This teenager's painted nails got him suspended. Now his Texas school district has created a more gender-neutral dress code policy
(CNN) -- A fresh manicure makes Trevor Wilkinson feel a little more like his true self.
And now, after a fight that lasted most of his senior year, the teenager can breathe easily in his Texas high school knowing that he fought for the right to be unapologetic about who he is.
Wilkinson, 18, an openly gay teen in Abilene, Texas, -- about 140 miles west of Fort Worth -- had been suspended several times from Clyde High School for wearing nail polish because it didn't comply with the school district's dress code policy.
The previous policy made distinctions based on gender. That included banning males from wearing makeup and nail polish, according to Wilkinson.
He thought the policy should be more gender neutral -- that it should allow all students to feel included and accepted regardless of their identity.
"I personally am not a fan of self pity, but it's hard being gay in West Texas sometimes and I never want to go back to where I was not even two years ago," Wilkinson said. "So what I paint my nails sometimes? I look and feel good while doing it."
"I've come so far with growing within myself and accepting and loving who I am ... and when I got sent to ISS (in school suspension) it was like I was taking three steps back and I was regressing," he said.
On Monday, the Clyde Consolidated Independent School District voted to amend its policy, outlining new guidelines for all students regardless of gender identity. The district will no longer punish boys for wearing nail polish or makeup.
"This policy was developed and recommended by a group of District stakeholders consisting of secondary students, parents, staff and administration," Kenny Berry, superintendent for Clyde CISD, told CNN. "Clyde CISD appreciates the input from our community and stakeholders that led to the development of our newly approved dress and grooming policy."
A six month battle
Wilkinson first painted his nails in October and was excited about going to school with his new manicure. But excitement turned to frustration when school administrators did not accept his form of expression.
"It all started because I did the simple thing of going and getting my nails done, and when I came to school I was told I was going to be dress coded," Wilkinson said. "So I actually went home right away and went online for six weeks because I didn't want to get made fun of but also didn't want to get in trouble."
While studying online, Wilkinson said he kept thinking about wanting to get his nails done again.
"I know it's just nail polish to others, but it's my existence to me and how I express myself," he said.
After Thanksgiving break, Wilkinson returned to school with a new manicure and was suspended.
When Wilkinson got home that day he said he started researching Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. And he started a change.org petition titled "Allow males to wear nail polish" -- all in an effort to strengthen his case with his high school administrators.
"Unfortunately, they did not take anything I found into consideration and they told me I had three options: one was to take off the nail polish and go back to class, go to in school suspension until I take it off or go back to online learning...so I went back to ISS."
But word of Wilkinson's efforts started to spread after he posted a photo online of the nails that led to his suspension, along with his administrators contact information.
With the help of Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Texas, Wilkinson went to school board meetings to advocate for a policy change.
In December, the ACLU called on Clyde CISD to "do the right thing."
After four board meetings and several talks with school officials, Wilkinson said the district agreed to change its policy for one semester.
Wilkinson, however, wasn't satisfied with the limited policy change.
"I'm graduating this year so I won't be around to stand up to this and keep fighting this," he said. "So the lawyers got more involved and kind of guided them a little bit, and my school did the great thing and made a committee to make this gender-neutral dress code and it got approved three nights ago."
In a statement to CNN, Brian Klosterboer, staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said: "Forcing students to follow gender stereotypes is outdated, unconstitutional, and harmful. We are thankful that the school district has changed its discriminatory dress code. This would not have been possible without Trevor's advocacy and bravery on this issue."
Wilkinson said he hasn't stopped smiling all week.
"It's amazing," he said. "I think that the policy is inclusive to everyone and I truly do believe that it's gender neutral. There's still a few things that we could change, but overall we still are making so many great steps in the right direction. I'm so proud of my school and everyone that helped me get to this point."
Support from strangers, backlash from neighbors
Wilkinson's fight garnered support from people around the country. But he said most of the backlash he received came from people in his community, those closest to home.
"It was hard for my classmates to mock me and make fun of what I was doing," he said. "But at the same time it's been so amazing because I know there are so many people in my school that are so much more comfortable. I know that there are male students that wear makeup now and paint their nails now."
"Some of the most severe backlash I received was from a local Facebook group trashing my life, bringing the bible into it, saying I deserved to be beat up, so many hurtful things coming from grown adults," he said.
Wilkinson said he's grateful to have had his grandfather, Leroy Wilkinson, by his side during his battle.
"My grandpa is my biggest supporter, 1000% he's been by my side throughout this whole entire thing," he said. "I know that he's so proud, and if I can be half the man he is, I'll be just fine."
So what's next for Wilkinson? He says he will attend Texas Tech in the fall and plans to major in political science with a minor in psychology. Down the road he wants to practice law.
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