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It’s a late Thursday afternoon and Trevor Wilkinson is doing what college students love doing, but with a twist for which he is today well-known.
Chilling in his cozy dorm room, the 19-year-old is showing off his meticulously painted — and boldly colorful — fingernails while recounting his journey to teenage activism.
A first-year pre-law student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, Wilkinson is at once youthful and wise beyond his years — still very much a kid but clearly comfortable stepping up and leading political battles many young people could hardly imagine.
Wilkinson rose to national leadership in 2020, when he was repeatedly suspended from his Abilene, Texas, high school for refusing to remove the polish from those same nails that he’s proudly displaying via Zoom. Outraged at his treatment by school officials — and embolded by his own research into Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools — Wilkinson organized an online petition titled “Allow males to wear nail polish”:
Hello, my name is Trevor Wilkinson and I am a senior at Clyde High School. Today, I got ISS (in school suspension) for having my nails painted. I was told that I will continue to get ISS until I take them off. It’s a complete double standard because girls are allowed to paint and get their nails done. Not only that, but freedom of expression is validation enough that the dress code and policy is not okay. I am a gay male and I’m beyond proud. This is unjust and not okay. Help me show that it is okay to express yourself and that the identity that society wants to normalize is not okay. I am a human. I am valid. I should not get in trouble for having my nails done. Sign and share this so people like me don’t have to ever deal with this again. It’s time for a change and that time is now. Thank you;)
The simple but eloquent plea for tolerance quickly became a viral sensation and eventually garnered over 400,000 signatures.
“I never expected much to happen because of my nails, maybe just some compliments from my friends,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not a big news person; I didn’t even really know what Good Morning America was,” referring to the ABC television show where he made an appearance.
But Wilkinson’s petition — and social media posts that decried his suspension and gave contact information for most of his high school’s administrators — positioned him as a leader of a generation of youth challenging the gender and sexual identity status quo in public schools. He rallied dozens of students to his cause, negotiated with officials, and spoke before the school board in an effort to get Clyde High School’s gender-based dress code overturned.
Last April, the Clyde Consolidated Independent School District amended its policy, and it will no longer punish boys for wearing makeup or nail polish.
Today Wilkinson at the tender age of 19 is already a media savvy queer champion living in this conservative West Texas academic community with his best friend, a Christian conservative. He is an outspoken, seasoned leader, part of a new generation of youthful LGBTQ champions reimagining what equality and queer life can and will look like in the future. He’s studying sign language so he can help connect with, and advocate for, the deaf.
“Young people today are claiming their voices far sooner than at any other time in history,” said Wilkinson, referencing studies indicating that at least 20 percent of Gen Z, ages 10 to 25, identify as queer and far larger numbers support full equality under the law. “There are still a lot of battles to face. But I only see things going up from here.”
“Young people today are claiming their voices far sooner than at any other time in history. There are still a lot of battles to face. But I only see things going up from here.” — Trevor Wilkinson
LGBTQ Nation chatted with Wilkinson about how he developed his leadership ability, his role models, life in Texas, and why painting his fingernails has become such an important symbolic aspect of his young adult identity.
What’s life like at college in Lubbock? You have a roommate now.
He’s very different from me, he’s straight, religious, far more traditional and conservative. But he has become an amazing friend — he accepts me for me, he’s always there to support me. He’s more reserved, not so “warm and fuzzy,” but he is a great human being and the kind of person I could see attending my wedding one day.
You grew up in a fairly religious community with traditional values – and yet you decided to paint and polish your fingernails, a very public statement people associate with being queer, assuming the person in question is male.
I’ve always known West Texas was conservative as it is located in the Bible Belt. I have heard numerous anit-gay remarks, and I am usually more surprised when I hear a positive response about the queer community than I am a negative remark. My story is a little different from the stereotypical coming out story. Because I was so involved in school, especially in sports, everyone was really nice about it at first. Once I started defying gender norms, painting my nails, wearing “riskier” clothes, and expressing my sexuality, that is when I started to receive backlash. I knew plenty of gay people, most closeted because of the Bible Belt, and by senior year I only associated with predominately queer people because they loved me, for me.
When did you come out?
I came out to myself in my junior year of high school, which was a very scary process. But even though I was “out,” I still acted like I was straight, still pretended to be someone I was not. I would dress like I was heterosexual, I played sports — I did anything and everything to not “look” like I was gay.
When did this change?
During my junior year in high school I spent time in Minnesota with family — and things felt very different and far more open there. And that is where my cousin and I painted my nails for the first time. I love bold colors, so we painted them a rainbow.
How did it feel, having your nails painted?
It felt great — I looked at my nails and thought, “Whoa, these look really great.” But we were just playing with it — just having fun. Plus, I knew that when I returned to Texas, I would have to take off the polish.
Because it would just be too hard in Texas — I would have to constantly explain myself, constantly explain why I had painted my nails the rainbow.
But you did do your nails in Texas – as the whole world now knows.
Yes, I did. Fast-forward to my senior year and a friend asked if I wanted to get my nails done. I did, of course, but I also told her that I’d be attacked the moment I walked out the door. But she encouraged me — she said I would be fine. And so we went to a salon and I had my nails done in black with white flames.
But it took some time before you felt secure enough to wear the nails to school.
Yes, during the pandemic I went through a process internally of really accepting myself — and I realized that even though I was out, there was part of me still in the closet and that this was a very real injustice. So when we returned to school, I began to confront this injustice — and really all forms of injustice.
“During the pandemic I went through a process internally of really accepting myself — and I realized that even though I was out, there was part of me still in the closet and that this was a very real injustice.” — Trevor Wilkinson
And that is when you showed your painted nails at school.
Exactly. Because I was pretty well-known at school, always at the top of my class. Plus I live with my grandfather (Wilkinson’s parents have not been part of his life for years) who’s my best friend and absolute biggest supporter. He’s incredibly supportive and one of the main reasons I kept my nails painted.
So you wear the nails to school for the first time – then what happens?
There is one teacher in particular who’s always had issues with me — she’s very, very conservative. I thought maybe she would just ignore the nails, but almost immediately I hear, “Trevor, what’s on your nails? You know that’s against the school dress code.” Eventually I was sent to the principal’s office; they told me the nails were a “distraction,” and that I was breaking the rules.
How did you respond to this?
I asked why it is OK for girls to wear nail polish, why is it not a distraction for them? Why is there this double standard? I really struggled with what to do here. I cried a lot over the situation — and seriously considered taking the paint on my nails off.
But you didn’t.
No, I thought, “Why should I take them off to satisfy people who will never see my point of view, never agree with me. Why should I take them off when it’s the school’s job to foster a positive learning environment for me?” And then my friend suggested an online petition almost as a joke. I thought I would get maybe 1,000 signatures at best — but in just a day or so it went up 30,000 and then even more. And then I posted on social media — and then the mainstream media contacted me and it totally blew up.
“I asked why it is OK for girls to wear nail polish, why is it not a distraction for them? Why is there this double standard?” — Trevor Wilkinson
You put the names of your school’s senior faculty and their contact information on social media. That was pretty courageous.
Yes, and the post was reposted and reposted — the moms in the community were particularly active. The moms just knew that this was wrong and once the moms got involved, everyone was talking about it. So many people were contacting the school that they had to turn off the phones.
Why do you think your teachers and principals felt that they could tell you how to look?
Well, it’s a sad reality that homophobia still exists, especially in the South. And I think people here have just become accustomed to this idea that some people are inferior. They’ve grown up with this mentality their whole lives. But that does not make it right. I don’t care how you were raised. You don’t get to be homophobic. It doesn’t make homophobia OK.
Have you always been an activist and leader?
Oh, definitely. I’ve been fighting my school, my community for the majority of my life. But I think the activism really took off in my senior year of high school. I sort of became better at arguing, more mature in my approach. I began to research topics so I could back up my points. I guess you could say that I really found my voice.
Why do you think so many people felt such a strong connection with your story?
I think people want to live as their most authentic selves regardless of how they’ve grown up or where they call home. I think people looked to me and maybe were inspired by me because this was a battle about being your authentic self. It was an emotional battle — and folks just naturally connect with emotion. Seeing people offer such support really made my heart sing.
“I think people looked to me and maybe were inspired by me because this was a battle about being your authentic self.” — Trevor Wilkinson
You’ve become a role model for many. Who are your role models?
Well, first and foremost there’s Harry Styles. For me he is just perfect — I love his style, I love that he wears a dress, love that he couldn’t care less what people think about him. There’s also rapper Lil Yachty, who also became a role model. He has a nail polish line and actually sent some to me. I love [Congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is my queen. And I absolutely adore [voting rights leader] Stacey Abrams. And, of course, my grandpa. If I can be half the man he is, I know I will be just fine in the world.
Tell us about Grandpa.
My grandpa has always been my biggest supporter in everything I’ve ever done. Even if he did come from a conservative background, he himself has never been conservative. He has always been wholeheartedly a Democrat.
Many people might find this surprising.
It’s important to note that not all older people are instantly conservative or homophobic. And thinking like this makes us no better than people assuming every gay person is going to hell. My grandpa was one of the first people to find out that I was gay. He reacted how every parent or parental figure should. All he said was, “OK, I love you for you, and that won’t change because of who you love.” He never changed. He has always been by my side and supports me in anything I do. I have been very lucky to have such a strong support system.
Let’s talk some more about your nail polish. Where do you get your nails done?
Well, now I get a lot of polish sent to me from fancy companies, posh companies. Which is great. I have so much polish, way too much – like over 200 bottles. Which is crazy because usually, I just like to get my nails done at a salon.
And what about your boyfriend? Does he like your nails so bright?
He’s totally supportive of me wearing polish; he loves my nails when they’re polished. But he’s still newer to the process of accepting his sexuality and likes when I wear colors that are more subtle, like blacks and grays.
What do you think about this legislation in Texas (and Florida) targeting queer youth?
I think it’s blatantly clear why these laws are happening. We live in a society where unless you are a white cis male, you are subject to discrimination. Sure, there are more gay people than ever, but that doesn’t mean that the queer community won’t still face adversity. After all, we’ve been a target all throughout history.
What do you mean?
How many people died during the AIDS crisis because the government wouldn’t help solely on the basis of who they loved? I think parts of our country hate diversity, but that doesn’t mean ignorance will prevail. We are seeing young queer kids stand up far more than any of our ancestors were able to — these attempts to limit peoples’ identities won’t succeed and I believe that with everything in me.
And yet there is progress. Your own former school district updated their dress code to make them more gender-neutral because of your activism.
And this makes me feel amazing. The students of Clyde High School deserve a gender-neutral dress code that doesn’t limit their self-expression. This is also a huge win for the LGBTQIA+ community. Queer students can now express themselves in ways they never could before. I think that’s a massive victory in my eyes. All students deserve to be able to express themselves without archaic and homophobic rules.
Why do you think communities like the one where you grew up find it so hard to support their LGBTQ young people?
More than anything I think the root cause is conservative religion, which can play such a large and detrimental role in queer kids’ lives. We are so indoctrinated from such a young age to fear God, to follow Jesus, that we will go to hell. That our entire existence is wrong.
Is this how you were raised? Are you still battling these messages?
I was definitely raised religious, definitely taught that being gay was wrong. And it remains a process for me to unlearn these messages. I am still trying to grow every single day, just like everyone else is. I still have a long way to go, but I love that I can now form my own opinions, love that I am able to grow into myself and become a completely different person. Eventually I want to leave Texas, become a lawyer and live on the East Coast. Or maybe California. I could totally rock California.
“We are seeing young queer kids stand up far more than any of our ancestors were able to — these attempts to limit peoples’ identities won’t succeed and I believe that with everything in me.” — Trevor Wilkinson
Why do you want to be a lawyer?
Before my mom left my life, she liked to say that I came out of her arguing. I have known that I wanted to be a lawyer forever. I genuinely can’t see myself doing anything else. I want to fight for people who don’t have a voice. I want to change the discrimination that not only queer people face, but every minority in America faces.
How are you making this happen?
I am studying the sciences and humanities of our world with four concentrations in the field of law in an honors program there at Texas Tech. I am reading massive amounts of texts that range from politics, to the Supreme Court, to gender identity. It’s one big process, and I take everything that I have learned with me as I navigate through it all.
Are you worried about the people you may be leaving behind when you move out of Texas one day?
If I do end up moving out of the area, I know Texas will be OK. There are more gay people now than ever, many of whom will likely end up being far more ground-breaking than myself.
I will always have hope that the queer community here will prevail and fight the discrimination our state enforces on us, that includes now and forevermore.
David Kaufman is a New York-based writer and editor.