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.
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.”
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.”
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.”