In the hum of Forsyth Central High School’s old dome gymnasium, Charlie Baum stood near center court beside the school’s three other members of the Homecoming court.
Baum held bouquets of flowers, wore the Homecoming “Royal Family” sash and processed the mixture of emotions she was feeling as family and friends took pictures.
Baum had become the first transgender student to be voted to a Homecoming court in Forsyth County, a moment she could barely imagine after an uneasy few years during her public transition.
“I was so happy,” Baum told the Forsyth County News. “Still very surprised, but so, so happy. It felt very gratifying to know something that I never thought was possible was happening.”
Central’s administration had been anticipating such a moment for nearly two years. Prompted by a student, Central started having conversations about the school’s growing diversity beyond traditional notions of ethnicity or socioeconomic status and its implications, according to principal Mitch Young. They encountered one early on during Young’s tenure: a student in transition wanted to try out for the football team. That was a relatively easy fix; the school designed a restroom in its new field house to be single-use and modified others on campus.
But Central staff knew that a more public situation would arise, Young said.
“The thing that we knew was going to come eventually is your things like the popularity contest,” Young said, “things like Homecoming.”
The school district has been having conversations about diversity, too. In June of 2017, the Forsyth County Schools Board of Education approved its Strategic Plan, a comprehensive five-year guide to the school system’s decision-making until 2022, and included was an objective to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan, the intent of which is to help educate and support staff at all levels of the school district about how to better integrate shifting societal norms.
A design team comprised of school system staff and parents has met for the last year and a half, according to Jennifer Caracciolo, the system’s director of communications, talking about issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.
They talked about the different dimensions of diversity. They talked about the difference between equity and equality. They talked about how schools can be more inclusive as the face of its communities changes to include a variety of family types and students who are transitioning or LGBTQ-questioning at all grade levels.
“Society is now reflected in Forsyth County,” Caracciolo said. “And we knew, too, especially with some social movements that were going on in the United States, this was something we were going to need a plan.”
That plan will start to be implemented this fall, Caracciolo said, with the goal of educating school system staff about diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as incorporating diversity into the system’s hiring practices and helping schools instill those values in their culture.
Staff want the training, Caracciolo said. Teachers aren’t familiarized in college with current diversity issues, she said, and school parent groups are eager to be better prepared to work with all varieties of families.
“We need to support the schools with what they need,” Caracciolo said.
Some of that work is already being done around the county, Caracciolo said. For example, in addition to Chestatee Elementary School’s traditional father-daughter dance, it added a “family night” dance to accommodate its changing community. The system has also started to incorporate single-use restrooms in the design of its school construction projects.
For Central, that work became more urgent this past winter when Baum was nominated for Homecoming Queen. Baum is a popular student, Young said, who is also a talented makeup artist. It seemed very possible to Central staff that she would be a competitive nominee.
But the possibility also raised questions.
“Do we let Charlie go as a queen? Do we not allow that to happen?” Young said. “Everybody had an opinion. We really weighed it back and forth.”
It was new territory for Young and Central’s staff, so they went looking for guidance. They looked to the Georgia High School Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, and how they were addressing transgender issues but found the organization was deferring to local school systems. They looked to the American Civil Liberties Union but found the national nonprofit’s guidelines on transgender inclusion for homecomings and proms unclear.
They also looked to a controversy at Chattahoochee High School last school year where administrators prevented a same-sex couple from being eligible for prom court. Young said that the situation illustrated to Central staff how the conventional structure of homecomings and proms limited opportunities for all students for the sake of tradition.
“Anything that we’ve got that really limits opportunity (for students), we need to take a hard a look at,” Young said.
In the end, Young feels Central found a middle ground. They chose to hold Homecoming but eschew the gender-specific titles of king and queen. Instead, students in each graduating class voted for one representative to be a part of the “Royal Family.”
There was some complaint, Young said. A handful, he said, felt the school was ruining a tradition. A few thought the school was trying to make a social statement. The biggest controversy, Young said, has come from an article written about Baum’s homecoming honor by PinkNews, an online LGBT+ publisher in England. Young said the article had inaccuracies about death threats toward Baum (“Which is not the case,” Young said) and inappropriately conflated protests that took place in Forsyth County in the late ‘80s for African-American rights with gay rights (“It was about black rights,” Young said.)
Otherwise, Young said the majority of the Central community has been supportive of how the administration “modernized” its winter homecoming tradition to include Baum. The school plans to do something similar with its upcoming prom, doing away with voting for a king and queen and instead letting students elect a “prom couple.”
“That might be a nontraditional couple,” Young said.
Meanwhile, Baum is set to graduate from Central this spring. She plans to go to cosmetology school to pursue a career as a makeup artist.
Sure, there have been some unfriendly encounters along the way, Baum said, but she has a great group of friends and a supportive family, and Central’s administration has supported her during any challenging situations, she said.
That much was clear as Baum got wrapped up in the frenzy of homecoming pictures with friends and family, just like everyone else.
“This was a great moment for her,” Young said.