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Graduation robes reflect changing attitudes toward gender identity (+video)

Why some high schools are switching to gender-neutral graduation robes – and others aren't. 

The Damascus High School Class of 2015 walked across in the stage in identical green caps and gowns for the first time in the school's history, thanks to a new gender-neutral graduation robe policy.

Damascus, along with three other schools in Maryland's Montgomery County, recently abandoned its old practice of having male and female graduates wear robes in two different colors. Instead, from now on, there will be one gender-neutral robe for all. The change was implemented after students in the gay-straight alliance at nearby James Hubert Blake High School sent letters to area schools urging them to consider transgender students. 

Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), says that the recent trend of gender-neutral graduation robes is just one example of the power of student advocacy. According to Byard, "a lot of student groups are coming together to ask for this change." 

“This specific focus for student advocacy has been relatively recent," Ms. Byard says in an interview. "I think, fortunately, we have seen some progress in some areas that allows students to turn their attention to this level. A lot of student advocacy has been focused on the bare essentials of safety and violence, but recently there’s been more attention toward discriminatory practices of schools." 

One such school is Franklin High School in Franklin, Mass., where the administration allowed student government to decide on a new graduation robe policy for the Class of 2015. The issue of gendered robes was brought to attention after the school’s Gay Student Alliance organization raised concerns about transgender students feeling alienated or confused. The school had previously assigned blue gowns to male students and white gowns to female students.

“The biggest complaint is people feel that a minority group is kind of overriding the majority of what the Class of 2015 wants,” said senior class president Conor Lemanowicz in an interview with Boston’s Fox 25 News in December, prior to the student government’s final decision. “They feel that this is a tradition that’s been on since the beginning of Franklin High School. It’s always been in place.”

The Franklin High School Class of 2015 decided to keep both blue and white robes, but allowed students to choose which color they wanted to wear.

A similar compromise was reached in March by members of the Conway School Board in Conway, N.H., after the principal was approached by students from the Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance at Kennett High School. The debate that ensued was a heated one, as members of the school board were divided three ways between maintaining the long-time tradition of gendered robes, letting students choose whichever color they identify with, or switching to gender-neutral robes.

"I would advocate going with one color so people don't have to choose,” board member Syndi White argued at a public session, as reported by the Conway Daily Sun. “I think we want to avoid the potential of one kid getting targeted if they chose another color."

The board originally voted to switch to one color gender-neutral robes, but ultimately decided to allow students to choose whether they wanted to wear black or white.

Byard says that while Kennett and Franklin High Schools have taken a step in the right direction, the schools should question their need for dual-colored robes in the first place. 

“I think if schools choose to maintain gender segregated clothing, the step of allowing students to choose is a very important one," Byard said. "However, it is important for schools to ask themselves why the gender distinction is useful or meaningful, and to really think long and hard about whether it is an important part of their practices.” 

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