Beth Slovic, Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), December 16, 2009
Lincoln High’s boys basketball season opened Nov. 30 with all the fanfare one would expect.
The bleachers were packed as the Lincoln Cardinals hosted Jefferson High. Students wore the school’s red and white. The band played Gary Glitter’s stadium anthem “Rock and Roll, Part 2.”
Only one thing was missing: Lincoln’s cheerleaders.
The reason for the cheerleading team’s collapse is no secret in the Portland Public Schools system. Yet when people talk about it, it is in hushed conversations and carefully coded language.
The team dissolved because of one African-American student from the east side of the river–a cheerleader who used to be a boy.
Yet none of these incidents has been as heartbreaking for students and as confusing for adults as the collapse of the cheerleading team. In the other three cases, the teams carried on. The basketball coach kept coaching. New coaches came forward to supervise baseball and football.
The cheerleading team is different. At the moment, there isn’t one.
About 2,500 girls participate in cheerleading in Oregon high schools, making it the fifth-most popular sport for girls in the state, according to the Oregon School Activities Association.
However, cheerleading is not for the weak-spirited; Lincoln’s team subverts the typical pompom-waving stereotype with a fierce dedication to competition. The state’s best teams face off at tournaments that require extensive training in tumbling, jumping and stunting–the gravity-defying moves that propel cheerleaders known as “flyers” into the air. Some girls take private lessons to perfect their back tucks and basket tosses. Injury is a regular occurrence. Black eyes are as routine as back handsprings. And appointments at the chiropractor are as commonplace as trips to Starbucks.
Above prettiness and popularity, uniformity is a cheerleader’s most cherished value. It doesn’t matter how high a girl can jump or how effortlessly she can perform the splits in midair. If her movements don’t match those of her teammates, the group’s performance is incomplete. In cheerleading, probably more so than in most aspects of American girlhood, sameness is a plus.
Into this tradition, a new cheerleader arrived at Lincoln’s tryouts last spring. Even to the casual observer, there was something different about Alonza, a transfer student from North Portland whose oval glasses suggested a bookish personality and whose bright orange high heels revealed an edgier side. (WW has chosen not to publish Alonza’s last name.)
Whether she was wild or just a typical teen testing boundaries, one thing was clear at tryouts in April: Alonza was strong, and her jumps were impressive. Before school ended in June, coaches granted Alonza a spot on the varsity squad.
They did so even though it was abundantly clear Alonza used to be a boy. At her prior high school, Alonza was known as Alonzo.
In Oregon, boys may be high-school cheerleaders; last year close to 400 were. Yet Alonza was not on Lincoln’s team as a boy. Alonza identified as a girl and, as such, wanted to wear a girl’s uniform, with the fitted top, the short skirt and the red Spanx underneath.
And that was fine, according to the team’s coaches, Cher Fuller and Tori Cotton, who welcomed Alonza as Lincoln’s–and most likely Oregon’s–first transgender cheerleader.
The Oregon School Activities Association, the sanctioning body for all high-school sports in the state, has never before considered what it would do if a transgender student wanted to cheer competitively.
The term “transgender” has broad meaning. It represents a spectrum of identities that aren’t necessarily related to an individual’s sexuality or anatomy. Children or adults who are transgender can be biological males who identify as females, or vice versa, regardless of whether they have undergone surgery or hormone therapy. They can be straight, gay or bisexual.
It is not at all clear where Alonza falls along this continuum. But it didn’t much matter at Lincoln.
While the OSAA may have been unprepared to accommodate a transgender cheerleader, Lincoln embraced Alonza.
Favor Ellis, program director for Portland’s Sexual and Minority Youth Resource Center, says Lincoln is a leader in adopting policies to protect students who don’t fit the typical definition of boy or girl. In 2008, Lincoln created a “gender-neutral” restroom.
In keeping with that seemingly progressive attitude, Alonza was fitted in May for a girl’s cheerleading uniform along with the rest of her team. And in July, all 28 members of Lincoln’s cheerleading team traveled to the University of Oregon in Eugene for a weekend cheerleading camp. While the other girls shared rooms, Alonza was given a private one with her own bathroom.
When practice resumed in August, Lincoln’s cheerleading coaches asked Lincoln administrators which restroom Alonza should use at home games when the girls changed clothes. Coaches and administrators seem to have agreed that Alonza would use the girls’ restroom or, if that became a problem, the school’s “gender-neutral” restroom.
Lincoln’s athletic code of conduct has strict rules against the use of alcohol and drugs. Alonza signed that agreement, as well as a second one tailored specifically for cheerleading.
By the end of August, Alonza had been reprimanded for a variety of infractions, according to documents WW has obtained. She was late several times to practices. She didn’t show up at a fundraiser and didn’t call to say she wouldn’t be there. She rolled her eyes at teammates and coaches when practicing stunts. She posted photos on her MySpace page that appeared to show her drinking. Allegedly, she once said she would drop a flyer. At camp in Eugene she received an all-star award, but when she accepted the award she said, “Man, all I get is this stupid paper.”
The team had a three-strikes policy, and on Aug. 26, when Alonza was an hour and 45 minutes late to practice at Lincoln, the coaches decided she had used all three; they asked her to leave the team.
The next day, Peyton Chapman, Lincoln’s principal, asked the coaches to give Alonza another chance. They did. After drafting a new code of conduct agreement with Alonza, the coaches agreed to put her on the junior varsity team. “Eye-rolling or ‘diva behavior’ will not be tolerated,” the agreement read.
The problems didn’t end. On Oct. 7, Lincoln’s JV football team played Hillsboro High and Alonza used the women’s restroom. According to an email Coach Cotton sent to Principal Chapman later that evening, “the other cheerleaders felt uncomfortable changing in there with her. Now I have parents calling and complaining about the situation and threatening to leave the program because of it. . ..PLEASE HELP my program is in jeopardy because of all of the back-and-forth concerning this issue.”
According to spectators, the drama also spilled onto Lincoln’s track during the game, when one of the Lincoln cheerleaders accidentally cheered at the wrong moment. A few girls (including Alonza) giggled, prompting the first girl to cry. Then another teammate criticized Alonza, who apparently broke formation, went into the stands and protested. An anonymous emailer complained to the school about Alonza’s behavior, and the principal forwarded the email to the coaches.
That, apparently, was the breaking point. Coach Cotton wrote to Alonza’s mother the following week via email: “Alonza is no longer able to cheer with our program due to her violation of the contract where it states that ‘representation of Lincoln High School will be made in a positive manner.'”
The response from Alonza’s mother came the next morning. “[Y]ou guys are going to do what you want which is fine,” she wrote, “but you also should know i think you and the coaches are RACISTS and some of the cheerleaders also.”
That might have been the end of the story, were it not for Principal Chapman.
Speaking about Alonza, Chapman chooses her words carefully, befitting her background in law. But it’s apparent Chapman believes Alonza was unfairly targeted. “This was a kid who worked well with staff and administrators,” Chapman says. “To my knowledge, this student was not a discipline problem.”
On Oct. 23, Chapman emailed the cheerleading coaches and ordered them to reinstate Alonza to the varsity cheerleading team. “I wish this were a mutual decision but at this point it is not your decision to make,” Chapman wrote. “I have made a decision and I feel comfortable.”
Although Alonza’s mother called the dispute a matter of racial discrimination, Chapman has said publicly she didn’t consider race when making her decision. It’s probably not a coincidence that Lincoln next month is hosting a “courageous conversation” about “support for students and parents of sexual minorities in our learning environment.”
Four days after Chapman made her decision, the two coaches resigned, later writing in a joint statement, “The interferences in implementing disciplinary actions have taken away our authority as coaches and thus created an uncontrolled and unsafe environment for our athletes.”
But Chapman says she wants them to cheer. Within days of the coaches’ resignation, Chapman had identified new coaches to lead the team.
Most of the cheerleaders, however, have rejected the new coaches, who have more extensive backgrounds in dance than cheerleading. None of them was certified to supervise stunts.
Portland news media treated the matter in a somewhat bizarre fashion.
KGW TV aired a story Oct. 29 reporting that the team had dissolved because of the reinstatement of one cheerleader. It broadcast an interview with Alonza, who said the coaches’ decision to remove her from the team was “racially motivated.” (Three other members of Lincoln’s cheerleading squad were, like Alonza, African-American. Seven of the 28 cheerleaders were nonwhite, making the squad as diverse as Lincoln as a whole.)
KGW made no mention of Alonza’s gender identity, but it did say Alonza’s mother worked at KGW.
Three days later, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin weighed in with a column that raised far more questions than it answered. He also declined to identify a central element of the story.
“Given the recent headlines at the high school–the football coach fired after a beer-fueled encounter with police on a MAX platform, a second DUII by the boys basketball coach, the baseball coach resigning amid allegations he took players to a strip club–this adds to the impression that Lincoln is a grease fire,” Duin wrote in the column that ran Nov. 1.”But we might reserve judgment. This is a case where I can’t tell you everything I know, because your right to know is superseded by the student’s right to privacy.”
Nine days later, Duin posted a link on his Oregonian blog to a New York Times story about transgender teenagers, with little explanation. “I’ll let you connect the dots,” he wrote.
Cher Fuller and Tori Cotton, the coaches who resigned, both say that [Alonza’s being transgender] never mattered. They tried to enforce the rules consistently.
“We could have had a girl with three arms and purple skin, and if she followed the rules I would have coached her just the same as anyone else,” Fuller says. “No decision that we ever made had anything to do with race or gender identity. We fought so hard for her. We stuck our necks out for her to treat her like all of the girls. The truth is, we asked someone to follow the rules, and the school asked us to give one person an exception.”