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Gender-neutral graduation gowns find advocates

Cindy Huang
Students want to overturn graduation tradition

On graduation day, Annapolis High School seniors collecting diplomas will march through a crowd of their peers in blue and white gowns.

White gowns for girls, blue gowns for guys — that has been the school tradition since at least the 1980s.

Now some seniors are determined to uproot that tradition, saying it’s archaic and meaningless.

One of them, McCall Johnson, is trying to convince the principal to order single-color gowns to be worn by both guys and girls.

Johnson is a part of a Annapolis High club called Gender Issues Real Life Solutions, which has about a dozen members. Members say there’s no reason to separate the girls from the guys during graduation — and that making students pick a color puts transgender students in an uncomfortable spot.

“Times are changing. Shouldn’t we celebrate academic achievement together? We don’t separate by gender by anything we do,” Johnson said.

Students at the school have pushed for the change before, without success.

The latest effort comes as other Maryland schools are choosing gender-neutral dress options.

Howard County recently required all schools to have gender-neutral graduation gowns, a decision that drew both criticism and praise. Last summer, three Montgomery County high schools shifted to single-color gowns, but there is no countywide requirement. This year, many more Montgomery schools will follow suit.

Last month, Naval Academy officials announced female midshipmen will no longer wear skirts or heeled shoes on graduation day. Instead, they’ll wear the same uniform as their male classmates.

In Anne Arundel County, each school makes its own decisions on the color of graduation gowns. South River High School will switch to a single-color gown this year. Other high schools are considering the change.

South River Principal William Myers said the switch to blue gowns for all was prompted by convenience, not complaints or requests. The white gowns required students to wear white attire underneath, Myers said.

Some other schools are considering the change for next year.

At Annapolis High, some students and parents support the change, and others want to stick with tradition. Many more say they don’t feel strongly about the issue, but understand why some want the change.

Henley Beall, a junior, said she prefers the look of the white gowns, but wouldn’t fight to keep them.

“It’s not like a huge deal,” she said. “It’s just a color.”

Beall said she empathizes with people on both sides of the debate.

She predicts that when she graduates next year, she’ll be wearing the same color gown as her male counterparts, because those lobbying for the change are more passionate and vocal than those opposed.

“The people who want two colors don’t really care. The stronger opinion will probably win,” Beall said.

School officials said there won’t be such changes this year at Annapolis High.

Principal Sue Chittim referred questions on the topic to schools spokesman Bob Mosier.

Mosier said Chittim is open to discussing single-color gowns for future graduations, but that it’s too late this year to change the color.

“Any change such as this would have a far more wide-reaching impact than on the few students who are now lobbying for it,” he said in an email.

The school would need to get input from parents, alumni, students and school staff, because the blue and white gowns are tradition, Mosier said.

He added that students can request the color of their choice and such requests have been granted in the past.

But students campaigning for the single-color gowns said they’re not giving up.

When the club met recently, Johnson encouraged fellow members to keep pushing for the change, even if it meant school staff had to reorder the gowns.

“We’re going to get this done,” she said. “I feel strongly.”

Johnson told the others she had contacted lawyers at FreeState Legal, a group that gives legal advice on gay and transgender issues.

The half-dozen students at the meeting said it’s a fairness issue.

“We’re trying to create acceptance at our school,” said one.

“The tradition doesn’t hold up to the wants and desires of those afflicted,” another said.

The group has support from some parents and school officials.

Lisa Pline, a member of Annapolis High’s Parent Teacher Student Association, is conducting an online survey on a switch to a single-color gown. Pline herself would like to see the change.

She said that as of Saturday, she had more than 150 responses, with the majority in favor of a change to a single color. About a third favor the tradition.

“It’s a tradition without a reason,” Pline said. “We only do it that way because we always have.”

Johnson said that that it’s daunting to push a reluctant principal to change a decades-long tradition, and to go against some of her classmates.

“I have to give myself pep talks,” she said.

Johnson said that when people are upset with her, she tells herself, “It’s not about me. They think I’m crazy.

“A lot of the time, I feel like I’m doing it alone,” Johnson said.

Annapolis High students all know Johnson for her unwavering fight for single-color gowns. Any mention of gender-neutral gowns brings up her name.

“I really want to leave something behind,” she said.

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