window, silent and watching. “You know those moments where you just kind of take a step back?” Theo recounts. “You just have a perspective shift all of a sudden?”

“This is it,” he thought to himself in the space between his brothers’ shouts and the music filling the car. “I have friends I love now. I have a place that feels like home.”

PS: Love the artwork on this story? Check out this behind-the-scenes video from illustrator Ryan Raphael on how the magic is made.