Deja Foster was openly gay and embraced by classmates when she was crowned homecoming queen at Wooddale High School 12 years ago. Photo provided by Foster.

It may have made the news had we done it: I, an openly gay female basketball player at Wooddale High School, and my friend, a popular gay male student, were chosen homecoming queen and king in 2007, and conspired to switch crowns at the ceremony.

That may sound funny, but there was a lot of pain leading up to it. That memory came back to me as I saw news reports about Brandon Allen being named as White Station High School Homecoming Royalty on Sept. 27.

I felt joy when I saw the photo of Brandon, 17, living and walking in his truth, and his mom with a shirt that read, “The world has bigger problems than boys who kiss boys and girls who kiss girls.” Shelby County Schools Supt. Joris Ray and White Station principal Carrye Holland also voiced their support for him. It was beautiful to me.

Brandon Allen was crowned White Station High School Royalty on Sept. 27, as his mother watches. Photo by Emmett Campbell

My early experience wasn’t quite as affirming.

In 2005, the beginning of my 11th grade year, I transferred to Wooddale High School. I was a glaring baby gay — like noticeably. I wore some too big dickeys with oversized white shirts with collars, my hair braided to the back, and some chucks (Converse sneakers). I was still finding my style. Thank God for growth!

I wasn’t in the closet. My mama had pulled me right on out that thing the year before. When I arrived at Wooddale, I already had a girlfriend who also attended the school. We were a cute little couple and would walk around arm-in-arm after class, maybe catch up between classes, but nothing crazy in the form of PDA (public displays of affection).

But I, along with the other openly gay girls — maybe five or six of us at the school — became the target of rumors that we were a gang. We were accused of being in GTO (Gays Taking Over). This allegedly was a gang dedicated to turn all the straights into gays because that’s how that works, you know?

Yes, I know that sounds dumb. You know that agenda your hotep uncle is always talking about? Yeah, sounds a little like that. Don’t think I ever met a member of GTO by the way, but hey, I digress.

Well, the rumor took root. About a month into the school year, we all were called to the office and informed that we were on overnight suspension and that our parents would have to come to the school the next morning to “clear” the suspension with a meeting of some sort. In this meeting, our principal told our parents that we were all a part of GTO: Gays Taking Over.

I laugh every time I type that. Like, who thought of that?

Some of the parents didn’t know their child was gay. One of the girls even paid a guy at the gas station to pose as her dad, because she was afraid of how her parents would react. We weren’t guilty of what we were being accused of, and there was no evidence to support it.

Deja Foster, wearing 32, was a star athlete at Wooddale High School, where classmates selected her as homecoming queen. Photo provided by Foster.

Well, my mama, Elizabeth Foster, wasn’t having it. I can’t remember what she said word for word, but she essentially said, “I know I’m not at this school missing work because my daughter is gay. Not because she has actually done anything, but because she is gay. That is not right and I don’t appreciate you singling out not just my daughter, but all of our daughters for being gay. You owe them an apology.”

When she said that, other parents started to chime in. The principal tried to justify her concerns, including saying that my girlfriend and I walked arm-in-arm. The justifications fell on deaf ears. The meeting ended with my mom telling her if she got called up to that school again for some more crap like that, it wouldn’t be pretty.

My coming out story

I feel like I always knew I was gay, I just didn’t have the language to express it. I gravitated toward “boyish” things. I never wanted to be the girl when we reenacted things while playing. I enjoyed sports. Hated skirts and dolls. I have always felt more comfortable in boys’ clothes.

As I said before, my mama did not allow me to stay in the closet for very long. I was in there for two, maybe three weeks before she said, “Hey there buddy, want to come out of there?”

I had a girlfriend when I was in the 10th grade, but did not tell my mom. Prior to that, I had a boyfriend, with whom I’d broken up before he went into the military. My mom loved him and so did I. He was a great guy, just not my type.

My two worlds clashed during my sophomore year.

My ex-boyfriend, who was home from overseas, stopped by to see me. I was being a little jackass, for a lack of better words, so the entire time that he was there, I stayed in my room talking on the phone to my girlfriend. We had been “going together” for less than three weeks.

My mom came into my room and was like, “Why did you treat Carl like that?” In the midst of asking the question, she asked who I was talking to on the phone and why was I talking to that person “like I’m a little boy or something?”

I rushed off the phone and instantly answered, “No one!” I later went into the bathroom to get some privacy and I called my girlfriend back. My mom burst in and again asked who was on the phone. I hung up and said no one.

She snatched my phone out of my hand and called the last number dialed. “Who is this?,” she asked in a not-so-pleasant tone. I am not sure what my girlfriend said, but my mom started cursing. Let’s just say that was our last day going together. I did not appreciate her being disrespectful to my mom.

After getting off the phone, my mom came into my room and asked, “Do you like girls?” My response: “I love everybody, Mama.”

She looked me dead in the eye and said I knew what she meant. I told her that I did. I thought she would respond quite fine, and boy was I wrong.

She told me I was sick, and asked whether I wanted to be a man, and whether she had to buy me suits and take me to the barbershop. She made me go to church every day for about a week and a half to pray away that sickness.

I was hurt because I was a good kid, and just like that, I was being damned to hell by my mom. It hurt like hell, and we fought about it for a long time because she raised me to fight for what I believe in, and I knew there was nothing wrong with me. I was going to live my truth whether she liked it or not.

Deja Foster in 12th grade at Wooddale High School. Photo provided by Foster.

She forbade me from wearing boy clothes until I got out of her house, although that was my clothing of choice and she was fine with it prior to her finding out my sexual preference.

Now, while I do not like how that scene played out, my mother did her work. We fought and we eventually got to the point where we were good. She is now my biggest fan and is grateful for who I am through it all. She has apologized.

I am not painting my mother as a monster, but more as a loving mother who got it wrong initially and eventually worked through her homophobia. It’s a problem that plagues many black families today. A lot of parents don’t make it to that second stage.

And in that moment at that meeting with the principal, she was in a state of acceptance and fought for me and my friends.

The path to becoming a homecoming queen

Still, I was fearful and angry. I thought that this would be my life, as a target. It was hard for me to trust the administration after that. I had a nasty taste in my mouth for Wooddale. I was only one month in, really, and I was being demonized for who I was, for living my truth.

Things got better, though. I was a “star athlete” and have an ability to connect with people, so Wooddale turned out to be an affirming space for me.

Only the administration had a problem with my gayness. The students and the teachers embraced me and affirmed me for how I showed up every day.

In 2007, during my senior year, I ran for basketball homecoming queen. My friend, Brian Hall, who also happened to be gay, ran for homecoming king.

I ran because I was fairly popular and I played basketball. I had never done anything like that before, so I was like, “Why not?” He ran because he was very popular, probably the most popular person in our high school! Everyone loved Brian and got along with him. We were pretty close. We spent a lot of time hanging out.

As we began to launch our campaigns, and I use the word “campaigns” loosely, we started talking about how funny it would be if we switched our crowns if we won. We agreed that we would and started telling our classmates. Well, word spread pretty quickly and we were voted basketball homecoming king and queen.

I can’t remember if it was right before or right after we found out that we had won, but the principal alerted us that she knew our tea; that we were planning on switching our crowns. She said if we did, we would be expelled for the remainder of the school year.

For a minute, I thought about being a rebel and doing it anyway, but we decided that the biggest statement was the fact that a masculine of center gay girl and a flamboyantly gay guy just won homecoming queen and king for simply being themselves. I was confused why we would be expelled for such a petty act, but it is what it is. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now.

The reactions were super dope in the Wooddale gym that day. People were cheering us on. And when we went out into the hallway after being announced, folks were waiting on us to switch crowns, but we were like, nah, we didn’t want to get expelled. We didn’t really sweat it though. We were just happy that we won.

Celebrating progress, and being proud of who you are

Unlike Brandon, I didn’t put much thought into what I wore that night. I was hoping I could be presented in my basketball uniform because we had a game that day. My dress was a hand-me-down from someone that my mom knew. It was cute but I wasn’t stoked I had to wear a dress.

But Brandon was a star in his glittering gown. I love the fact that this kid made such a statement for just being who he is.To see the love Brandon’s classmates have for him, so much so that they voted him to Royalty Court, was wonderful. I appreciate the leadership in the school, specifically the principal, Carrye Holland, and how she affirmed Brandon. It absolutely warmed my heart. We need more leadership like it.

I felt proud that this kid gets to be just that, a kid, in whatever way that Brandon wants. Reading his story immediately took me back to my time at Wooddale. So I felt pain because of my experience, but joy because it showed what a difference time could make.

This moment showed us two things; that we have made progress, and that we still have such a long way to go in eliminating homophobia.

The way some adults attacked Brandon on social media angered me, and the justifications made me sick. Homophobia is not OK!

I look forward to the day when stories like Brandon’s aren’t national news. He was just doing what was natural to him, and, as he said, he wanted to be recognized for the queen that he is.

Deja Foster

Deja Foster is a client service associate with Fish and Associates, an all female financial planning firm in Memphis. She is pursuing a master’s in financial planning and counseling at the University of Alabama.

Where Do We Go From Here?

CELEBRATE: Friday marks the 31st National Coming Out Day. “One out of every two Americans has someone close to them who is gay or lesbian. For transgender people, that number is only one in 10,” says the Human Rights Campaign.

READ: The HRC’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report found that “Only 26 percent say they always feel safe in their school classrooms — and just five percent say all of their teachers and school staff are supportive of LGBTQ people.” Read the report. Find more resources about coming out here.

GET CONNECTED: OUTMemphis is an education and advocacy organization for the LGBTQ community across the Mid-South.

ADVOCATE: GLSEN works to create safe and affirming K-12 school environments for students “regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change.

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