When graduating senior Ceara Sturgis chose to wear a tuxedo for her senior yearbook photo, rather than the drape typically reserved for girls, her school responded by excluding her entirely from the senior portrait section of the yearbook. The ACLU represented Ceara in a sex discrimination lawsuit against her school district.
Let me explain. I’m a graduate of Wesson Attendance Center Class of 2010. I loved my high school. I had great friends, I got good grades, I played soccer and was in the band, and I got along well with my teachers. I stayed out of trouble. My high school experience was pretty unremarkable, actually, until it came time for senior year portraits.
I’ve never been what you’d call a girly-girl. I feel uncomfortable in dresses and am much happier wearing T-shirts and khaki shorts. I always find clothes that I like in the boys’ section, rather than the girls’. But this was never an issue at school at all. Nobody ever made me feel weird or like an outcast. I was just Ceara.
For senior portraits, the school said that boys must wear a tuxedo and girls must wear a drape that made them look like they’re wearing a dress. I tried on the drape, but I just felt so uncomfortable. Imagine forcing a typical “jock” guy to wear a ball gown, and have that be the defining image of him in his high school years forever. That’s how I felt wearing the drape. It was humiliating to me to pretend to be something I wasn’t.
I really wanted to wear a tuxedo. No one flipping through the yearbook would notice anything amiss…I would blend right in with the other kids in formal wear. So we took the picture that way, and I even checked with the superintendent to make sure it was okay. He said it was, though the school board still threatened to not print the picture.
I tried to reason with school officials throughout the year, but when we got our yearbooks that spring, I was crushed to see that not only was my senior portrait removed from the yearbook, but my name wasn’t even in the senior section as “not pictured.” It was as though I didn’t exist in my senior class.
I didn’t want to pick a fight with my school, but what they did wasn’t fair. So, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, I filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school. Last week, the school agreed to change its policy so that all students will be wearing the same cap and gown in their portraits. What’s more, they’ve agreed to change their anti-discrimination policy to emphasize that everyone has the right to equal protection under the Constitution.
Public schools should never make a student feel like an outcast just for being who they are. LGBT kids and gender-nonconforming kids deserve to feel welcomed and safe in school. The yearbook is a significant rite of passage. Anyone who’s been to high school can relate to the excitement of cracking the spine for the first time and flipping to see their picture. The yearbook is a keepsake to be treasured with family and friends, so your kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews can see what you were like when you were their age.
Schools have a duty to treat all of their students equally. I’m glad we reached a resolution so nobody will ever have to go through what I went through again. And that, to me, is very much worth the trouble.