How much harm can a tuxedo cause? Plenty, if it’s used to make a teenager feel unwanted.
Aniya Wolf, a student at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pa., showed up for prom this month in a black tux, a light pink dress shirt and a bow tie, which got her physically escorted out by a school official who threatened to call the police.
(That’s a phone call I’d love to overhear. “Yeah, we’re going to need an officer over here at Bishop. We’ve got a student wearing a tux.” “And … “ “That’s it. Just wearing a tux.”)
The school sent an email before the prom saying all girls must wear dresses, but Aniya isn’t into dresses. The school learned that she would show up in a tux and contacted her mother in advance, according to a statement posted on the school’s website.
But Aniya’s mom was more interested in supporting her daughter than in bowing to the school’s archaic dress code.
“I think my daughter is beautiful in a suit,” Carolyn Wolf told reporters.
“Bishop McDevitt will continue to practice acceptance and love for all of our students,” the school’s statement reads. “We simply ask that they follow the rules that we have put into place.”
But what if the latter cancels out the former? What if your rules make students feel unaccepted and unloved?
The school officials who caught wind of Aniya’s plans could easily have invited her and her mom for a conversation.
They could easily have looked around at the messages of fear and intolerance that our kids are growing up around – the North Carolina law that limits protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and the calls for a boycott of Target over its gender-inclusive policies, just for starters.
They could easily have considered the nation’s suicide rates – four times higher for lesbian, gay and bisexual youths than their straight peers.
They could easily have looked at Aniya’s tuxedo not as a threat but as a wake-up call – a signal to update their own rules to more accurately reflect the values they espouse.
Acceptance and love? Then how about, “All students must wear formalwear?” How about pausing for a deep breath before threatening to call the cops on a kid who’s posing zero threat to anyone? How about leading by example for all the kids and parents who were, no doubt, watching what happened when Aniya showed up in that tux?
I’d wager a bet that Aniya knows about the messages of fear and intolerance. I have a feeling she knows about the suicide rates. I’m guessing she’s endured her share of teasing and pressure to conform to more conventional gender norms.
And still, she chose to be brave and true.
I wish her school had done the same.
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Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.