The boys in my graduating class of 1992 hated their grey graduation gowns; they joked that they looked like baked potatoes. Meanwhile, the girls wore striking red gowns. Our school colors were reflected in the sea of red and grey on the floor of the gymnasium.
The optics of these two colors could move one to pride, to relief that one made it through high school, or maybe to fear of what is coming next. But also these optics, which can be satisfying visually, have a problem at their core: they support the idea that gender is a binary—girls/boys—and do not create any space for our now better understanding of gender and its fluidity. The tradition of having two colors of gowns should be reconsidered in school communities in order to support non-binary students, transgender students, and any other students who do not see themselves reflected in a binary system of gender.
Elizabeth Meyer, Associate Dean of Students and Associate Professor of Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice at the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, talks about the many instances in which school traditions rely on outdated ideas about gender including yearbook photos, proms, and commencement. She argues,
In the face of these potential harms, the ethical school leader should find a way to ensure that school is a safe and supportive place for students of all gender identities and expressions. Schools can work individually to ensure transgender and non-binary students have options they feel are affirming of their identity, or they can work more systemically to create rituals that are more inclusive and universally supportive of the diversity in their student body.
When celebrating commencement, all students should be able to celebrate themselves and their accomplishments. For students who do not find their identities within a gender binary, commencement forces them to visibly participate in gender norms that deny their existence. Jey Ehrenhalt writes about the need for transgender and non-binary students to be seen, to have their existences recognized, “Transgender youth are looking, first and foremost, for adults to respect their chosen names and pronouns. Making this effort validates young people’s core identity and solidifies their safety.” Forcing a student to choose (or perhaps even being forced into) a gown gendered by color means the school does not validate the student’s “core identity” at the critical moment when that school is launching that young adult out into the world. Even if every other moment during the school experience was validating and inclusive, the final moment when a student walks across the stage—if forced into a certain color gown—can undo much of the good work done by teachers, administrators, and classmates.
The decision to change the gowns to one color (which most higher education institutions do) can be unpopular. Recently the West Chester School District in Pennsylvania announced they would use one color of gown starting in 2020. While much of the community had a positive reaction to a decision that Superintendent Jim Scanlon says “we should have done this 25 years ago,” some members of the community accuse the district of tarnishing traditions.
And that person is right: those traditions are being tarnished. Because they need to be. Holding on to a tradition that invalidates the existences of a population of students is not worth the optics. These graduation ceremonies will look different. But that difference is not bad—that difference in optics signifies the community wants to celebrate all of the students that day in a way that supports each student. That difference signifies that the community has evolved and learned right along with its students and knows that a student’s life being validated is more important than a tradition.