At halftime at a recent Grant High School basketball game, the Gendrills dance team takes the floor. The crowd noise drops as the dancers run across the floor in matching blue T-shirts. As Maroon 5’s “Lucky Strike” blasts from the speakers and the team begins to dance, one member stands out from the rest.
In the middle of the floor is junior Toby Oliver, the only male on Grant’s dance team since 1982.
As the only male dancer, Oliver can be easy bait for bullies, crude jokes and taunts. His love for dance, though, makes it all worth it. “It really doesn’t matter what people think,” Oliver says.
“I’m proud to be who I am.” – Toby Oliver
Even though Oliver loved dance since middle school, he waited until his sophomore year to try out for Grant’s team. He had to overcome his nerves and worry for how the rest of the world might react. Not only was Oliver worried about being the only guy on an all-girls team; he also feared being teased for his sexuality.
Oliver knew that he was gay in middle school, but hadn’t always felt completely safe or confident about being out. When he came to Grant from da Vinci Arts Middle School, he thought he’d have to be cautious about not getting a bad reputation. But he settled in and realized he could just be himself.
His twin sister, Sydney, added encouragement, which played a key role in Toby Oliver’s comfort level.
Since the day they were born, Oliver and his sister have always had a special connection. Their mother, Kimberly Oliver, remembers a time when they were less than a year old, sitting on the living room floor.
Though they couldn’t talk yet, she says: “It was almost as if they had this little language between them, even though it wasn’t verbal. And it was funny because one would look at the other and they would kind of make a funny little sound and then they would take off.”
Much of Toby Oliver’s personality and sense of artistic expression is a result of growing up in a supportive and open-minded family. From an early age, Oliver and his siblings, Sydney and Cyrus, were all greatly encouraged by their parents to be true to themselves. “I think that most parents just want their children to be happy,” Oliver’s father, Jim Oliver, says. “I think it would be not only wrong, but detrimental to force anyone in a direction of which they were uncomfortable.”
It was a tough decision for Kimberly and Jim Oliver to divorce when the twins were two. “We considered staying together just for the children if that would be what’s best,” Jim Oliver recalls. “But all the experts we consulted assured us that we would do more harm than good by staying together in a loveless marriage.”
Toby Oliver says he didn’t feel like much changed because he was so young when they split. He bonded with both of them. “We’re very close as a family in how we have our little quirks and we are really able to just do anything without being judged,” he says.
Kimberly Oliver describes their family as old fashioned because rather than watching TV, the family members spend time playing games, singing, dancing and being “silly.” Oliver’s mom has never been big on technology or social media, and has laid down several house rules for her kids: No Facebook until age 16, and if you want to use the computer for an hour you have to read for an hour.
“I think people get so wrapped up in technology,” she says. “Lose that family structure and you lose that connection with one another.”
Toby Oliver started his schooling at Abernethy Elementary School, a place he describes as having a “hippish,” earthy environment. The school’s tight-knit community allowed Oliver to feel safe in honestly expressing himself from an early age without the worry of being bullied.
In elementary school, Oliver’s family knew there was a part of him that was unlike most boys his age. “Before I knew what gay was, I always knew that Toby was sort of different somehow,” Sydney Oliver says.
In kindergarten, he wanted to be a fairy princess for Halloween. His parents warned him to be careful of the people who may not support the way he expressed himself. “People probably gave me weird looks, but I mean I was five, so I didn’t really know what those looks meant, nor did I care,” Oliver says defiantly.
When another boy in his class questioned the unusual costume, Oliver wasn’t sure what to think. His mom remembers picking her son up from school that day. He was upset about the boy’s comment. As they drove home, they had a conversation she’d never forget.
She said: “Tober, don’t ever let anybody try to tell you what you should do, or who you should be, or how you should feel, or any of those things. You have to be who you are…It’s a beautiful thing that you dressed up the way you wanted to dress up and that’s the way it should be.”
At da Vinci, Oliver loved having the opportunity to express himself through various forms of art and physical motion. When he was young, his mother repeatedly tried to get him involved in activities that she figured he’d like, such as dance and gymnastics.
But Oliver didn’t want to participate. “There were no other boys in dance…I didn’t really see it as the norm so I didn’t do it,” Oliver says.
Oliver and his sister didn’t take an interest to dance until seventh grade at da Vinci, the year they both took their first dance class. It inspired him. It was “like you’re doing something that you would want to do for the rest of your life and that you never want to stop,” he says now.
Throughout middle school, Oliver struggled with his academics and making friends. “I wasn’t as friendly as I am now,” he recalls. “It was just hard for me to get to know people really well.”
Shannon Wasson, one of Oliver’s teachers throughout all of middle school, remembers Oliver “always faced everything with such a compassionate openness.”
Because he didn’t have a lot of close friends at school, Oliver’s closest relationships were with his family, especially his sister. One of his favorite things he and Sydney did together in middle school was grocery shopping. He remembers one time at the entrance of a Fred Meyer store that he and his sister paused at the same time before entering the store and made imaginary guns with their fingers. When they looked at each other they thought: “It’s secret agent time.” Then they ran into the store, singing the theme song for “Mission Impossible.”
One evening in seventh grade, Kimberly Oliver called the twins into the living room to watch a clip from a new show called “Glee.” They all loved it and started watching the show regularly. It wasn’t long after that Oliver began to notice similarities he shared with a gay character on the show. “I felt like I could relate to it because even though I wasn’t bullied, I did feel a little weird around people and I didn’t really know why,” Oliver says. “He was very awkward around guys and very comfortable around girls, which is how I was.”
After thinking about what these similarities meant to him, Oliver knew he was gay. Sydney Oliver was the first one Oliver came out to about his sexuality. He had to let someone know, but he was still too nervous to come out to the rest of his family.
He knew he could tell his sister, whom he describes as his “lifelong best friend.” “We kind of liked the same things because I’m more feminine than most boys. So me and my sister kind of bonded together because she was a girl and I’m gay,” he says.
Late into a chilly, gray afternoon in early 2010, a seventh-grade Oliver decided to tell the rest of his family. After getting home from school that day, Oliver sat down on the living room floor with his siblings on either side of him. Their mother sat in a chair that faced the three of them. It was time for a family discussion.
The conversation was brief and as usual, very comfortable and casual. To Oliver’s surprise and relief, his mother already suspected his sexuality. She remembers when Oliver was younger and one of her close friends said to her: “Now you know that Toby’s quite not straight.” She laughed before responding, “Oh yeah.”
Satisfied with successfully coming out and being accepted by his mother and siblings, Oliver was still hesitant to announce his sexuality to his father. He waited almost half a year before bringing the topic up to his dad.
Jim Oliver grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. Toby Oliver thought it would be hard because of his upbringing and Southern roots to accept having a gay son. “I’ve always heard about how people from the South were not very welcoming to the LGBT community, so I was just worried of what might happen,” Oliver recalls. “But knowing my dad, I didn’t think that would happen.”
“I knew that people were going to find out sooner or later. I just didn’t want it to be sooner because I didn’t know how that would affect my life.” – Toby Oliver
Oliver initially came to his dad for advice about his sexuality before he officially announced it to him. It was before a family trip to his dad’s hometown in the summer before his eighth grade year. Having not seen any of these family members for years, Oliver was worried about possible reactions to him being gay. He was especially worried about the reaction of “Mama,” his grandfather’s wife.
It was on the way back home from their trip to Louisiana when Oliver decided he would tell his dad. They were eating during a layover in California when Oliver broke the news. Jim Oliver looked at his son and said: “That’s fine. Whether you’re straight or gay you’re still not dating anybody yet…but it’s certainly not a problem for me either way.”
The experience allowed him to gain confidence. “I think that since he announced it, he’s become more comfortable in his own skin,” his father says.
The summer ended and Oliver went into eighth grade having decided to be more open about his sexuality at school. “I just felt free,” he says. “I was a new person. I was talking to people. I was making more friends. I was doing better in school.”
But going to Grant created a new level of anxiety. His mother remembers thinking: “They were at da Vinci, a totally sheltered, positive environment and suddenly things get shifted to high school.”
The transition sent Oliver into a sudden state of worry about creating a negative reputation and being bullied. “Freshman year, I knew I was gay,” he says. “I knew that people were going to find out sooner or later. I just didn’t want it to be sooner because I didn’t know how that would affect my life.”
When Sydney Oliver tried out for the Gendrills as a freshman, she wanted her brother to join her. He didn’t think it was a good idea. “A guy on the dance team wouldn’t make it any better,” Oliver says.
About halfway through his freshman year, Oliver noticed that his grades were improving and he was making more friends. He felt that he finally became comfortable with high school and was able to relax again. “I thought maybe I should just be like this all the time and if people have a problem with it then that’s their problem,” Oliver says.
Oliver decided to try out for the Gendrills his sophomore year. His sister told him about all the fun she had, along with how the practices worked and what it was like to be in competitions. “He sort of got the feel for what the environment was like for dance team and I think he really wanted to join after that,” she recalls.
Today, Oliver couldn’t be happier about his decision. “The dance team is my second family,” he says.
His teammates feel the same way.
“I really admire his dedication,” says senior Lisa Kim, who has been a member of the team for two years now. “Seeing him makes me want to practice. He’s inspiring.”
Senior Madeline Williams, one of the captains, says Oliver is a reminder about why people dance in the first place. “Sometimes I forget that dance team isn’t just about knowing the choreography and being a captain, but it’s about actually liking what you’re doing,” she says.
After high school, Oliver plans to go to an art college to learn how to become a fashion designer. He has dedicated this goal to his grandmother, who died of cancer in 2012. Before she passed away, they spent her last summer together watching “Project Runway,” a fashion reality TV show.
His dream is to live in Paris, considered one of the fashion capitals of the world. For now, Oliver plans to continue to do what makes him happy. “I’m proud to be who I am and I’m proud to be on the dance team,” he says. ♦