Ontario scrubs gender from homecoming titles in a shift from tradition

ONTARIO – Ontario High School has adopted a gender-neutral homecoming court process, dropping the longtime tradition of naming a boy and a girl to be king and queen.

Instead of crowning the king and queen during halftime at the Oct. 7 football game, the school will announce the top two “representatives to the homecoming court” from the senior class, according to Ken Martinez, Ontario High School principal.  

The shift came two weeks ago after a nonbinary student put their name on the ballot for the homecoming court, according to Martinez. The student’s name and grade level weren’t released.

Ultimately, he said, the student body at the high school voted for a pair of seniors who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

He stressed that the non-binary student was given the same opportunity as everyone else in the process.  Although that student is not on the court, there will be no mention of gender during the introduction, according to Martinez.

Nonbinary people identify as being outside of the gender spectrum and may identify as female and male, neither female nor male, and may or may not identify as transgender.

Ontario joins a growing number of high schools nationwide that are removing gender from their homecoming titles and selection process.

“This is not a unique situation,” Martinez said, “it is something that districts are working through across the state and the nation.” 

He said that when the nonbinary student asked to run for the court, the district reached out to the Oregon Department of Education to ensure the school’s changes aligned with state and federal law.

According to the Education Department’s Gender Expansive Student Guidance, schools are encouraged to allow students who identify as gender expansive, an umbrella term for any expression of gender that falls outside of traditional gender binary norms, to participate in single-sexed or gender-based activities.

“The most inclusive option is to eliminate or limit gender-based and single-sex programs in order to avoid creating uncomfortable or unwelcoming environments,” the state’s guidance noted.

Marc Siegel, communications manager with the state education agency, said in an email that the state does not require specific set of actions at the local level. However, Siegel noted that the state recommends that districts adapt gender-based activities to be more inclusive of gender-expansive students.

Siegel pointed out that although the state does not require schools to change, the data from a 2023 U.S. national survey on the mental health of LGBTQ young people -– the Trevor Project – bears out that students who attended inclusive and affirming schools had lower rates of suicidal ideation and attempts.

Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator, said Thursday, Sept. 28, that students and staff seem to be understanding of the shift. Nonetheless, she noted the change has prompted “some genuine conversations about diversity and inclusion.”

The Enterprise spoke to some parents who indicated some students were unhappy with the changes, not because they were unsupportive of LGBTQ+ – an abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, but because it removed a time-honored tradition.

The parents and students spoke on condition that they not be identified.

Homecoming week is an annual tradition, with highlights including a home football game, assembly, and dance. Martinez said the homecoming court will appear at a Thursday, Oct. 5, assembly and the representatives winning the student body vote will be introduced to the crowd at the football game on Saturday, Oct. 7.

While many associate a homecoming king and queen with cheerleaders and football stars, the criteria in Ontario this year calls for students to vote for their “most spirited” peers, Martinez said. To be a member of the court, a student must be involved in a school activity such as a sport or club and have good academic standing, he said.

While many associate a homecoming king and queen with typical stereotypes – the popular cheerleader and quarterback of the football team –the criteria in Ontario this year, Martinez said, is for students to vote for their “most spirited” peers. He said that to be a member of the homecoming court, a student must be involved in a school activity such as a sport or club and have good academic standing.

Students voted for two classmates to be representatives to the homecoming court from grades 9-11, while the senior class had six nominees – two of whom would have been crowned king and queen under the former system.

Martinez said only two things changed this year: the creation of a “genderless” ballot for voting, and the dropping of gendered royal titles. 

Nonetheless, Martinez said it was the first time the school has changed a gender-specific activity in this manner.

“This is the first time we’ve encountered this,” he said. “And so, we’re all learning together.”

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