A Catholic high school in Pennsylvania ejected a lesbian student from the prom for wearing a suit rather than a dress.
Aniya Wolf was escorted out of Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt High School prom last weekend by a school official who grabbed the student’s arm and threatened to call police. Wolf’s ejection was the culmination of a debate over dress code between Wolf and her family, and Bishop McDevitt administrators.
Wolf said she has “always been more masculine,” wearing a shirt and pants for her school uniform all three years she has attended Bishop McDevitt. But ABC 27 reported that a sudden change in the school’s dress code occurred right before prom:
“The [Wolf] family said a last-minute email explained girls had to wear a dress to prom. . .Wolf’s mom called the school. ‘I told them that I had read the dress code that was given to the students and I didn’t think that it precluded her from wearing a suit. I said that this was very unfair, particularly at the last minute. We had gone out and bought a new suit. I think my daughter is beautiful in a suit,’ Carolyn Wolf said.”
Knowing school officials objected to her suit, Wolf went to prom anyway because she had anticipated the event for a while, and believed her experience “shouldn’t be any different than anyone else’s because of something I was born with.” Bishop McDevitt’s student body is generally affirming of her sexual orientation, Wolf said. The manner in which school officials treated her, in contrast, makes her feel like “a mistake.”
In a statement, Bishop McDevitt denied any wrongdoing. School officials claimed the dress code had been announced three months ago, and when they became aware that Wolf would not be wearing a dress, contacted her mother to resolve the situation. The statement concluded with a commitment to “practice acceptance and love for all of our students.”
What administrators ignored was the real issue behind this troubling incident, problems with the dress code itself rather than the timeline of events. I offer three points for consideration.
First, the dress code, as made available by ABC 27, does not specify that female students must wear dresses. It details what are considered acceptable dresses, but does not mandate them, though it mandates that male students “must wear a suite and tie.” Aniya and her family’s reading of this dress code is correct; it does not bar her from wearing her suit.
Second, dress code controversies in Catholic education need not exist, but, sadly, church officials keeping causing them. There is nothing in church teaching to support gender normative clothing, nor is it wise pastoral practice to insist these norms be maintained. Gender-based dress codes have nothing to do with the Catholic faith. Gender-based dress codes are outdated, sexist, and transphobic. Enforcing them so forcefully appears simply to be an attempt by school officials to impose traditional gender norms.
Third, the priorities of Bishop McDevitt administrators are called into question by this incident. To ensure an archaic dress code is upheld, they were willing to ruin a student’s prom night and cause her to feel like “a mistake.” Not a pastoral response. And they created an issue where there needn’t have been one. The ejection of Aniya Wolf from prom would be a prime moment for reflection for the school’s administrators about how they really can practice acceptance and love for all students.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry