71st High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina held its annual “Gender Bender Day” yesterday as a part of Spirit Week, an apparently popular school tradition wherein boys and girls dress like the opposite sex, based in football and cheerleading culture. The practice is meant to bolster school spirit, but by the end of the day yesterday, morale had plummeted after the arrest of a female student, who gave her principal the finger and was then tackled by a police officer.
The scuffle began when the school’s principal, Vanessa Alford, told some 600 students they were dressed “inappropriately” for Gender Bender Day, and that they’d have to go home and change. Arryn Tyler, a 17-year-old junior, “walked to the front of the auditorium and had words with the principal,” according to ABC affiliate WTVD in Raleigh-Durham. While at the front of the room, Tyler was grabbed from behind by a sheriff’s deputy, and she admits to kicking him. The 300-pound officer then “fell on her, causing her to scrape her head and knee.”
Tyler was charged with “resisting arrest, assaulting a law enforcement officer, and disorderly conduct.” I spoke with Tyler today, who calls the police response to her actions “excessive.” (Anna North at Jezebel feels the same way, as do I. Alford has not commented.) Tyler told me despite the fact that Gender Bender Day is a school-sponsored event – at a high school for the arts, no less – Alford “complained about girls wearing hats and guys in skirts.” Could this extreme incident be indicative of transgender bashing or homophobia at 71st High School?
Tyler, who is lesbian, says, “Gay students at school face no discrimination from fellow students but when a problem arises with school staff it is rarely handled.” In an interesting twist to the story, Tyler was actually wearing traditionally female clothes, which she describes as “a long brown skirt that went down to my ankles, and a teal shirt that hugged my chest but covered the essentials.” I asked Tyler if she considers herself part of the transgendered community, and she replied, “I do not identify with the transgendered community, I just enjoy wearing men’s clothing. Since I wear male clothes daily, it seemed appropriate to wear girl clothes for the day,” joking, “It’s like a double bender gender day for me.”
Tyler says she was not personally asked to change, but that the 600 students who participated “were told as a group to change.” She says she was “standing up for all the students who were told to change,” but admits she was wrong to confront her principal while she was so upset.
Contrary to what you might think, many people say “Gender Bender” days at school actually harm students who don’t conform to traditional gender-roles, rather than help them feel solidarity with their classmates.
Andy at Towleroad wrote a post on this very subject back in September, quoting Julie (née John) Nemecek, “a professor who made headlines for being fired by Spring Arbor University after saying she was going to become a woman.” In an email to the principal of Jackson High School in Michigan, Nemecek wrote, “I think it demeans students that may be wrestling with issues of gender identity and puts them at risk. They’re already at greater risk — bullying, the suicide rate is very high because of intolerance either at home or school,” adding, “Would you even consider having a ‘Disabled Day’ where students pick a disability to mimic all day?”
While I don’t think Gender Bender Day and the idea of “Disabled Day” are coming from quite the same place, I do take Nemecek’s point. Gender Bender Day, as it is envisioned by cheerleaders and football players, is less about exploring the human condition and blurring gender roles than it is about hetero kids mocking each other by playing dress up. When I first read the term “Gender Bender Day,” I thought, wow, that sounds really progressive, and at an arts school, it might be. In the case of Jackson High School in Michigan, I believe the student members of the Gay-Straight Alliance who planned the event also meant for it to be such.
That being said, I don’t think the idea of Gender Bender Day, or a Powder Puff football game, is inherently bad. But I do think celebrations like this – especially those that are meant to be part of Spirit Week and Homecoming – should include the entire student body, however they wish to participate. (Oh, and also, kids – don’t give your principal the finger. Try writing a letter instead.)