A poster is tacked to the bulletin board in every upper school hallway, blending in with event notifications long outdated, vague inspirational messages, and diversity PSAs. Student-produced posters are nothing new in most high schools, and my high school, Cary Academy, is no exception. But the rather peculiar nature of this one sets it apart from the rest. Pictures are taken, disbelieving laughter is heard, and the administration has removed all but one in the course of a week. Like the half-dozen identical posters taped up around the school, this one, too, will soon disappear.
What is it? A friendly, unassuming invitation for something called Shower Club.
Admittedly, Cary Academy is different from most high schools in that it offers more than seventy clubs—something the school touts in its promotional materials—almost all of which meet during the last forty-five minutes of school, three days a week. Some, like Key Club, BETA, and GSA, are of the typical high school variety. Others are less serious community builders, like Low Key Club (in which students chill out in a classroom) or Knitting Club.
Still, Shower Club stands alone, if for no other reason than it's the only one not sanctioned by school officials.
Shower Club, which began toward the end of 2014, is exactly what it sounds like: at 2:45 p.m. or another convenient time, a quorum of about a half-dozen (and sometimes more) high school boys crowd into the gym locker room, strip naked, and take a shower together. "One time we did human bobsledding," one member recounts. (Like the others, he spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.) By that he means: "It's where you soap yourself and the floor up and see who can slide the farthest."
"It wasn't gay," says another. "It was purposefully pushing the comfort zone to be funny. But in hindsight, it seems very gay. And creepy."
According to a founding member, Shower Club started after a sweaty basketball game between friends. The first "meeting" began with using the school showers in the way God intended: to get clean after a workout. But over time, it evolved into something where young male students would cut class to hit the locker room. They saw it not as a political or sexual statement but as a "vague sense of rebellion," as one member puts it—a rebellion without a clear target or agenda.
Students were surprised and amused at first, but eventually most of us got used to Shower Club's presence and came to appreciate it as just another Cary Academy guy thing: offbeat, ironic, unique.
Faculty members rolled their eyes about it, but the school nonetheless took action. Michael McElreath, the assistant head of Cary Academy's upper school, was the first school official to notice what was going on—meaning he was the first adult to see a flyer taped up in the tenth-grade hallway.
"I sat them down and showed them the flyer and said, 'You know what this looks like, right?'' he recalls with good-natured amusement. "Because if you look at the wording on their flyer, it basically says we can all soap each other up, practically. And I said, 'Well, that's not really what the showers are for, guys, it's not a spa.' So I said, 'Shower Club is done. No more Shower Club.' And they understood what I was saying, you know, that it was a joke that got a little out of hand, no big deal, but don't do it anymore."
But it didn't go away—not entirely, though the boys started convening at more appropriate times, like after sports practices.
While school officials took Shower Club in stride, other adults who learned about it were floored, shocked, disturbed, hopelessly perplexed. They struggled to relate it to their own life experience. And they came to the conclusion that Shower Club wasn't a quirky guy thing but a gay thing, or at least atypical sexual behavior. Even the hippest New Age liberals assumed this was a case of boys awkwardly experimenting, expanding their sexual identities.
In part, it's because they don't understand that masculinity at Cary Academy—a small, private, college-prep school of about 850 students in grades six through twelve—defies traditional characterizations. There's no competition to be the Alpha Male; the Alpha Male is whoever is smartest, kindest, and funniest. (The school's store sells ironic T-shirts that say "CARY ACADEMY FOOTBALL—STILL UNDEFEATED," a proud nod to the fact that we're too "academic" to even have a football team.)
But there's something bigger at play, too: a fast-evolving culture that frightens parents of Generation Z—those of us born after the millennials—a rejection of rigid gender norms, an ethos in which things like Shower Club are shrugged aside with benign amusement, not met with moral indignation. McElreath even says he saw a silver lining: this group of "presumably heterosexual young men" felt free to joke about their sexual fluidity in a way that's not derogatory or ridiculous, and to reject rigid perceptions of masculinity.
And this change runs headlong into House Bill 2, a legislative curveball that exposed the chaotic complexities of the concept of gender among America's youth. The people the law was ostensibly designed to protect from bathroom predators—namely, me, a seventeen-year-old white girl—are the same people who find it utterly unusable. It hurts us, it hurts our friends and family. To us, it's something out of the barbaric 1960s.
"It legalizes the language of hatred and intolerance," says fifteen-year-old Katie Regittko, a member of QueerNC's youth program who identifies as nonbinary. "But while the General Assembly attempts to instill a fear of transgender people in society, we're the ones who are actually afraid. HB 2 forces us into places where we are not safe and feel like we don't belong."
Let's pretend for a second that HB 2 was really about protecting us from bad guys—the Charlotte ordinance that precipitated HB 2 "created a loophole that any man with nefarious motives could use to prey on women and young children," said Senate leader Phil Berger—and not scoring political points on the backs of the marginalized. Even then, the law simply ignores how my generation actually thinks about gender. In fact, we've been the ones campaigning for our schools to make bathrooms accessible to all students, not crying for legislators to get creeps out of our stalls.
There's a sense, both in academic research and the popular media, that Generation Z is irreparably politically correct and eager to erase all traces of binary genders. This isn't quite accurate—though my peers and I have trouble pinpointing exactly why. Because while we, for the most part, have more progressive ideas than our parents do, it's a completely different thing to insinuate that all teenagers are completely comfortable with dismantling the gender binary.
We grew up in a transitionary period: the beginnings of third-wave feminism followed the passive feminism of the 1990s, and LGBTQ issues expanded from the narrow mainstream perspective of homosexuality, lesbianism, and sex changes to including the real-world experiences and voices of actual LGBTQ people. And while our parents were left uncomprehending, we had to fend for ourselves, adjusting our perceptions of radicalism versus legitimacy, the acceptable versus the convoluted. This resulted in a generation of young people with widely diverse viewpoints that don't defy the concept of gender but rather redefine the existing norms.
Take, for instance, my close friend and schoolmate Jae, who identifies as nonbinary (and for whom I'll use the pronoun ze). "I think that our generation does have a different view on gender," ze explains, "and that they accept different definitions of cisgender genders and ways of being, and that they are very willing to, like, redefine masculinity."
But here's the catch: it's impossible for any social progression to jump from point A to point Q in a single bound, and it's wrong to assume that Generation Z will.
As Jae explains, "If you threaten the masculinity-feminity framework by being nonbinary, it's like, they're not willing to do that. I think that binary trans people actually fit in really well with this generation and its views on gender, and people are very willing to accept Laverne Cox and people like that, Janet Mock, whatever. They can redefine gender, but they're not willing to accept that they're the ones redefining it. It's just like, they do it very unconsciously."
The question—one that should worry many of the young activists so vigorously protesting HB 2—is this: How much can one generation actually change? Or maybe: What are our goals, and what exactly are we looking to dismantle?
Michael Schwalbe, a professor of sociology at N.C. State and author of the book Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination, points out that gender roles don't just define our social landscape; they also play a role in almost every aspect of life.
"People are probably experiencing more freedom to break free from some of those traditional strictures and be more of who they want to be in everyday life," Schwalbe told me. "But at the same time, a lot of the arrangements in our society are exactly the same as they were when I was a kid, and we live in a very hierarchical society where the power is concentrated at the top of organizations, top of government, top of this competitive economy."
These structures, he continues, are designed for and by the patriarchy. They operate off masculinity itself.
"More women now are able to do this," he says, "to compete with men for status and wealth and power in mainstream institutions, and a lot of these structures that compel us to compete with each other continue to shape our behavior, even if we feel freer in some ways to play with gender identities or express our affections somewhat differently."
The notion of masculinity is changing. But it hasn't yet been toppled.
Not many in my generation are old enough to vote. None of us are experienced enough to be elected officials or policy makers. Power rests with the baby boomers, Gen Xers, maybe some older millennials. Our propensity for activism and socially liberal politics—71 percent of millennials support same-sex marriage, according to Pew, and Generation Z, once we're included in these polls, will likely be even more supportive—can only take us so far, leaving us at the mercy of the adults we've evolved away from.
But the laws those adults pass still apply to us, causing an unpleasant contrast between who's in charge and who those laws actually affect. So when the crypt keepers of the General Assembly pass a law ostensibly designed to protect us, we cry out in protest but are ultimately left powerless—for the time being.
Again, that nagging question: Once we claim those levers of power, can one generation undo all of this?
That's unlikely, Schwalbe says. This sort of epochal change requires overriding hundreds of years of economic and societal constructs, and gender roles can only go away when there are no longer power struggles over the nature of masculinity itself.
But at the same time, Schwalbe can't deny that Generation Z is moving more and more left of center. Take a look at Bernie Sanders's support among eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds and imagine what those numbers would look like if sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds could vote. Trends like #FeelTheBern signify a redefinition without conscious thought, a great restructuring that aligns with our own morals and inclinations toward equity, autonomy, and individualism, a deconstruction of societal power struggles.
I offer Shower Club as a case study of this hypothesis. Though my school isn't known for its ruggedly masculine culture, Shower Club is made up of our own pantheon of testosterone. All of these boys profess security in their straight identities, and we as students and friends have learned not to question them. Boys at Cary Academy, while still being loud and obnoxious and all the things teenage boys are, feel remarkably free to express platonic intimacy in the way that girls are often allowed to, free of questions. So what if they get naked and play human bobsled together?
More important, Shower Club normalizes deviations from society's presentation of heterosexuality, thus making the acceptance of actual LGBTQ identities easier. The thing about Shower Club is that, for the boys involved, it's not really a thing at all.
"It's just a good way to get clean with friends," says a one-time participant.
It was never a big deal—and it never should be. High school kids do stupid things. If millennials should have learned one thing from The Breakfast Club, it's that knowing the reasons behind something is always more important than blindly throwing around executive orders. After all, Shower Club continues to operate, at least sporadically, school sanction be damned.
Abigail Hoile is a rising senior at Cary Academy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "All the Bad Things"