A San Francisco high school had removed a student’s yearbook photo because the young woman wore a tuxedo for her senior photos. Though the high school is now apologizing and reversing its decision, the punitive action raises the question of how strongly Catholic authorities will enforce gender norms that are no longer relevant. This incident also shows the reconciliatory power of dialgoue.
Jessica Urbina is graduating from Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep this year and, like many seniors, had formal photos done for the yearbook. Last week, administrators announced they would not allow Urbina’s photo to be published because she did not wear a dress, as mandated by the archdiocese.
In response, students have worn bowties to class as a protest, and many have posted to social media outlets using the hashtag #JessicasTux with supportive messages and photos of themselves wearing ties. Call to Action, a Catholic justice organization, encouraged Catholics to join the students’ protests and submit their own pictures on Twitter.
Yesterday, news broke that Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep will in fact be including Urbina’s picture and is apologizing for its initial decision to exclude her. In a public letter, President John Scudder, Jr. and Principal Gary Cannon explained this recent development as the result of conversations with the Urbina family. They wrote:
“After that meeting, it was clear that the school had not adequately communicated to Jessica or her parents the decision made several months ago regarding senior portraits. As in past school years, any senior who sat for senior portraits but did not conform to the dress code did not have a portrait included in the portrait pages of the yearbook. Given the nature of this specific case, however, we believe that decision, while conforming with our policy, was wrong. Moreover, the lack of communication with the family led to even greater anguish as it proved unexpected to the student and family as it came at the very end of the school year.”
The administrators also announced the school’s policy change about senior portraits, stating:
“We agree with our students who showed solidarity with their classmate that the current policy regarding senior portraits is not adequate to meet the needs of our families or our mission. We will involve our students, families, and Board in crafting the updated policy…
“While we cannot undo the impact of this decision, the lack of adequate communication, nor the impact of the last few days, we can move forward in a manner that we believe represents the best of our school community.”
Moving forward will mean including Urbina’s photo in her tuxedo in venues where other senior portraits are used. The school also offered to reprint the yearbooks, but the Urbina family suggested alternatives for including Jessica’s photo, so as not to delay students from receiving the yearbooks now. Most striking is the conciliatory and reflective conclusion to the letter:
“While we believe SHC to be a safe and supportive environment for all, this situation has reminded us that we still have much growth to achieve. While many gay and lesbian alumni and students have commented on the inclusive, supportive aspect of our school community, others have remarked on some prejudice that still exists. As a school, we must better learn how to support our students who are navigating issues of gender identity.
“Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn. While we would have preferred to have this learning be less public than the current situation, especially for the impact it has on individuals and families, we are a community open to sharing our struggles and joys with the wider world so that we can all learn from each other, whether from successes or failures. More than 300 years ago, St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of our founders, said that our students will learn far more from us by our actions than by the words we speak. This is one of those moments…
“In our final words to our student, Jessica, and all our other LGBT students, past, present and future, we repeat the final words of the [US] Bishops [in their pastoral letter, Always Our Children]. ‘In you God’s love is revealed. You are always our children.’ “
While this story had a positive ending, we still need to address the question of why this incident, and the harm done to Jessica, occurred at all. The Archdiocese of San Francisco mandating that women wear dresses for senior photos is not based in Church teaching, nor does it emerge from wise pastoral practice. It is silly and outdated, and nothing more than a naked attempt by the hierarchy to suppress contemporary understandings of gender.
Let’s hope that Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep’s example, both in how damaging their mistake was and in their willingness to learn through the process of dialogue,will inform other Church institutions such that they will avoid future incidents.
-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry