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Stony Brook University homecoming court finalists applaud gender-neutral titles

Stony Brook University homecoming court finalist RJ Samadal

Stony Brook University homecoming court finalist RJ Samadal performs for judges as the selection process gets underway on Thursday night. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Allilsa Fernandez fully expected running for Stony Brook University's homecoming court to be a challenge.

After all, Stony Brook University has crowned a homecoming "king" and "queen" since 1984. But Fernandez, a senior psychology student, is nonbinary — they do not identify as male or female and use they/them pronouns — so king and queen didn’t feel right. Fernandez had hoped running for the court could challenge the idea of who got to represent a school with such a diverse community.

“I’d never seen nonbinary be represented before. Never in our pictures in past decades has there been a person dressed as neither male or female,” said Fernandez, 35, of Briarwood, Queens. “It was so important to me to have that representation.”

Fernandez ended up being surprised by just how ready Stony Brook officials were to make inclusive changes. This week, the school said it would do away with crowning a king and queen and instead select three “royals,” regardless of gender, from a single pool of finalists. The university said the decision came after it learned that some students, especially transgender and nonbinary students and others in the LGBTQ community, had felt excluded by the process.

“We’d heard that for some of our really wonderful talented students, that when it would come time to try for homecoming court, they didn’t give the notice a second look,” said Jeffrey Barnett, interim associate dean of students and chairman of the homecoming committee. “To them it was a process that wasn’t for them.”

For Fernandez, the shift to gender-neutral homecoming titles was a victory for inclusivity. But it also relieved some of the pressure to be a successful advocate. Fernandez said they no longer had to figure out how to fit in to get the platform they wanted.

“I wanted to advocate for it while I was running and then this just happened,” Fernandez said. “I felt I didn’t have to be someone else.”

The school had scrapped dress requirements for the winners several years ago, but the titles and traditions of king and queen still felt exclusive in other ways, Barnett said. Students were still divided into specific races to compete in — king or queen, chosen from finalist pools of five men and five women. The winners would still wear regalia that matched their title, with a crown for king, tiara for queen.

Now, students who run for homecoming court are placed into one pool of candidates. The title of “royal” is gender-neutral and winners get to choose from three styles of regalia.

“It says ‘Hey, we’re standing with our students, we don’t want anyone to feel left out,’” said Nicole Olakkengil, 21, a senior biology and sociology student from Plainview who is running to be a royal.  

Stony Brook isn’t the first school to do away with gender-specific homecoming titles. Penn State University, Purdue University and Northwestern University have made the same changes in recent years.

RJ Samodal, 22, said he’s always wanted to run for the court. The senior physics and psychology student chose not to participate in the race for king in previous years because he wanted to support friends who were running. He worried it would make the competition for a single crown more challenging.

Now it doesn’t feel as competitive when everyone has a fair chance at three spots, he said.

“I’m not anxious about winning or losing, it’s just a good opportunity to inspire school pride and spirit,” said Samodal, of the upstate Town of Horseheads. “We’re just trying to inspire a brighter future.”

He even has his outfit picked out for the big announcement at Saturday’s homecoming festivities, when the members of the court will be announced: a tuxedo with a Stony Brook-red bow tie and accessories.

As for Fernandez, a big part of their school pride stems from how inclusive Stony Brook has become. Win or not, when Fernandez gets to stand on the football field Saturday in an outfit of choice, “it’s not going to be anything ever seen before.”

“I was here when it felt less inclusive and the turnover has been amazing,” Fernandez said. “I hope this opens up the doors for other students coming up, that they realize they matter and they can do it too.”

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