On a cold February night, the Shawnee Mission East gym is packed. It's Senior Night, and the boys' basketball team is taking on the rival Shawnee Mission South Raiders. It's a close game, and the excitement and tension threaten to sweep the crowd into a frenzy.
Well-dressed parents cluster together on the bleachers and the limited floor space. Hordes of younger siblings stroll around in packs, toting soda bottles, red licorice whips and popcorn from the snack bar. The student bleachers line one wall of the small gym. The East kids, a block of dark blue, are separated from their yellow-and-green-clad South counterparts by a doorway. The East fans boisterously cheer on their team. They sing the Olé-olé-olé-olé song and rhythmically clap en masse. At one point, they chant, bull-shit, bull-shit, to the dismay of the official-looking grown-up types who stand guard at the foot of the bleachers. A couple of beefy security guards also patrol the area, and several more are scattered throughout the gym.
Right above the student bleachers is a homemade sign in the East colors of blue, black and white. It reads: "Thank you SME senior cheerleaders." The names of the squad members are listed, including Reagan, Haley, Matthew, Kirby, Morgan.
The cheerleaders split up into two groups that line up on either side of the basket. Matthew Pope — the tallest member of the squad as well as the only guy — takes a spot in the back row. The 17-year-old, who choreographs all the routines, is one of the three co-captains of the squad.
There's another thing that makes Matthew stand out. He's openly gay. At Shawnee Mission East, a school that's often stereotyped as conservative and snobby.
On the court, Matthew is sporting his cheerleader uniform, which consists of black track-style pants and a short-sleeved polyester-blend top that says "SME." His melodic tenor drifts above the din as he yells, "Here we go, Lancers, here we go." During the free-throw shots, the squad members raise their hands; the girls shake their pompoms while Matthew wiggles his fingers. Later, he hoists a girl up so that she's standing on his hands for a couple of seconds before jumping down. And the crowd goes nuts when he performs his signature move: a series of back flips across half the court.
With 3:06 to go before halftime, East scores and trails South by one point. The band starts playing "Good Golly, Miss Molly," and the cheerleaders do high kicks while the students bellow, "Oi-oi-oi!" By halftime, the game is tied at 21.
The senior cheerleaders and drill team members, along with their parents, gather at one side of the gym to be presented to the crowd. Matthew stands in the middle of the group with his mom and older sister. The women receive small bouquets wrapped in blue tissue paper and cellophane. Then they all walk out and line up on the court. The announcer reads everyone's names and college choice. For Matthew, it's either Loyola in Chicago or the University of Oklahoma.
Right after his presentation, Matthew walks the short distance to the student section. He stretches both arms out at his sides in a "come on" gesture, then executes a back flip. The kids erupt in cheers and start chanting, "Pope! Pope! Pope! Pope!"
The game remains tight until the end. With 45 seconds left, East scores and pulls ahead, 43-42. The students start singing, "Na-na-na-na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye." South ties it up with 0.4 seconds left. "Come on, let's go!" yells Matthew, who does another back flip.