Stiles Zuschlag, a transgender teenager who transferred to Noble High School in Maine after being asked to leave his Christian private school in New Hampshire, was voted homecoming king at a Friday night football game.
Zuschlag said he never imagined he would discover such love and acceptance in high school.gi
"My heart kind of dropped. I was extremely shocked and excited. I felt like crying — it was the most surreal thing that's ever happened to me, and I hadn't even been there a month yet," Zuschlag told NBC affiliate WCSH-6.
The high school senior's experiences at his new school starkly contrast with the way his former school, Tri City Christian Academy (TCCA), reacted to his transition and gender expression.
After the teen came out as transgender in 2015, Zuschlag said TCCA administrators asked him to hide his transition by continuing to use the women's restroom and playing for the girl's sports teams.
But when he began taking hormones and his transition became more obvious, Zuschlag claims administrators gave him two options if he wanted to continue attending the Christian school.
"I could repent and confess my sins and denounce that I was male, stop testosterone and see Christian counseling," he explained to WCSH-6. "Or the other one is I could do homeschooling under the umbrella of the school, but I could not be valedictorian."
Zuschlag, who claimed to have one of the highest GPAs in his graduating class and aspired to be valedictorian, rejected both options and decided to leave TCCA altogether.
TCCA could not be reached to confirm or deny Zuschlag's account.
Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN — a group that advocates for LGBTQ individuals in education — said TCCA's actions, although discriminatory, are completely legal under the law.
Religious schools like TCCA are exempt from Title IX, which makes it illegal for education institutions to discriminate against or exclude individuals because of their sex.
"To any student that is facing this situation, it's really important that they figure out their sources of support, that they try to build a network of support for the discrimination they might face," Byard told NBC News. "Students have to be clear eyed that religious schools have these exemptions."
Byard also noted that the newest policies at the Departments of Education and Justice have further expanded these schools' right to discriminate.
Byard hopes the people and institutions making it easier to discriminate against students remember this: "There are 50 million children going to school, every single day, and every one is deserving of our support and our concern."
Zuschlag considers himself lucky to find a school that genuinely supports him.
"We want all students to feel like they belong here at Noble High School," Nancy Simard, director of counseling at Noble High School, told NBC's WCSH-6. "That's a small thing we can do to help them feel like they're a part of the community."
Zuschlag said Noble High School did everything in its power to accommodate him and make him feel comfortable expressing himself. He told WCSH-6 that school administrators asked him his preferred pronouns and name and allowed him to decide whether he'd like to play for the girl's or boy's sports teams.
"They took on my burdens as if they were their own, and they made me a comfortable person here," he professed said. "They made sure I was safe and happy, and I really really appreciate that."