High school student challenges gender roles with scholarship video
KILN -- Using a glue stick, a contouring kit and the perfect shade of lipstick, Trevor Ladner transformed himself into Miss Annie Thang -- his drag queen persona -- in an 8-minute video that tackled gender roles. The video was his application for a scholarship. It caught Tulane University's attention.
Ladner, 18, was one of 75 students who received Tulane's full-tuition Deans' Honor Scholarship for 2016-17.
Leila Labens, director of strategic recruitment at Tulane, said about 1,000 people applied.
"It's very selective," she said. To be considered, students must be top scholars, have strong grades and be leaders in their high school and community.
The guidelines to enter are intentionally vague -- it's an open-ended project that encourages individual interpretation, Labens said.
"All we provide students is a piece of paper with a box on it," she said. Students have to describe themselves using only that direction.
"It has an academic base but also tells us a little bit about the applicant," Labens said.
Ladner, a drag artist, said his intention in the video titled "Unpack" -- filmed and edited by a friend -- was to show that people shouldn't be confined within the walls society has deemed acceptable. Boxes are meant for unpacking, and in his video Ladner spills out the contents of many boxes. Starting with a little more than a 5 o'clock shadow, he shaves his face clean, unpacks his makeup kit and gets to work.
The script he wrote talks about how "gender roles and society puts people into boxes on how they should act according to the sex they're assigned at birth." The video has been viewed almost 6,000 times on YouTube.
"It's blown up," Labens said of the video. "We're honored that he associated Tulane -- that our name is associated with that video." Labens said Ladner's commentary was "thought-provoking and powerful." She said she's been following the feedback in YouTube's comments section and was "thrilled" to see the positive response he's receiving from the online community.
"A full-tuition scholarship is quite a lot of money, so he just knocked it out of the park with his Deans' Scholarship Project," she said.
Ladner said a package was sitting on the window sill at his Poplarville home Wednesday. Inside was a leather-bound Tulane portfolio with a letter notifying him he was selected as a Deans' Honors scholar. "I wasn't expecting that it would be the scholarship announcement, so it was really exciting," he said. He said he loved that the acceptance letter was very personal.
"It talked about how they appreciated the maturity and insight into my acknowledgement on gender roles and how harmful they could be," he said.
The letter also mentioned New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia. In Ladner's admissions letter, he'd said he wanted to go to Tulane because, "What other college in the nation could you attend a seminar on gender, race and sexuality, and then receive twerking lessons from Big Freedia?"
If Ladner chooses Tulane, perhaps he could get lessons from Big Freedia, the letter said.
"It was really funny, and it was really personal, and I thought that was really cool," he said.
Ladner will tour Tulane's campus March 6 and 7 and he said it's a top school choice. His mother, Mary Ladner, likes that it's close to home.
"I love the city of New Orleans, so I know I will be happy there," he said.
Hancock High Principal Tara Ladner said, "He represents this school well.
"I'm just really proud of him. He is like one of many others who we are going to be watching, because he's going to do great things."
Mary Ladner said her hardworking son is deserving of the scholarship.
"We are very excited and we are very proud," she said. "Just knowing he earned it by his own hard work -- he wanted a 31 on his ACT so bad, and he got a 32. Literally everything about him is perfect, (except) the kid can't drive."
Ladner's little brother, 15-year-old Hawk football player Trenton Ladner, is also proud of his brother.
"I was just as excited as he was," he said. "I went around telling all my buddies that he got the scholarship."
Trenton will be his brother's escort Friday in the school's womanless beauty pageant, a fundraiser for the history and government club. It will be the first time Ladner will perform as Miss Annie Thang in front of his classmates.
He said the scholarship video gave his fellow students insight about the LGBT community and gender roles in society. Many he would have never expected to watch the video had been asking him if he had any word yet about the scholarship.
"I think for many people, it's really changed how they look at other people, especially with gender perceptions," he said.
A lot of Trenton's teammates will be competing against Ladner, but he said none of them has a chance beating his older brother.
"They have no apprehensions about it," Ladner said. "They seem to be really supportive. I definitely think people are becoming more supportive -- those boundaries have transcended, and it's really amazing."
Ladner performs as Miss Annie Thang about twice a month, and the money he earns on stage furthers his aspirations.
"The money that I've made in the past either goes towards more drag or towards school things that I need," he said. Last semester, he used it to pay for his advanced-placement chemistry, English and calculus tests that will tell if he'll get college credit for some of his high school courses.
Ladner said several friends who are old enough to attend drag shows come to support him, and his entire family is in the audience. His mom is his No. 1 fan, and his father attended a performance for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
"He was apprehensive at first, but he said that I was really pretty," Ladner said. "He did end up enjoying it."
Miss Annie Thang will perform March 5 and March 26 at Club Veaux in Biloxi.