PYRAMID SCHEME: Lincoln's cheerleading team started the 2009 school year with high hopes. Image courtesy of Cardinal Cheer
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.
That night, 17-year-old Rachel Meyers was at home finishing her science homework.
A Lincoln senior, Meyers is petite and outgoing. Her vernacular is more Hannah Montana than Lindsay Lohan, sprinkled with "gosh" and "oh my."
For the past four years, Meyers devoted herself to cheerleading. On weekday evenings she and other members of the Lincoln varsity squad perfected their back handsprings, heel stretches and slingshots. Weekends were spent cheering at community events like the AIDS Walk and the Portland Marathon. In her spare time, she sold pies and washed cars to help raise the $1,230 each girl needed for her uniform, jacket, shoes, sweatshirt, pompoms and training.
The chant "We are L-H-S!" had become as much a part of Meyers' daily life as Facebook. "When the lights are on and the stands are packed and you know that you are leading the crowd in cheers for your team, that's really emotional," says Meyers, an honor student. "It means a lot more to me than just standing on a field and waving a pompom."
But Meyers put down her pompoms Oct. 27, when Lincoln's two cheerleading coaches resigned and 27 Cardinal cheerleaders then quit. The following month, Lincoln entered the 6A state football playoffs without a cheerleading squad.
Today, Meyers and her teammates have their afternoons off.
"[Cheerleading] is something that will never be replaced," Meyers says, her voice cracking. "It's just been, oh my gosh, my everything."
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.
Located just west of downtown, Lincoln High School and its 1,400 students have endured a tumultuous year.
A veritable factory of Ivy League-bound graduates and National Merit Scholar semifinalists, Lincoln is known for its academic achievement, the prosperity of its student body and the relative homogeneity of its population. Recently, parents at Lincoln raised $300,000 for their school foundation, the second-highest amount for any school foundation in the district after nearby Ainsworth Elementary. About 75 percent of Lincoln's students are white, compared with 54 percent districtwide. Seven percent of Lincoln students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 45 percent in the rest of the district.
"Drinkin' Lincoln" is also known for exhibiting the darker side of student privilege. Coping with the effects of binge drinking, drug use and eating disorders is as much a part of Lincoln's curriculum as advanced-placement calculus or International Baccalaureate-level environmental studies.
And although 2009 marks only the second year in at least five that Lincoln hasn't lost a student to suicide or a drug overdose, the hallways of Lincoln have not lacked for less-serious drama. If any public school in Portland came close to resembling the elite school on Gossip Girl in the public's imagination, it would be Lincoln.
The most explosive news came one weekend in February, when police arrested the boys varsity basketball coach, David Adelman, on suspicion of DUII. The angry father of a former player had hired a private investigator to follow Adelman, whose father, Rick, is a former Trail Blazers player and coach who now coaches the Houston Rockets. (David Adelman was sentenced Dec. 8 to five days in jail.)
In April, Lincoln baseball coach Michael Todd resigned after he took players to a strip club during a spring-break tournament in California.
Then, in September, the school district fired Lincoln's head football coach, Chad Carlson, following a dust-up with Portland police on a MAX platform. Two assistant coaches resigned and a third was suspended for several weeks.
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.
Although cheerleading started as a male activity over a century ago, it has evolved at the high-school level into an almost exclusively female pursuit, one that is exaggerated to great effect on popular television shows like Glee.
The team at Lincoln appears to reinforce certain female stereotypes associated with this all-American tradition. The team does cheer for girls sports, but only sporadically. During the fall and winter, much of cheerleaders' time is spent supporting football and boys basketball, cheering on the sidelines and making motivational banners for football players to run through. On game day, girls wear their uniforms to class.
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.
This year, for the first time in recent memory, Lincoln's cheerleaders hoped to reach the top five at the state championship in February.
"I feel like even a lot of our peers don't realize some of the talent we have," says Kati VanLoo, a 17-year-old varsity cheerleader at Lincoln who has been cheering since the fourth grade. "It's kind of disappointing."
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.
There are no numbers on cheerleaders' backs. "That would be very antithetical to the idea of being part of this team," says Kate Torgovnick, author of Cheer! Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders.
WE ARE L-H-S!: Alonza (right) cheering with teammates at the Portland Marathon. Image courtesy of Cardinal Cheer.
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.)
A photo of Alonza on her MySpace page once showed the 17-year-old student lounging provocatively on a staircase. It carried this caption: "next top slut aka the sexy bitch you see in ya phone." In another photo, Alonza proclaimed she was, "DRUNK AND AT THE CLUB…MY TITS ARE FALLING OUT!!"
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.
"It was really a non-issue," says Fuller.
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.
"We have never faced that situation," says Mike Wallmark, assistant executive director at OSAA, who's been with the group for 25 years. "We don't have regulations to address it. I think we'd be seeking some help in a hurry from transgender specialists to understand the situation."
While the OSAA may have been unprepared to accommodate a transgender cheerleader, Lincoln embraced Alonza.
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.
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.
Classes hadn't yet started when Lincoln's cheerleading team started wobbling like an unstable pyramid.
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.
Although she has worked for Portland Public Schools for 14 years, Chapman defended indigent women in Washington, D.C., in her previous career as a lawyer. She remains attuned to social inequity.
"It seems really unjust sometimes, the haves and the have-nots," Chapman says. "And I want public education to offer the same opportunities for every kid. You shouldn't have to get a scholarship to a private school or be born into a privileged ZIP code."
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."
In support of their coaches, the cheerleaders quit, saying the coaches had done nothing wrong. Parents agreed. They said the coaches had removed Alonza from the team because she broke the rules. It had nothing to do with race or gender.
"Absolutely not," says 17-year-old Casey Alter Mink, a varsity cheerleader. "She didn't follow the code of conduct, and she wasn't respectful to her teammates or the coaches."
Other parents have said Chapman appears to think the cheerleaders are unkind. "The administration acts as though our girls are walking around the school with poison pompoms," Koni Perrin says.
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.
Alonza's mother has spoken to WW, but she has asked the newspaper not to contact her child, who has since transferred to another Portland high school and is not cheerleading. "It is getting really nasty," she wrote. "If the Principle [sic] and admin are backing my child 100% [it] must say something. So at this time I don't know if I'm ready to talk. I'm under deep stress right now."
Jenn Burleton is executive director of TransActive, a Portland group that advocates for families with transgender children.
Burleton's group estimates one out of 250 children born today doesn't conform strictly to society's definitions of gender. One in 500 will identify as transgender.
She says the degree to which the local media have danced around this issue is a disservice to the community.
"To not cover this story continues to sweep under the rug the negative impact that gender policing has on our most precious treasure, which is our children," Burleton says. "There was an old phrase in the gay community...that is still very true: Invisibility equals death."
And while she is not intimately familiar with Alonza's story, she thinks she knows what the dispute is really about. "Cheerleading is one of the last bastions of traditional female culture in our high schools," Burleton says. "She sure wasn't like the other girls."
Cher Fuller and Tori Cotton, the coaches who resigned, both say that 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."
Lincoln's cheerleading team has been a club sport overseen by a board comprising parents.
In 2008, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association became the first sanctioning body for high-school sports to create a policy to accommodate transgender athletes.
The 2009 Oregon Legislature approved the Safe Schools Act, which requires schools to implement anti-bullying policies to protect minority students, including transgender students.
More information for families with transgender children is available at transactiveonline.org.