Shift to gender-neutral high school graduation gowns meets resistance

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Graduation day at New Rochelle High in New York brings out a colorful display of school spirit. The boys wear purple gowns, the girls wear white — the school’s colors.

It’s been that way for generations of graduates. But that tradition ends with the Class of 2017, when, to make the gowns more gender-neutral, everyone will wear purple.

A lot of alumni and some students are seeing red over the plan. And New Rochelle is not the only school dealing with this controversy. Similar moves toward gender-neutral caps and gowns this year at schools in Connecticut and Maine also ran into resistance.

In New Rochelle, transgender student leader Jackson Riemerschmid, who promoted the change, called the purple-and-white set-up “archaic,” according to Talk of the Sound.

Having everyone wear one color symbolizes equality for all students, including those who “have begun the journey of identifying as transgender, gender neutral, gender fluid, or non-binary gender,” Principal Reginald Richardson wrote in a letter to parents.

“Some have taken the first courageous steps of sharing their truth with their friends and families. Others may have privately identified their gender identity and are not yet ready to share this information publicly.

“Having a single color cap and gown for graduation is an important step toward creating an atmosphere that allows all of our students to enjoy the capstone event of their high school career equally, without the anxiety or fear that gender-specific colors might cause.”

But the news has been met with a petition that calls to save the tradition. It has more than 800 signatures.

People who oppose and people who support the decision aired their views at a school board meeting earlier this month.

“My father and mother graduated in purple and white. I graduated in purple and white. My daughter and two sons graduated in purple and white,” Mark McLean, a New Rochelle High School graduate, told WABC-TV in New York City.

McLean had qualms with the way the decision was made without a public airing. He said his opposition had nothing to do with transgender students.

“The process in which this decision was made was so narrow that it didn’t adequately engage the students, the parents, or the community at large,” McLean, a lifelong New Rochelle resident, told the school board.

“The decision was hastily made in a vacuum, only considering the sensibilities of a small segment of our community, while completely ignoring the vast majority.”

Student Miles Taylor also said the school shouldn’t change a longstanding tradition “just because some people feel a different way,” WABC-TV in New York City reported.

Richardson told Slate that he started hearing students talking about the school’s gender-assigned graduation gowns when he came to the school in 2013.

New Rochelle, which has about 3,300 students from more than 60 countries, is considered one of the most diverse high schools in the country.

Richardson found that the students’ concerns echoed what was going on in society at large regarding marriage equality and gender issues.

“I think it gave my students more courage to be vocal about their reality — they became more confident in their voice because of what was happening in the world,” Richardson told Slate.

When students approached him about the gowns again this school year he talked to the executive board of the PTA and polled seniors.

“What I didn’t want to do was hold a public referendum, because when it comes to civil rights, they never work,” he told Slate. “The people in the minority will always lose — and trying to protect the minority group is what good democracies do.”

The school district’s superintendent, who supported the change, advised him to take the plan to the school board, which approved the plan. But then came the April meeting where unhappy parents showed up.

Richardson wanted to make the change for the Class of 2016. But he postponed it a year after several female students complained that they’d already taken yearbook photos wearing white graduation gowns, according to the The Journal News.

In Connecticut, school officials at Greenwich High met with a similar outcry a few weeks ago when it announced its own plans to switch to graduation gowns of a single color.

There, girls have traditionally worn white gowns, boys have worn red.

The plan this year was for students to wear a “newly designed red, gender-neutral cap and gown,” the school told graduating seniors in a February letter, according to CBS New York.

But as in New Rochelle, students started an online petition to keep the old ways.

“At our last Greenwich High School event we should be given a final opportunity to exercise our freedom with responsibility by expressing both of our school colors,” wrote student Allie Moore, who started the petition.

After hearing how much students disliked the idea, the school backed down, telling seniors they can now wear either a red or white gown with stripes of the opposite color on the sleeves.

Earlier this month officials at Morse High in Maine also reversed their decision to have boys and girls wear blue gowns instead of blue and white, as has been tradition.

Parents and students poured out their opposition to the change on social media.

“I’d like to see us stay in the blue and white, and if a transgender would like to choose their color, choose what they want to wear, than they can do that, but I don’t think the whole school should have to wear one exact same color and change tradition,” said Matthew Belanger, senior class president.

Students this year will be able to choose whether to wear blue or white gowns.