It’s prom season — the time of year when school administrators attempt to enforce the gender norms, as well as the rules of heteronormativity, that were followed when they were growing up. Students have been resisting this for years. But now that social media allows them to spread news of arbitrary rules about who gets to wear a dress to prom, administrators are contending with social pressure from all over the country.
Here are a few of the local stories that made national news this prom season that represent some of the typical ways administrators enforce gender norms and spread anti-LGBTQ attitudes:
Telling students their clothes have to conform to gender expectations
Even though it’s been many decades since it was considered scandalous to wear jeans to school, principals are still having a tough time allowing girls to wear pants at formal events. This critique is especially confounding when you think about common complaints that female students aren’t meeting prom dress code by wearing skirts that are deemed too short or show too much cleavage. Nonetheless, taking dresses out of the equation entirely is also considered inappropriate.
Bishop McDevitt High School, a private Catholic school in Pennsylvania, stopped student Aniya Wolf from attending her own prom because she was wearing a suit. The school’s dress code notice said female students would have to wear formal dresses to the prom and the school tried to convince her mother to urge her daughter to wear a dress. When she was rejected from her own prom, she attended another school’s prom, where the dress code did not enforce those rules.
Even when girls are allowed to wear suits, sometimes boys are told they can’t wear dresses. At Meriden Public School in Connecticut, a boy was told he couldn’t wear a dress to his prom, and students launched a petition in support of his preference. A gender-fluid high student student in a Florida high school eventually got his wish to wear a sparkly black and gold dress to prom, but not until the ACLU reached out to the school about its policy that students wear prom dress “in keeping with their gender.”
Not allowing same-sex couples to be considered for prom couple
At a California high school, a lesbian couple wanted to be nominated as prom queen and queen this year, but the school said that would be considered gender discrimination against boys. The school principal Jim Bartow argued boys needed to be given equal opportunity, and that nominations were made for individuals, not couples. But half of the same-sex couple, Hayley Lack, said it was discriminatory not to let her and her girlfriend be considered for the royal couple.
The ACLU intervened and sent the school a letter saying the policy “violates the constitutional and statutory rights of gay and lesbian students.” The school relented, however, and said Lack received the votes necessary to be considered for prom royalty and that she would be considered with the five other candidates nominated for prom king. The prom king and queen title has now been changed to the gender-neutral “prom royalty.”
Telling same-sex couples they can’t come to prom at all
Two boys at French Settlement High School in Louisiana were told they couldn’t come to prom together at all this year. The school’s assistant principal prevented the boys from getting tickets, and when one of the boys contacted his mother about the issue, he was the suspended for using his phone. After a local television station inquired as to why the boys weren’t allowed to attend prom as couple, the superintendent said he would investigate the issue, and soon the boys — who planned to wear matching tuxes — were free to attend the event together.
Policing girls’ dresses
Although school administrators often ask female students to present themselves in a traditionally feminine way, they also want to make sure female students look as demure as possible. These arbitrary guidelines — such as making sure your hemline isn’t shorter than where your fingertips meet your thighs — are unevenly enforced. Students often complain that some students are told their dresses are inappropriate while others with shorter hemlines go unnoticed. Sometimes students argue that the differences in who gets called out are based on the weight or breast size of the student, rather than the garment itself.
Cleveland High School in North Carolina released a video, noticeably targeted only at girls, about what would be considered appropriate formal-wear at prom, Women’s Health Magazine reported. In the video, a male student hosts a panel, and female judges decide which dresses are appropriate to wear to prom. One of the judges flips a table in anger over one set of dresses with black bars imposed over them and the male host hides behind a curtain in fear of either the scandalous dresses or the judges’ rampage.
One Flint high school was so worried about prom onlookers being scandalized by bare skin that staff asked female students to share photos of dresses before prom so that they could approve them beforehand. There were no reports on whether male students were asked to send photos of the outfits they intended to wear. As a result, a girl’s two-piece prom dress, which cost $500, was considered inappropriate, despite its high neckline and long skirt.
Sometimes schools acquiesce after the threat of a lawsuit. Federal courts have ruled that stopping same-sex couples from attending dances is unconstitutional, according to the ACLU’s resource page for LGBT students. There have also been cases declaring that requiring all female students to wear dresses or all male students to wear tuxedos to prom is illegal.