High School Graduate Sues for Gender Discrimination
Interview with Nikki Youngblood
For some of us, it's not just about who we sleep with. We have a gender expression that says who we are... When you can't really be yourself, it's a lie, and it hurts.
Nikki Youngblood has enjoyed wearing boys' clothes since she was eight. So last spring, when the time came for her senior yearbook photo, she naturally showed up wearing a white shirt, suit, and tie. But Tampa's Robinson High School refused to let her sit for a picture, telling her that unless she agreed to wear a long, black, scoop-neck velvet drape, she would be excluded from her own yearbook.
This June Ms. Youngblood filed suit against the Hillsborough County School Board, alleging gender discrimination and asking for money damages for pain and suffering, and asking the court to order the school to change its policy. Gender National News interviewed her by phone in Tampa, Florida. She was accompanied by Karen Doering, a National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) staff attorney and consultant to Equality Florida, who is representing Ms. Youngblood.
GNN: HOW DID THIS CONFLICT WITH THE SCHOOL COME ABOUT? Nikki Youngblood: The school sent all graduating seniors a letter about our yearbook pictures. There were instructions for dress, such as girls shouldn't wear too much make-up and boys should shave. It also said if you wore the right basic clothes -- for boys it was white shirts and dark slacks -- they would provide you with the proper attire.
GNN: AND WHAT HAPPENED? NY: "Proper attire" for girls turned out to be a big, black drape.
GNN: WHAT EXACTLY IS A 'DRAPE?' NY: It's this big black, velvet cape thing -- very feminine, very low and scoop-neck so it shows your shoulders and chest. Basically it's like the thing they throw around you when you're getting a hair-cut. It would make me totally uncomfortable to wear something like that.
I showed up in a white button-down shirt and pants. I figured all I needed was the suit and tie. So I asked the girl assistant for one, like they were giving all the boys, and she told me, "You can't do that." I told her, "I want to wear what they boys wear" -- I wasn't going to wear any femmy drape -- and she said told me, "If you do that you're not getting your picture taken."
GNN: WHAT WAS YOUR RESPONSE? NY: At first, I was shocked. I had showed up with my mom; neither of us thought it would be such a big deal. At first, I laughed about it. Then I felt bad, like I'd been singled out for being wrong somehow... I felt stepped on.
GNN: WHAT DID YOU DO? NY: I started getting really frustrated, and so did my Mom. We couldn't understand why they were trying to push me into putting this drape over myself.
So my mom talked to a manager at the photo studio. They finally told her there was a contract between their company and the Hillsboro County school Board and they couldn't do anything about it. So she called my assistant principal, who spoke to someone from the School Board, to see if we could get a special permission slip so I wouldn't have to wear the drape. He finally told us either I wear the drape, or I couldn't be in my own yearbook.
The only other way they'd let me in was if I paid them $200, in which case they'd put a picture of me in the back along with all the other advertisements.
GNN: HOW DID YOUR PARENTS AND FRIENDS RESPOND? NY: My mom was pretty upset for me. She's never pushed me to be anything I didn't want. She's let me wear what I want, and cut my hair the way I want.
My friends at school all asked about me getting my picture taken. When I told them I'd been excluded from our yearbook, they couldn't understand it either. They thought it was pretty stupid.
GNN: WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO FIGHT BACK? NY: At first I was kind of discouraged by the whole thing. I already missed the yearbook deadline, so I wasn't going to be in my own yearbook for graduation.
But then I realized that what they're doing is wrong. Maybe I can't get in my yearbook, but I can make it easier for the next person like me who comes along. At least she won't have to go through what I went through.
If there's no one who has the courage to fight, this stuff never changes. And Equality Florida's Legal Advocacy Project has backed me all the way.
KAREN DOERING: At the Equality Florida Legal Advocacy Project, we feel that this is an important case, because there are so many gay youth who face discrimination, not only because of their sexual orientation, but their gender expression.
In fact, as a statewide group, whenever we provide support to local groups working to pass anti-discrimination laws, we always recommend that they include language for gender expression as well as gender identity. Nikki is a perfect example of why sexual orientation ordinances need to include gender expression and identity.
NY: Heather, my girlfriend, has a friend who is graduating two years behind me. And I found out she was really hoping I'd do something about this, so she doesn't have to face the same thing.
GNN: WHAT ABOUT THE ARGUMENT THAT GAYS ARE THE SAME AS STRAIGHT PEOPLE EXCEPT THEY SLEEP WITH THE SAME SEX?NY: People should really recognize that's just not true. For some of us, it's not just about who we sleep with. Many gays and lesbians have a gender expression that says who we are, and expresses how we feel inside.
We should have that right. When you can't really be yourself, it's a lie, and it hurts.
Tax-deductible donations to support Ms. Youngblood's lawsuit should be sent to:
EQ FL Legal Advocacy Project
Att: K. Doering, Legal Director
3708 W. Swan Avenue
Tampa, FL 33609-4522