Case Against Lesbian Tuxedo-Wearing Ceara Sturgis is ‘She Wore a Bikini Once.’ Really.

A quick recap, in case you forgot about The Lesbian Tuxedo Incident of 2009/10: Ceara Sturgis didn’t feel comfortable in the “drape” she was asked to wear for her senior portrait. The “drape” “gives the appearance of wearing a dress or a blouse,” which sounds pretty gnarly, and so Sturgis asked if she could wear a tuxedo. The photographer said SURE! because you know how photographers are, they’re all hippie artist types who eat Granola and vote for leftist commie bastards. Because the intention of the artist is always disrespected by the patriarchy, Ceara was excluded from the yearbook because she was wearing a tuxedo.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, along with lawyers from Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, is representing Sturgis in the case against the school district.

Bear Atwood, interim Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi:

“This should never have been an issue. Title IX and the Constitution prohibit school officials from forcing students to conform to gender stereotypes. Ceara should not have been expected to compromise her everyday appearance and identity for her senior portrait. The school’s actions are discriminatory, unlawful and mean-spirited.”

Now, the school has come up with a BRILLIANT F*CKING DEFENSE!

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Ceara Sturgis wore a bikini to a pool party (a senior class function).

Furthermore there are photographs of this incident — and actually perusing Ceara’s facebook, it would appear that LIKE MANY YOUNG BUTCHES, Ceara used to have long hair and wore a bikini with giant board shorts before coming into her own and switching to full-time Justin Bieberdom.

“Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an item of clothing more sexualizing and feminine than a bikini,” says the school district.

This seems a tad ridiculous to me and a no-brainer. Clearly Ceara has this in the bag, right? Whenever I’m 100% sure I know what’s going on, it’s time to ask our in-house Legal Beagle Jessica.

Q: Is there a constitutionally or statutorily protected right for a girl to wear a tuxedo in a yearbook photo?

A: No.

Q: Is there a constitutionally or statutorily protected right for an individual to not face discrimination on the basis of sex?

A: Yes. And telling girls and boys that they have to wear different things based upon their genitals means that you are treating them differently based upon this classification — which in turn warrants heightened review and a good reason for doing it.

It’s much like the question of marriage, which is perhaps a framing you have encountered:

Is there a constitutionally protected right to same-sex marriage? No. That’s not mentioned.

However, is there a constitutionally protected right to marriage? Yes. And if one is to have the right to marriage, that necessarily implies the right to marry a person of one’s choosing, regardless of gender.

Legal Beagle Breaks it All Down For You:

Sturgis’s case alleges discrimination based on sex and sex sterotyping (as prohibited by Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause).

The school district seeks to have case dismissed. Their argument? This exact case has already happened in Florida. (Youngblood v. Hillsborough). The case had a very similar fact pattern, and the court held that the case should be dismissed because decisions regarding the yearbook should be decided by the local school board, and “there is no constitutionally protected right for a female to wear a shirt and tie for senior portraits found within the plain meaning of the Constitution of the United States.”

But, as the ACLU persuasively argues, that case isn’t binding (it’s a district court decision in a different circuit – it’s persuasive precedent but not controlling precedent). And, it was probably a bad decision.

Why? Because the court in Youngblood built its ruling upon a 1972 decision, Karr v. Schmidt (a case about boys who wanted to wear their hair longer than schools would permit), and decided that much like having long hair, wearing a shirt and tie did not fall within the freedom of speech/expression protected within the first amendment. The Youngblood court dismisses arguments regarding sex discrimination, alleging that the cases they present about sex discrimination were related to employment (which is not the same as school), and that she wasn’t denied the right to education.

According to the court, schools have the right to make restrictions about what students have the right to wear.

There are problems with relying on Karr, though. Notably, it came before Craig v. Boren – which held that classifications based on gender warranted heightened review. It also doesn’t directly address sex discrimination. The Youngblood court wants to treat the fact that this girl wanted to wear a shirt/tie the same as if any random student decided they wanted to wear a t-shirt – when ultimately, the distinction is clearly a question of gender. Ceara wanted to wear clothing within the bounds of what had been deemed acceptable – she just wanted to wear what had been designated for boys rather than girls. I think there’s a pretty compelling argument that this is classification based on gender, and warrants heightened scrutiny. (Youngblood didn’t address the heightened scrutiny issue, seeing it as a matter of personal preference rather than gender).

Instead of simply accepting the court’s position in Youngblood, Sturgis claims the court should consider this discrimination on the basis of sex and sex stereotypes, as prohibited by Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

I think she has a really strong claim. I don’t know that much about Title IX, but the Equal Protection Clause seems like a pretty clear case. There’s a classification based on gender. To withstand heightened scrutiny in this case, the school would have to demonstrate an “exceedingly persuasive justification” and I just don’t think they have it.

That said, much like Youngblood, she could have some trouble because a good deal of the case law comes from the context of employment rather than education. But the Supreme Court has noted that sex-based discrimination in the employment context informs what counts as sex-based discrimination in the education context.

That being said, the courts in Mississippi have a history of not agreeing with me very much.

In Conclusion:

This is my favorite part of the case :

From ninth grade until her graduation, Ceara consistently wore conventionally “masculine” clothing. (Id. ¶ 17). Ceara wears such clothing in all aspects of her life, including at school, at home, and at social events. (Id. ¶ 15). She also wears short hair in a style popular among teenage boys. (Id.) Although Ceara identifies as female, she is deeply uncomfortable in traditionally “feminine” clothes. (Id.). Ceara does not recall a time prior to the events alleged in the Amended Complaint when her clothing caused any conflict with her classmates or school officials. Nor did her manner of dress violate the Wesson dress code, which has no gender-based requirements.

Has anyone submitted Ceara to Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber? That’s my question.

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1761 articles for us.

43 Comments

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    This is ridiculous. For my yearbook pictures, we had a gown with a choice of girly little hankie for girls or tie for guys. And one of my friend chose the tie. and her photo is in the yearbook. But I’m in Canada, so I guess the laws are different. and I was in the yearbook committee too.

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    I didn’t take a senior pic because I was told I would have to wear the girlie shawl thing. Mind you this was 10 years ago, but still. Luckily, I had friends on yearbook and they made sure to include me in one of the candid photos. Also, my academic achievements and name was not expunged from the yearbook.

    I think that is the thing that really seems to scream of vengeful bigotry. They were literally trying to erase her for her gender transgression. Not just “oh you can’t have this pic”, but “you cannot exist”.

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    Dina, I totally graduated from a school that had 53 kids k-12 and my graduating class was 7…we had very few standards for senior pictures as well and in fact, like you, my father propped me up against a tree in the front yard and got shit done.

    Also all you Canadian Lezzies..please, tell me more about this wonderful place you call home. I have no ties keeping me where I am and my Sagittarian ways are ready for change in scenery

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    HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA. doesn’t get as much hype because it’s way down there on the east coast but seriously ladies, it’s a great city ! good city parks, bars, not very far from beautiful national and provincial parks, world class universities (well.. i can’t verify that, but i mean, they’re great schools), good bands, cute coffee shops, microbreweries, and a ton of lesbians. oh and there’s some good weed floating around too ;)

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    A similar thing happened at my school this year, except with the genders reversed. This guy wanted to wear a drape for his picture, but one of the administrative people wouldn’t let him take the picture in it, which was dumb. Especially because I’m pretty sure they let his girlfriend wear the tux. (They’re the best couple: they went to prom in drag, and he didn’t even shave anything. It was badass.)

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    i had to wear the stupid fucking drape thing for my senior portrait and i wish i had had the guts to ask for the tuxedo the way this girl did

    now the representation of myself in the yearbook will not really be “me”, and isn’t that supposedly the point? or maybe not, maybe we’re just supposed to let these fake ass, stiffly posed, caked makeup images fade into eternity until someone dredges them up twenty five years later to embarrass us

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    I actually got to wear the tux in my yearbook photo, no problem. I didn’t even have to ask, photographers took one look at me and asked which I’d prefer. Kinda a no-brainer for me. And yet, as much as I hate Jersey, I’m kinda glad I don’t live in MI.

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    IDK why but, this just reminds me of the language of rape culture. It’s like “She once wore a short dress so she was asking for it.” or like “She made out with me once so clearly that’s consent and she wanted me.”

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    The shit some administrators get hung up on.
    I went to a big-ass public highschool in Canada. For both our grad photos and commencement ceremony, we had the wonderfully gender-neutral and exquisitely unflattering gown and cap.
    Everyone.
    Boys, girls, and all the genderqueer folk, too.
    Nothing says ‘gender equality’ like a hot, heavy, worn-by-graduates-for-the-past-35-years dressing gown, except in royal blue, and with pleats down the front.

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