No drape, no photo, leaves teen wondering
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Since she was 8 years old, Nikki Youngblood wanted to dress like a boy.
"It's just not me," she said.
So last spring, when it came time to sit for her Robinson High senior yearbook photos at Bryn-Alan Studios, Nikki and her mother decided the best attire for her would be a black suit jacket, white dress shirt and tie.
But her wardrobe choice didn't jive with the school. They were told only male students could wear shirts and ties. Female students would be photographed in a scoop-necked, black velvet drape.
To Nikki, it was "like asking a boy to go put on a dress. To my friends, it would have been the biggest joke in the world."
The flurry that followed raised questions of freedom of expression versus following the rules. Inevitably, there were lawyers. In the end, when the Robinson High Excalibur yearbook comes out this spring, Nikki's senior picture won't be in it.
Nikki, a lesbian who wears her dark brown hair cut short and a silver ring in her upper right ear, said it boils down to one thing.
"It's pure discrimination," said the teenager, who graduated from Robinson early, in December, and hopes to become a clinical psychologist.
School attorney Crosby Few had a different take: "The administration did not feel the yearbook was the place you make those kinds of statements. The next year, you might have 10 boys dressing as girls and vice versa."
That day at the studio, Nikki's mother said, the staff was pushing for her daughter to wear the drape.
"She became very embarrassed," Sonia Youngblood said. "It took everything I had not to cry."
Ms. Youngblood, a Clearwater post office employee, said the studio told Nikki they would photograph her in the shirt and tie, but only if the school said okay.
"It's not a problem with us," said Eddie Ocasio, area director for Bryn-Alan. "That's between her and the school. All we do is provide the service to the school."
Ms. Youngblood called the assistant principal at Robinson and explained the situation. The answer was, if her daughter wanted to appear alongside her 280 classmates, she must wear the drape.
"Apparently there is no provision or exception for a student that doesn't fit the mold," her mother said.
Principal Kevin McCarthy referred questions to a school spokesman Thursday.
Few said that while the school remained steadfast about Nikki's senior picture, they agreed to allow a photograph of her in the activity section of the yearbook, wearing her clothing of choice.
The family is considering a lawsuit, but wonders if it's a moot point since the deadline for yearbook production has passed.
In correspondence with the school attorney, the Youngbloods' attorney, Karen Doering of Equality Florida, alleges sex discrimination based on gender stereotypes and free expression violations.
Doering wrote that it comes down to a young girl who wanted to appear as herself in her senior yearbook "rather than conforming to her school administrators' stereotyped notions of how girls should dress.
"The shirt and tie . . . is the attire that is consistent with Nikki's gender identity and expression."
Nikki said she is puzzled about why it was such a big deal, since she was only asking to wear the same clothes as the boys in her class, not something outrageous.
"I told Mom when we walked out (of the studio), "You should have lied and told them my name was Nicholas,"' said the stocky 5-foot-8 teen. "They would never have known the difference."
Jennifer Middleton, attorney with New York's Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the school's decision outrageous. "That gets into a level of discrimination of who that student is," said Middleton, whose organization represents the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people. "Everybody wants to be in the high school yearbook and you want to look like who you were in your high school years."
Ms. Youngblood had family pictures taken of her daughter dressed in a black tuxedo, tie and Burgundy vest, at Olan Mills studio.
Nikki said she did not buy a yearbook and doubts that it will have her name in it. She had wanted to have the yearbook to look back at years from now, when she gets together with old friends to reminisce.
"I can't do that now," she said.
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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