Patty Rivera Spencer, a writer, recalls struggling to help her transgender son survive high school. “The image I had of myself with Aiden was looking down from above at two tiny figures,” she says. “One was me, holding Aiden’s hand, and a tsunami was coming at us.”
The tsunami in this mother’s nightmare represents “the whole cultural thing: so much negativity, so much disbelief of goodness, so much disparagement and despair,” she recalls softly. “The tsunami, to me, was the endless cynicism and the concentration on the dark parts of life: the violent, the mean and the nasty. It was the constant feeding of things that drench our spirits with nastiness. That’s the tsunami.”
The tsunami overtook them. In the spring of 2010, Aiden took his own life. He was 17.
Aiden was a ninth-grader at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School when he began transitioning from a girl named Caitlin to living as a boy. Some students teased and bullied him. His parents, friends and school officials tried to shield him. “B-CC as an institution was incredibly good to Aiden,” Spencer, 63, recalls. “The administration worked their butts off to try to help him succeed. They gave him a key to the staff bathroom. … The school can set a tone, which is really important. They can’t control what comes out of the mouths’ of kids.” The bullying—and the pushback against it—continued until Aiden dropped out senior year.
Last fall, six years after Aiden’s suicide, B-CC became the first school in Montgomery County to elect a gender-neutral homecoming court. Instead of the traditional crowning of a male “king” and female “queen,” students elected homecoming “royalty.” Royals could decide for themselves whether they wished to be called king, queen or neither.
The result: Seniors elected two royals who wore matching crowns—and made national news. One royal was Camern Pinkus, a transgender male student active in Spectrum, the school’s club for youths who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or questioning their sexual identity. The other was a more traditional choice: Patrick Kirlin, a member of the lacrosse and wrestling teams.
The elected royalty were announced during halftime of the homecoming football game on Oct. 7, 2016. The two seniors shook hands. “It was a good feeling,” recalls Jacob Rains, now 18, of Silver Spring. He was president of the school’s five-member Student Government Association (SGA) that decided to make titles for the 2016 homecoming court gender-neutral as part of a broader effort to be more inclusive to all kinds of students. On homecoming night, “It felt like what we had wanted came to fruition,” Rains says. “It wasn’t the announcement of who had won, but the reaction; the crowd just roared with excitement as each person who had won was announced.”
Does that mean that the student culture inside one suburban high school—Aiden’s old school—had been completely transformed in just six years? Well, yes and no.
Some students—including Kirlin—felt that their opinions hadn’t been heard and considered before the SGA officers decided the matter for them. In an attempt to be more inclusive, some critics argued, the SGA had excluded much of the student body of more than 2,000. “B-CC is not as strictly liberal as people think it is,” Kirlin wrote in an essay published in The Tattler, the school newspaper. “However, it is obvious that those in positions of power are very liberal. That is something we must live with because we elected them thinking they would be making decisions about spirit days and pep rallies, not making political decisions that negatively affect the image of our school. We must move forward as a community and have some kind of reform that restricts the power of the SGA and gives the students the option to vote on big decisions, especially those that bring unwanted national attention.”
Rains, the former SGA president, describes that body’s decision-making process as sound representative governing. The idea had been floating around the school at least since Rains’ freshman year, he says. By junior year, Spectrum leaders were actively lobbying for such a change, Pinkus says.
Rains was a seasoned student leader. He had been elected to leadership positions regularly since elementary school. At B-CC, he was president of the SGA in both his junior and senior years. He worked hard in his junior year to tackle some practical issues, such as the student parking shortage. That, he thought, gave the SGA enough political capital during his senior year to tackle a more controversial issue.
Two weeks before homecoming, the school administration announced that they would be converting a teacher bathroom on the third floor into a gender-neutral student bathroom. The school already had a designated gender-neutral bathroom on the first floor.
That same day, Sept. 23, the SGA officers voted 4-1 to change the way in which the student body voted for homecoming royalty in order to make the court gender-neutral. “All students will see these changes reflected in the Homecoming Court voting forms that will go out early next week,” Rains wrote in an Instagram post announcing the change. “B-CC is an incredibly accepting, warm, and caring community and I am sure that students, staff and the surrounding community will embrace this change.”
The only SGA officer to vote against the proposal favored doing away with a homecoming court altogether. (Walt Whitman High School eliminated its homecoming court in 2016.) “The decision to create a gender neutral homecoming court is an attempt by the Student Government to put a progressive façade over an institution that is inherently discriminatory,” SGA Treasurer Misha Lerner later wrote in the school newspaper.
Lerner recalls arriving at high school knowing no one. He spent lunch periods alone in the library reading plays by Anton Chekhov. “I am one of the few SGA members to know what it feels like to be completely on the outside,” he wrote. “I am fighting for the inclusion of the student who has been out for four months in rehabilitation because he is suicidal, for the student who comes home everyday to an abusive household, and who cannot function as a result, for the student who is recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction, for the student who is not fluent in English, and yes, I am fighting for my ninth grade self. … In essence, I am fighting for all marginalized students.”
Some critics of the changes around homecoming and gender identity were less eloquent. “We had a lot of controversy,” Pinkus says. “That’s a polite way of saying it. Some people thought we had a queer agenda we were pushing on the school. We had people mocking identity, saying things like, ‘If I identify as a cat, why don’t we have litter boxes in the bathroom?’ ”
Ultimately, Rains says, the full student body voted to determine who was elected to the court. He believes the students voted for something bigger than a popularity contest. He’s not alone. “Winning homecoming king wasn’t about me,” says Pinkus, 18, who is studying psychology and human relations. “It showed that people who felt like me, and maybe were in the shadows and unsure of who they are, can be accepted. It was making history and being part of making changes that are very beneficial for other people at the school.”
Rains, now a freshman studying political science and international relations at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, says he doesn’t know if B-CC’s homecoming will be gender-neutral again this year. That’s for other student leaders to decide, he says. He’s passed the torch.
B-CC Principal Donna Redmond Jones says she expects designations for homecoming court to remain gender-neutral this year. “I fully expect us to use the term we have been using: homecoming royalty…We’re not putting a definition on and putting people in boxes.”
Patty Spencer had no idea that Aiden’s old school had made history until I asked this summer to interview her about B-CC’s gender-neutral homecoming court.
After Aiden killed himself, Spencer’s 22-year marriage to his other mother, an American University professor, ended. The couple’s first child, born with serious congenital defects, lived just a few hours. “When Aiden died, he took the rest of us with him,” says Spencer, who returned alone to her native Canada in 2011. She wrote a book on surviving suicide.
She has nothing but praise for the B-CC students who wrestled with how to make homecoming more inclusive. She isn’t just grateful to the kids who pushed for the change; she’s grateful to those who dissented because they had to think about the issue. She’s grateful that Pinkus survived to wear a homecoming crown. “It takes a lot of courage to be who you are in this world,” Spencer says. “Good for him. Good for the kids who did it. Good for the kids who are thinking about it and not being outright hateful.
“It sounds like a great success. Just the fact that not everybody is comfortable about it doesn’t mean it’s not a success. People who have been thinking about it can no longer believe that these issues are not part of their world. Everybody had to do a lot of thinking.
“We don’t all have to be the same,” she adds. “We just have to be kind. We can’t forget to be kind.”
After talking to Spencer, I hung up the phone thinking about homecoming, the storied event around a football game, and the concept of coming home. I kept thinking about a favorite quote that Spencer adds to the end of every email she sends:
“We are all walking each other home.”
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.