Monday, April 23, 2018

At Osceola High, a transgender student makes a run for prom king

SEMINOLE — Concrete, coveted Osceola High, with its demerit system and monthly parent meetings and ban on flip-flops, is the only fundamental high school in the state of Florida. Fundamental schools, to borrow a phrase from Pinellas literature, are "like schools used to be." Cut off from Lake Seminole by a forest of pines, Osceola promises a top-tier public education with no disruptions getting in the way, no distractions tolerated.

"Have you heard?"

This was two weeks ago, in a leadership class at Osceola. Two students are talking, loud enough for others to hear. "Heard what?"

"There's a girl running for prom king."

"What? Who?"

This is a story about Sebastian Rollins, born Gina, an 18-year-old who seems to be the first transgender student to run for prom court in Tampa Bay.

Afraid of getting in trouble, Sebastian was quiet about his identity at school.

But if his school could see him as a king, he thought, then maybe it could see him as a man.

• • •

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

His grandmother asked 13 or 14 years ago, before he had even started kindergarten.

"I want to be a boy," Sebastian said.

Playing pretend with his little brother, he had imagined himself as male heroes. When his breasts came in, they felt wrong.

Sebastian thought girls were cute, and started to tell friends he was gay. In the seventh grade, he took his brother's boxers out of the dryer and wore them around all day under his jeans. He didn't tell anyone about that. Middle school was tough enough as it was.

The butt of the joke in sex-ed classes, Sebastian got used to other kids coming up to him and asking, "What's wrong with you?" He thought about suicide. He cut his arms; you can still see scars when it gets cold out.

But high school was different, Sebastian says. More people came out. He took art and music classes. He cut off his hair.

In the summer after sophomore year, Sebastian met Sammy Blazejack, now 18, when she asked to borrow his hair brush. They've been a couple since.

Then one morning about a year ago in the girls' bathroom at Osceola, where the tile carries every sound and girls apply makeup at the mirrors, Sebastian heard three students whispering.

"Is he in the right bathroom?"

"Does he know this is the girls' room?"

"Oh my god, it's a girl."

Sebastian threw open the stall and washed his hands while staring at them but didn't say a word. He didn't want to get any referrals, which could get him kicked out of a fundamental school.

But he started telling his friends and family he was not a girl, never was. He was a him. He told them to call him Sebastian. He liked the sound of it.

Sebastian bound his breasts with an Ace bandage. Sebastian used the men's fitting room at the mall. Sebastian used the men's bathroom at the movie theater. Sebastian was himself, and he was happy.

But school remained a different story. His classmates didn't understand what was going on with him. His teachers called him Gina. He didn't correct them.

At Osceola, Sebastian uses the girls' bathroom and the girls' locker room. Again, he is afraid of getting referrals and losing his seat at the school.

Running for prom king came up as a joke, then. It would be funny if he ran for prom king, wouldn't it? His friends laughed along. Sebastian kept thinking about it. What if he did run?

• • •

Six-feet-nine with the hands of a bear and the face of a Kennedy, the principal of Osceola Fundamental High School is Mike Bohnet. Many years ago, in Michigan, Bohnet was on homecoming court. "It was nice," he says.

When Sebastian asked to run for king, Bohnet says all he did was look for Pinellas policies or procedures that would prohibit it. There was no discussion of feelings, he said, no flowery language, no talk of progress.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement confirming the federal Title IX law prohibits discrimination against transgender students.

Pinellas has no policies specifically addressing transgender students, school board attorney David Koperski said. "We respect all state and federal laws, as well as our own polices, regarding antidiscrimination."

Bohnet declined to allow a reporter and photographer into Osceola during voting for prom court: "It would be disruptive."

But he let Sebastian run. Whether he would win, Bohnet said, was a decision for the students.

• • •

"What? Who?"

"Gina. She's running."

The rumors came quickly: Gina, as his classmates called Sebastian, was running for attention. Gina was only saying he was a boy to get elected. Gina was ruining tradition. And perhaps the most pervasive rumor was that some of the girls didn't want to run for queen because of him.

"If he wins, the traditional system is the boy and girl match up, and the king and queen dance. Some of the girls don't want to dance with Gina," said Lorenzo Bright, an 18-year-old senior.

Bright also ran for king. He said he supported Sebastian and might vote for him.

So did Monica Mezerowski, an 18-year-old senior who ran for queen. "She's very funny, she's very intelligent, and she goes for what she wants."

The school has an active Gay-Straight Alliance. But even junior Logan Rogers, who is gay, said he wasn't initially in favor of Sebastian's bid for king.

"I was a little weirded out, because it's not the normal thing to do. I know that contradicts my own situation," said Rogers, 16. "But honestly, who cares? Who does it affect but her?"

Two weeks before the prom, Sebastian took Sammy to a place that he, like most teenage boys, did not want to be. At Tyrone Square Mall he helped her look for shoes to go with her dress. He suggested Foot Locker, then asked why she didn't wear the canvas shoes she had on.

In Rack Room Shoes, Sammy found a pair of black heels. Sebastian is 5 feet 3, "on a good day."

"You're going to be, like, 5 feet taller than me," Sebastian said, putting his hands on her waist to see what it would be like when they danced. He frowned. "We could get you Crocs."

The school voted that Wednesday. "Gina Rollins," read his name on the ballot. Sebastian felt a little let-down. He wondered why it was so hard for them to see who he was. But he was happy to be on the ballot. He was happy to have run. No matter what happened, more of his classmates had started calling him Sebastian. He voted.

• • •

On Tuesday, Sebastian went on a field trip to interview for an apprenticeship as an electrician. When he returned to Osceola and walked into the front office, there was Bohnet with a big smile on his face.

Sebastian had just missed the announcement over the intercom, the principal said. "Congratulations. You're on court."

There were nine or so guys who had run for king, and five of them had made court. Sebastian didn't win king. That title went to a student whom he doesn't know well, whom he says is a pretty popular guy.

But Sebastian did not care about that. He was thinking, I beat four guys who were born guys. He was thinking, I did it.

"It says my school, number one, is really an understanding bunch of people," he says. "To them it doesn't matter as much about the gender. It's about how much people care about you. They care about me." And that was almost the best part.

The best part, Sebastian says, is that when the announcement was made over the intercom, the announcement that he missed, the principal said his name. The name he wants for himself. Sebastian Rollins, prom court.

He thought about the prom, which is Saturday. But mostly he thought about what the next day in school would be like. Maybe his teachers would start calling him Sebastian too. They wouldn't make a big thing of it, he imagined. They would just pop out in the hall, maybe when he was walking by, and they would say, "Hey, Sebastian."

He would say "Hey" back. And he would keep walking, like it hadn't been a thing at all.

tb-two* staff writer Brea Hollingsworth contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected]

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