Being in high school has always sucked, but lately it seems worse than usual. From the girl sent home on a dress code violation because she was showing collarbone to Ahmed Mohamed, the Muslim 9th grader who was arrested for bringing a homemade digital clock to school (it looked like a "movie bomb"), high school students have much more to worry about than how to ask someone to prom in an elaborate way. Last week, 18-year-old high school senior Brianna Popour was sent home from Chesnee High School in South Carolina for wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that one administrator deemed disruptive and distracting: "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian."
A riff on the "Nobody knows I'm a communist" bumper sticker, Popour's T-shirt had never caused problems before; she told me over the phone that she'd worn the shirt several times, to no disciplinary action.
What happened: "I was sitting in my first period, and [an administrator] pulled me out and told me that I had to change my shirt or go home because it was distracting and it was wrong—that I'm not allowed to be wearing the shirt," Popour said. "I was like, 'What's wrong with it?' and he said, 'I don't like kids at my school wearing anything that says anything about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or stuff like that.' He made it personal—he said 'I.'"
It makes me happy that I can help somebody.
Popour was then instructed to call her mom to pick her up from the principal's office—where, she said, she was told to sit in metal chair in the corner "so nobody could see her shirt." (Usually, disciplined students get to sit on a "very comfy couch.") "He pretty much put me in time out."
While waiting for her mother to show up, Popour downloaded the Chesnee Student Handbook, which "said nothing about gays, lesbians, bis, whatever." (Popour said the incident has inspired many of her classmates to check out the handbook for themselves.) The rule cited by the administrator who removed her from class reads: "clothing deemed distracting, revealing, overly suggestive or otherwise disruptive will not be permitted."
Popour was permitted back at school the next day, where fellow students and teachers have voiced their support of her and her wardrobe. Though, she said, the administrator in question won't look at her.
"Kids and even teachers [have told me] that they really like the shirt," she said. "And they might say, 'But instead of [my T-shirt] saying, "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian," mine would say, 'Nobody Knows...' and then their own thing."
According to Popour, Chesnee High School, which has no LGBT alliance or club, has "a lot of gay people." "A lot of my friends are either gay or bisexual. I'm actually happy that I did this because I've had a lot of people message me and come out to me and ask me how I had courage and what made me finally come out. It makes me happy that I can help somebody."
Popour came out two or three years ago, she said. Indeed, what's so baffling about what happened to her last week was that she'd never experienced any discrimination from the school for being openly gay—she even took her ex-girlfriend to prom, in a suit, bow tie, and suspenders, last year. "I danced with her the whole time—I made out with her at prom!—and [the administrator] didn't say anything," she said. "I walked down the halls with my ex-girlfriend. I see girls, to this day, holding hands with their girlfriends or [kissing] in the hall before they go into the classroom."
So naturally, the shirt thing made her "so mad."
And it does seem weird! Although this incident may confirm what we assume about South Carolina's negative relationship to LGBT people, Popour said she's never faced discrimination in her hometown. This weekend, she even attended the Spartanburg Pride, where she says many people approached her to offer their support and encouragement. Popour plans on staying in the area and studying to become a paramedic after she graduates at the end of this year.
Spartanburg School District's director of public relations, Rhonda Henderson, returned my requests for comment over email, saying that the "particular disciplinary decision was overturned later when administration realized that, although the shirt was offensive and distracting to some adults in the building, the students were paying it little attention."
Nevertheless, upon her return to Chesnee High, Popour decided to wear a different shirt. It read, "Keep Calm and Kiss Girls."