IOWA CITY — There were no kings or queens at West High School’s homecoming celebration last weekend, as students at the Iowa City school decided this year to do away with the gender-specific titles.
Students and staff made the change in an effort to diversify the school’s homecoming court, which historically has overrepresented “white, heterosexual students of privilege,” said Anjali Huynh, 17.
“That’s not the case on this court,” said Huynh, a member of the student organization that plans homecoming. “Yes, there are still a few — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing — but there are students of different backgrounds, of all races and genders. There are several students on this court who would never have been on the court previously.”
West High isn’t alone in doing away with gender categories at school events like homecoming and prom, said Nate Monson of Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit organization that advocates for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“I’m hearing it a lot more and more in Iowa,” Monson said, noting it is becoming more common across the country. “ … Homecoming is about celebrating the successes of the school and its students, and LGBTQ students and alumni are a big part of that. It opens the doors and paves the way for transgender and gender non-conforming students to also be a part of that.”
Another high school in the Iowa City district, Liberty High School, also did not use gender terms in its homecoming court this year. Instead, the school recognized “Liberty Leaders” who exemplified the school’s core values, Principal Scott Kibby said.
At the district’s other comprehensive high school, City High School, students still recognized a king and queen.
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But the school made clear that students could choose whether to be recognized as a king or a queen — or could decline either gender label — said teacher Chip Hardesty, who oversees the student group that plans homecoming.
“We would identify them as just ‘This is your homecoming royalty,’” Hardesty said. “It’s completely flexible, and it’s driven by what the student wants. … We have plenty of students who are extremely sensitive to this issue and would raise this issue immediately if they felt we weren’t doing this in an appropriate way.”
West High students and staff began considering the shift after Iowa City school district student surveys showed LGBTQ students felt more unsafe at school than their peers did, students said.
“That’s not something any school wants any student to feel,” Huynh said.
The decision to stop voting for a king and queen — as well as a boy and a girl for most athletic, spirited and talented categories — resulted in West’s most diverse court in recent memory.
This year’s homecoming court — known as the “Heroes of Troy” — included students who identify as transgender, African-American, bisexual and students who receive special education services, said students and staff.
“The people we’re putting on a pedestal aren’t necessarily the lead singer in the play or the football captain, but the people who are actually making a difference,” said West student Alex Carlon, 15. “They are the people who are good people — not just good at sports or good at singing.”
Asking and listening to what students want, Iowa Safe Schools’ Monson said, is the best way to explore these kinds of changes.
“Everybody has to remember it’s about the students,” he said. “It’s not about old ideas of gender or what some old alum wants to do.”
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At West High, students hope the changes have made more of their peers feel included, as well as given a deeper meaning to a nomination.
“Before, it was a popularity contest to see who would be on the court, but people had a moment of fame and then people forgot,” said West student Jessica Moonjely, 16, said. “I think being nominated to be a ‘Hero of Troy’ is going to be something that really sticks with students — because it shows that I’m not just popular, but I’m actually making a difference.”
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