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Wear That Dress or Else!

A photo of Ceara Sturgis.
A photo of Ceara Sturgis.
James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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September 16, 2011

That’s basically what a high school principal told Ceara Sturgis at the start of her senior year — you’ve got to wear a “drape,” or scoop-necked covering that looks like the top of a dress, in the yearbook photo. Ceara isn’t comfortable in such revealing clothing, and had spent her entire high school career wearing more masculine attire. The photographer took Ceara’s picture in a tuxedo instead of the drape, as she requested, but the principal jettisoned that photo and printed the yearbook without either her photo or her name appearing in the senior portrait section.

Last year, we filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Ceara’s Mississippi school district because its efforts to enforce these gender-based norms are harmful to kids, including LGBT kids, who might not be comfortable with traditional gender norms. We’re looking for ways to ensure that students can engage in the gender expression that is relevant to them, without having to adhere to stereotypes, and without having their existence denied or erased by school officials.

Some will say, “What’s the big deal, it’s just a yearbook photo.” But the people who should have to explain what the big deal is are the school officials. Why exactly is it so important that all girls wear the drape and all boys wear the tux? What message is the school trying to send by forcing Ceara to wear a drape as a condition of appearing in the yearbook just because she is female?

Yesterday, a federal judge in Mississippi asked the school district precisely the same question: What’s your reason for insisting that Ceara wear a drape? The question came in an opinion in which the judge denied the district’s motion to dismiss Ceara’s case and instead sent the case to the information-gathering phase of litigation. The judge said he needed to learn more about the facts, including what the school’s reasons were. We’ll have lots of questions for the principal about that, and we’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, we’ve got a court decision that should make other school districts think twice before insisting on the same strictly gendered rule.

Despite the promising developments in this case there is still more work to be done. Everyday, in schools across the country, kids like Ceara face harassment and discrimination. The Student Non-Discrimination Act will help to ensure that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students has no place in our country’s public schools. Take action now and demand the fair treatment of all students!

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