San Rafael High School senior Tenaya Raives took the stage in front of an audience of cheering classmates at the school’s Homecoming game on October 4, the last of 12 formally dressed Homecoming court members to ascend the makeshift steps. An audible swell in applause from the bleachers welcomed a grinning Raives to the platform.
Amidst a lineup of long, sparkly dresses, traditional tuxedos and football uniforms, Raives stood out in a tuxedo and rainbow striped bow tie. The Homecoming festivities, which included weeks of playful and serious student competition, shows of school spirit and displays of time-honored tradition, had culminated in this, the crowning of the Homecoming King and Queen. But for some students, the stakes were higher.
“People asked me why I want to be a prince and not a princess,” Raives said. “When I was little, I never wanted to be a princess. My favorite Disney girl was Mulan, who dressed up like a man and joined the army. So I think that kind of puts some things in perspective.”
Assigned female by birth, Raives has long identified as gender fluid or gender neutral, something that Raives said has gone misunderstood by many and has influenced Raives’s perception of and participation in school traditions like Homecoming. “Most people assume it has to be one or the other,” said Raives, who prefers to be identified by the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” “Either [people think] I’m a girl that just dresses like this, or I’m transgender, whereas [in actuality] there’s this whole middle part.”
For Raives, the decision to run as Homecoming Prince was an easy one. An active member of San Rafael’s wrestling and soccer teams, a volunteer for the school’s shadow program and the local library and president of San Rafael’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Raives amply met the qualifications for a member of the Homecoming Court. The running process is rigorous and competitive; from around 50 applicants 10 princes and 10 princesses are selected on the basis of five essays describing their accomplishments and service to the school and community. From there, 12 are selected through an interview process for positions on the court and ultimately a king and queen are selected by seniors.
Raives’s position on the Homecoming Court is part of a larger trend of San Rafael administration policies regarding the examination of gender roles and stereotypes in school events. “The way the court has traditionally been presented has been very gender specific,” San Rafael High School principal Glenn Dennis said. “My conversation with ASB has been with looking at events in the future to really avoid, as much as possible, the gender stereotypes.”
One example of this is the discontinuation of San Rafael’s powderpuff football tradition a few years ago. Dennis said the yearly event, which featured female students in a scrimmage football game and male students dressed as cheerleaders, was “outdated and promoted rigid stereotypes about gender.” As a result, the game hasn’t been held for several years and will likely not return.
Most Tam traditions haven’t fallen under the same scrutiny. GSA advisor and Tam English teacher Kate Lorch said that many Tam events continue to honor heteronormative traditions—they fail to recognize the needs of LGBTQ+ students and haven’t been examined through that lens. “I don’t see that shift,” she said.
Lorch pointed to the Homecoming Rally’s lip sync as an example of an event that perpetuates heteronormativity through portrayal of gender. “That will be a play on heterosexuality. Even if there’s an attempt, [such as] cross dressing or boys acting as girls, those things will be a joke; they won’t be [truly] accepting,” she said.
Leadership student and senior Rachael Ferm affirmed that no movement has been made to move Tam events away from traditional gender roles, largely, according to Ferm, because of a lack of vocal proponents for change and the difficulty of changing existing Tam programs. “I don’t think that the issue of gender roles has ever been touched on by leadership,” said Ferm, who serves on Leadership’s recently founded Social Action Committee. “I don’t think any of the events we hold reinforce gender stereotypes in a negative way, but we should talk about it.”
Raives feels that it’s important to choose wisely when picking battles where gender-rigid traditions at school are concerned. If San Rafael administration hadn’t been open to their decision to run for king, “I wouldn’t have fought it to the point where it was ridiculous,” Raives said. Raives noted that some traditions, like gender-specific red or white robes at San Rafael’s graduation, are irksome but not worth a fight on the basis of the event alone. The larger issue, Raives said, isn’t securing individual victories but ensuring that all teens, regardless of gender identity, are free to express themselves comfortably in high school. “I would have fought it for future [students] rather than just for me. I’d be fine not being prince,” Raives said, “but I would want the policy to change for the future.”
Raives cited the recent crowning of a transgender Homecoming Queen in Los Angeles as an example of the kind of policy worth taking up the gauntlet for. “I would fight it for people like her, if someone didn’t get the chance here because they didn’t identify with their birth gender,” Raives said.
Both Tam and San Rafael have worked to generate comfortable and open environments for gender fluid students, and all LGBTQ+ teens, through Gay-Straight Alliances. Raives has served as president of San Rafael’s GSA for three years, and has seen a positive expansion of the club that they say has effected greater acceptance at the school. “With more people, I’m getting the word out more,” Raives said. In previous years, the club faced low membership, with Raives’s friends comprising most of the members in the club, which made real progress a challenge. With expansion of the club to more than 20 members, Raives hopes to host more activities and “get more people knowledgeable about LGBT [issues].”
A similar issue has afflicted Tam’s GSA in years past. Current GSA president and senior Lecya Tyaglo hopes that this year’s greater Club Day sign ups will lead to increased student involvement in the GSA. “I’m hoping it will be expanded, and [we’ll] have a greater diversity of people,” Tyaglo said. “It would be more fun and we would have many more perspectives [in the club].”
Lorch agreed that in order for the club to fully realize its potential as an advocate for social change, it will need to grow—no easy task when, according to Lorch, “any outreach that we do is inappropriate because it’s really up to students to self-determine.”
“[The GSA needs to] provide a safe space and have kids know the club exists,” Lorch said. Right now, according Lorch, the club fills that function well; in other areas, however, lack of membership has prevented the club from expanding its mission. “Another role for the club is more advocacy and helping people think differently, and with our small numbers, we haven’t really done that,” she said.
Expanding the club’s position from one of a safe space to one of social advocate will require greater student involvement and more visibility for the club, both of which Lorch said are “totally dependent on student interest and student need.”
Like Raives, Tyaglo plans to use increased club enrollment to expand the GSA’s reach and raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. “I am trying to coordinate with other GSA presidents from different schools in this district. We are trying to improve Rainbow Week, and do other things besides the Day of Silence,” Tyaglo said. For both San Rafael and Tam’s GSA clubs, the goal is to expand not only in numbers, but in terms of impact.
Although official movement towards non-binary gender acceptance hasn’t been made at Tam, some students have taken change into their own hands and are seeking to create alternative safe spaces and advocacy groups. Senior Kimi Knitter, who, like Raives, has at times felt marginalized by a traditionally binary view of gender and sexuality in the community, said that a lack of understanding and support has led her to seek new avenues for awareness at Tam. Knitter, who identifies as queer, recently started the “Unclub” as an outlet for social empowerment through discussion of alternative ideas, interests and orientations.
“When I first came out, it was met with a lot of confusion,” she said. “Because people hadn’t even heard of any other alternative orientation, it seemed that it was causing more trouble than anything else. That sort of thing became a very difficult part of being at Tam for me.” As a result, Knitter hopes to use the Unclub as a forum for “making Tam a more inclusive place, both sexually and socially.”
Raives’s homecoming campaign raised similarly important issues, but the decision to run was first and foremost a personal one rather than an instrument of change. “On one level I am making a statement,” Raives said. “I’m making a statement supporting San Rafael High School and their acceptance of different types of people. But I first wanted to do it because I wanted to do it.”
Still, the highly public nature of San Rafael’s homecoming celebration makes it impossible to avoid questions and interpretations from students and the public. Some students have expressed annoyance at Raives’s decision.
“I admire [Tenaya’s] strength,” San Rafael senior Spencer O’Reilly said. “But [homecoming] is just not about acceptance. I don’t think this is the instance to do it.”
Regardless of how the implied message of Raives’ choice is received, Dennis argued that the inherent statement and the reactions it elicits are positive. “The intention wasn’t to make a statement, but whenever anyone challenges existing roles and tradition, it is a statement,” Dennis said. “But in the end, I think it’s a positive statement and it coincides with what’s happening in larger society.”
According to Dennis, the role of educators includes preparing students for the interactions of gender and identity that they will inevitably encounter beyond high school. If Raives’s actions serve to open a dialogue or increase the comfort of other LGBTQ+ teens in the community, then all the better. “It is a challenge to [students] and their personal beliefs. If we’re going to be a tolerant, accepting, democratic society, then this is a good opportunity to experience that discomfort,” Dennis said. “It’s just a reality of the world we live in, and so if this was a way for a student to question their own beliefs, I think that’s really worth them experiencing.”
Acceptance of differences and questioning of beliefs in other areas of the school is a goal as well. San Rafael’s drama and film students are in the process of creating a production of “The Laramie Project,” a play that tells the story of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. “Teachers have been doing a lot of work in terms of educating students about how to sensitively portray the issues that the play brings out,” Dennis said. Additionally, the school plans to work with Spectrum, an organization which lends support to LGBTQ+ community members, to provide San Rafael educators with more tools for supporting students.
Dennis is also working on the creation of a panel for students to “share their experiences about coming out or testing the boundaries here at school,” he said. “I do believe that this whole question about acceptance and gender roles and identity is going to continue to be a topic [at San Rafael].”
At Tam, Lorch questions how responsive Tam staff and students have been to the growing shift away from heteronormativity. “I wouldn’t say that we have a dialogue even among the staff about making changes to the culture in that way,” she said. “I think in some issues we really have to take a stand. Where should that cultural change come from? Do we just let the students lead, or is it our job to be more proactive as teachers?”
Tam Assistant Principal Brian Lynch said that although many of the changes and issues being discussed at San Rafael seem to be absent at Tam, opening those discussions would fit in well with administration’s larger goal of “evaluating our school culture and working with our student groups to identify what kind of school we want to be.”
According to Lynch, where LGBTQ+ issues and gender identity are concerned, “no specific problems have come to our attention,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I think as an administration we want to evaluate [whether] we need to create space for people to have that discussion.” Like Ferm, Lynch said a lack of students and families voicing concern has kept the issue from being raised.
One reason for this lack of discussion could be Tam’s tendency to fall back on a progressive reputation. According to Knitter, Tam’s perception of itself as “being inclusive, [having] no cliques and being completely open-minded” may actually decrease the likelihood that LGBTQ+ issues will be discussed.
“I think the most important thing is getting people talking about it, and if San Rafael High School is getting people to talk about it, that’s awesome; that should happen at Tam,” Knitter said. “People aren’t talking to each other about that sort of thing [here]. It’s awesome when our teachers encourage a sort of understanding, but you can’t really expect them to enforce that strictly. You can just encourage it and hope people are inspired to do the same thing.”
Lorch compares the choice to perpetuate gender roles and heteronormativity at Tam to a “moving sidewalk”—unless students and staff take a clear stand against the stereotypes of the past, they become part of the problem. “I would say that in our culture at Tam, mostly we are just standing on the moving sidewalk,” she said. “We’re not walking with it, we’re not trying to hurt kids, but we’re not necessarily taking any stand.”
For Raives, the temporary battle has concluded; Raives wasn’t selected for Homecoming King. But Raives’s hopes and goals for the community extend far beyond Homecoming. “I came out [freshman year], and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so brave,’” Raives said. “And I was like, ‘Well, you know, thanks,’ but I wish it wasn’t a thing that I need to be congratulated about.” In looking to the future, Raives envisions a high school environment where the coming out process, discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and participation in gender neutral school events isn’t an anomaly. “I want it to be ‘homecoming monarch,’ so that there’s no gender, and you’re just paired up with whoever,” Raives said. “At some point I hope it’s not brave.”