Breaking with the tradition at many of the nation’s schools, students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School will adopt a gender-neutral homecoming court this year, moving away from the longtime practice of electing a boy as “king” and a girl as “queen.”
Students in each grade will vote for two classmates from a ballot of finalists, with the top vote-getters crowned at the school’s homecoming football game. It’s a change that means those honored at halftime on Oct. 7 could include two boys, two girls, transgender students or a boy-girl duo.
“It provides an opportunity for all students to be involved in something that was exclusionary,” said Jacob Rains, president of the schoolwide Student Government Association. “It is really not our job, especially with a gender-neutral and transgender population at B-CC, to tell people that boys have to be kings and girls have to be queens. Who are we to put people into those categories?”
The change at the high-performing school in Montgomery County comes as others across the country have begun to rethink how gender classifications affect students. Many Montgomery high schools changed how they assign graduation robes: Instead of using one color for girls and another for boys, they have all students wear the same color.
Homecoming is another front. Montgomery school officials say B-CC is the first of the county’s 25 high schools to adopt a gender-neutral approach to homecoming court. In recent years, the idea also has taken hold elsewhere.
At Madison West High School in Wisconsin, students from its gay-straight alliance launched a petition urging the change, and more than 1,000 students and staff members signed on, said Beth Thompson, the principal. Thompson said the idea appears to be more common at universities but has worked well at the Wisconsin high school.
“We have a new tradition,” she said.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase, the change came in a 4 to 1 vote last week among officers of the schoolwide SGA.
“I’m honestly overjoyed,” said Nadia Gaylin, a B-CC senior who said that the top two vote-getters for each class could still end up being traditional boy-girl duos but that just opening the door to other scenarios is a positive step.
“It’s so important for kids to see the school is accepting and that we recognize they exist,” she said. “That is so huge and can honestly change lives.”
Rains said the change came as student leaders sought to be more inclusive. B-CC has an active LGBT club, called Spectrum, and the student newspaper profiled the experiences of a transgender student last year, something that was “an eye-opener” for many, he said.
“It just felt like this was the right time to do this,” Rains said. “We looked closely and decided: ‘Hey, this is a problem with the current system, and we should go and solve it.’ ”
Six years ago, Aiden Rivera Schaeff, a transgender student who began his transition from female to male at B-CC, committed suicide just shy of his 18th birthday. According to his mother, Cathy Schaeff, the teen was bullied at school and elsewhere and had stopped attending classes at the time of his death. Schaeff lauded the homecoming change in an interview Tuesday, saying it’s important to shift the culture at schools “in a systemic way that supports everybody.”
Among B-CC’s student body of more than 2,000, not everyone immediately welcomed the change. Responding to Rains’s post about the decision on Instagram, some students mocked issues of gender identification. Some raised objections.
“Wow, this really makes sense?” one person wrote. “Really disappointed that students couldn’t vote on this or something.”
The news went out by text message and through a school email group, where Rains also mentioned another development: The school is opening another gender-neutral bathroom, on the third floor.
School bathroom access for transgender students — including gender-neutral bathrooms — has stirred national debate, as transgender students have sought the right to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than their sex at birth, or other school accommodations. One such case in Gloucester, Va. — and the Obama administration’s decision to issue guidance requiring transgender students to be accommodated at the nation’s public schools — has led to a court battle in which the Gloucester School Board has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rains said some students have questioned the need to change homecoming tradition. Others have said student leaders are catering to a small group within the school and had not provided a voice to the broader student body.
Most of the several dozen students who attended a town hall meeting during lunch at B-CC on Monday appeared to support the change, several students said.
Camern Pinkus, a transgender senior and a leader of Spectrum, said he thinks that the change will be meaningful, although he was surprised to see it happen.
“I thought it was going to be a few more years before the school did something so gutsy,” he said.
B-CC Principal Donna Redmond Jones said she supports the effort.
Voting for the homecoming court starts this week, with students in each grade selecting two peers who they feel best represent the values of their grade and of B-CC. Next week, they will vote again — selecting two names from the top eight vote-getters in their grade.
Those honored will be asked ahead of time how they want to be identified — as “royalty” or as a king or queen — when they are announced at halftime of the school’s football game against Poolesville. The approach allows more inclusiveness without taking away titles some students might still appreciate, Jones said.
“What student leaders are doing is a step to help ensure that all students have a sense of belonging at B-CC,” Jones said.
Lisa Tenley, the mother of a B-CC student, said that she had not heard of any backlash to the policy change and that her son mentioned it only briefly. “To him, it did not even warrant a big discussion or conversation,” she said. “I found that to be heartening.”