Central Pennsylvania teen Issak Wolfe’s campaign to become prom king became national last week — after his school attempted to force him to run as prom queen because of his transgender status.
Wolfe, 18, is a senior at Red Lion Area High School in York County and began his transition last year, with most fellow students and teachers coming to refer to him as “Issak” and with male pronouns.
In the past few weeks, Wolfe spoke with several faculty members about his intention of running for prom king and was given several assurances that his gender identity would be respected. But, once voting opened, he learned the school’s principal, Mark Shue, placed his name in the female column because he did not feel “comfortable” with him running for king.
Wolfe’s girlfriend, a 2011 graduate of the school, last week posted a petition on Change.org urging the principal to reverse his decision — but, Wolfe said administrators informed him he would be barred from bringing his girlfriend to the event because of her public statements criticizing Shue and the school.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent the school a letter April 26, saying the treatment constituted violations of Wolfe’s and his girlfriend’s First Amendment, Title IX and Equal Protection rights. Later that day, the school announced Wolfe could bring his date.
Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at ACLU of PA, said the voting window for prom court was too short for Wolfe’s name to be placed back in the correct column.
“Despite his efforts to resolve the issue with administrators, he wasn’t able to get that done before voting closed,” she said. “So, unfortunately, he didn’t get to run for prom king.”
But, she said, he followed up with the agency to report that he and his girlfriend had an issue-free prom night on Saturday.
“They went and had a great time and there were no problems,” Tack-Hooper said.
In a statement released by the ACLU, Wolfe said he was surprised by the incident.
“I never had an issue with my school accepting me for who I am, so I was shocked and humiliated when the ballots came out and they had me listed as the wrong gender,” Wolfe said. “To do that with no warning, and then to try to intimidate us into keeping quiet, is degrading and hurtful.”
Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, said his agency helped connect Wolfe with the ACLU and spoke with him and the agency on a conference call.
“In the end, it was very important for Issak and Taylor to go to prom together, so we’re glad that happened,” he said. “However, the circumstances leading up to prom were really problematic, and we’re still awaiting a response on some other issues.”
In its letter, the ACLU requested that the school district adopt a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of gender identity.
Landau Goodman said only a dozen school districts in the state have fully inclusive LGBT nondiscrimination policies and that Red Lion should take this opportunity to take the lead on this issue.
“It would be very productive for the Red Lion Area School District to adopt an inclusive nondiscrimination policy affording equal access and treatment to all students, reardless of who they are, their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said. “Hopefully, this situation will bring attention to the vulnerability of LGBT students, especially when they’re engaging in school functions.”
The ACLU also urged that Wolfe be permitted to dress in the black graduation gown designated for boys and be announced with his male name at his upcoming graduation ceremony.
Tack-Hooper said she is working with the district to resolve those outstanding issues.
“The attorney for the school district and I have been talking regularly on the phone to discuss those issues and other demands in the letter, and the negotiations are ongoing,” she said. “We’re very happy that Issak was able to go to the prom and didn’t have any problems there. And we’ve been having productive conversations with the school so we’re hopeful we’ll be able to resolve the other issues as well.”