The Red Lion Area School District of Pennsylvania is under fire for allegedly misgendering a trans student by purposefully listing him as a prom queen nominee and making clear that only his female birth-assigned name will be used at graduation.
The trouble reportedly started in April when Issak Wolfe, 18, was nominated for prom royalty, an automatic enrollment based on his buying a ticket for prom.
He approached the executive council at Red Lion Area Senior High School to ensure that he would be listed under prom king and not under prom queen, making clear that he was now living as his presenting gender and while born female, his family, friends and in fact most of the teaching staff all accepted him as male since he started living gender-aligned a year ago.
Some days later, and after Wolfe had gained a lot of support for his prom king nomination, the executive council made it known that they could not guarantee Wolfe would be listed as a prom king nominee because the decision wasn’t actually for them to make. Wolfe then raised his request with Assistant Principal Kate Diorio, and she said she would see to it that he be listed as prom king.
Some days later, and despite assurances from other members of staff, the prom nominations were released and to his embarrassment Wolfe found out he was listed as a nominee for prom queen. This, it emerged, was the result of Principal Mark Shue reportedly saying he “wasn’t comfortable” listing Wolfe as a candidate for king and making the switch.
Wolfe, once he had exhausted other options, eventually contacted Mary Smith in the Red Lion Area School District Pupil Services Offices. He alleges that even though Smith expressed sympathy and said she would look into the matter, he never heard back from her.
Wolfe’s friends and his girlfriend, Taylor Thomas, heard about this and posted messages to social media sites to raise support for Wolfe to be listed as prom king.
Shue reportedly then called a meeting with Wolfe and, in the words of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, ”threatened to prevent him from bringing [Taylor Thomas] to prom unless she changed the posts.” The principal and administrators, according to the ACLU’s letter, said some of the statements made in those postings were libelous because they suggested what had transpired was prejudiced and motivated by bigotry. A lawsuit was mentioned by the administration.
It is claimed Shue went so far as to write a “scripted press statement” that he wanted Wolfe to give the media. Wolfe, feeling he had no choice, accepted.
However, even after Thomas’ initial post was changed, Shue reportedly continued to threaten to bar Thomas and then Wolfe from attending the prom, at which point Wolfe turned to the ACLU.
The ACLU then sent a letter ahead of the April 27 prom urging the school to reconsider, making clear that:
By retaliating against Issak and his girlfriend for engaging in protected speech and imposing sex stereotypes on Issak that conflict with his gender identity, Principal Shue and the Red Lion Area School District have violates Issak’s clearly established rights under the First Amendment, Title IX, and the Equal Protection Clause.
The school, while allowing Wolfe and Thomas to attend the prom, has since refused to change its policies on trans students and, despite urging from the ACLU, has dismissed calls to adopt a transgender nondiscrimination policy.
Now it emerges that, after further contact from the ACLU concerning Wolfe’s graduation, the school is refusing to allow Wolfe to graduate as Issak, with the district insisting that Issak’s birth name will be read out instead.
Wolfe has not yet changed his name legally and understands that the diploma, as a legal document, would have to carry his birth assigned name, but he contends that the school’s failure to be flexible enough to simply read out his gender aligned name — a name his friends and family all know him by — amounts to discrimination.
“There is absolutely no legitimate reason for the school to refuse to read Issak’s male name at graduation,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Their failure to do so shows the same lack of sensitivity they exhibited during Issak’s attempt to run for prom king and knowingly mars what should be a happy occasion for Issak and his family.”
The school district’s solicitor has made one concession in this case, and that is to allow Issak to wear a black cap and gown at graduation instead of the yellow cap and gown that female graduates are made to wear.
So far, the school has refused to make a public comment.
Wolfe plans to take his case to the school board at their next meeting on Thursday, May 16.
The latest developments in this case come as a bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in the state. Despite the measure already having 77 sponsors in the House and 25 in the Senate, it appears the move faces an uphill climb in committee where a number of LGBT rights-hostile legislators could prevent the measure advancing.
However, the bill’s sponsors, among them the state’s first openly gay Representative Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia), are hopeful that there’s still a fight to be had and point to the fact that, when surveyed, around 70% of the public support these measures.
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