Move to gender-neutral graduation dress sparks debate in Howard County

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterBaltimore Sun Media Group
Should high schools adopt gender neutral attire instead of having males and female dress in different colors?

A decision by Howard County school officials to require gender-neutral caps and gowns at graduations — instead of girls dressing in one color and boys in another — is drawing opposition from parents who liked the old tradition but praise from others who say it will make transgender students more comfortable.

"I understand it's going to be hard for some, because it's hard to break from tradition and a lot of parents have strong memories of being in school colors at graduation," said Catherine Hyde, mother of a transgender graduate of Marriotts Ridge High School and a parent facilitator for the local chapter of PFLAG, an organization for families and allies of the LGBT community.

"This is a move that will help all of our students feel more comfortable and welcomed," Hyde said.

Howard County's move comes as other school systems also are considering gender-neutral graduation attire. Last year, three schools in Montgomery County opted to have one color for both boys and girls, though that county has not imposed a system-wide directive.

The Maryland State Department of Education issued recommendations in October for providing "safe spaces" for nonconforming gender students. The recommendations were not binding, but encouraged school systems to "consider gender neutral dress codes for class or yearbook photos, honor society ceremonies, graduation ceremonies, or dances." Spokesman William Reinhard declined Tuesday to comment on the issue.

Howard schools spokesman John White did not attribute the change to the state guidelines, saying it was made in large part for uniformity and efficiency at graduation.

"But we do want to make sure the ceremonies are welcoming for all students," White said.

White said in addition to wearing one color, boys and girls in all of Howard County's high schools will line up together in alphabetical order at commencement, not separated by gender.

Frank Eastham, the system's director of school administration, said he made the decision based on input from high school principals. He said the county's Mount Hebron High School made the change last year, and other principals had requested a single color in years past. When time came for a review of graduation procedures, principals agreed as a group that "we should go ahead and move to one color."

Some parents are questioning the benefits of Howard County's changes.

"Why take away tradition?" said Anne-Marie Colgrave, whose daughter is graduating from Marriotts Ridge in May.

Colgrave said the move will actually hurt nonconforming gender students.

"Forcing gender neutral, this causes animosity instead of promoting diversity," she said. "They're trying to support the minorities, but you're making yourself stand out because you're a minority, and there will be backlash. It's not going to help your cause, it's going to hurt it."

Members of the Howard County school board say the policy change has a great benefit that outweighs any potential negative impact.

"I would wager that any parent or student out there who is perturbed by the suddenness of this change would be grateful for the opportunity to make a fellow student more comfortable in this way," said school board member Cindy Vaillancourt.

Vaillancourt called having one color for all graduation gowns "a relatively small gesture or 'sacrifice' ... that might have such a significant positive impact for one of their classmates."

Some other local jurisdictions have also considered policies regarding the practice of having boys and girls dress in different colors for graduation.

In Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, officials said there is no system-wide policy regarding gender-neutral graduation gowns. In Carroll County, director of high schools Kim Dolch said she didn't know if gender-neutral graduation attire had ever been discussed.

In Harford County, schools spokeswoman Jillian Lader said Aberdeen High School has decided to use gowns of one color this year.

"This change is made at the school level and was decided because the focus of graduation is on the unity of the class, and that each student has achieved the same goal," she said in an email. "Other schools are having similar discussions, but have not made any changes at this time."

Public schools are not the only institutions considering a change. Madelyn Ball, principal at John Carroll School in Bel Air, said administrators of the private Catholic school do not plan to change policies for the current school year, but may consider changes in the future. Currently male John Carroll seniors wear black caps and gowns for their annual commencement ceremonies; females wear white caps and gowns.

"I don't want to be behind the eight ball when that situation could arise," Ball said.

Amy Sauerwalt, who works for PFLAG National — and is the mother of a transgender student in Howard County — said she was "wary" of attributing Howard County's decision to gender identity "and turning it into something people feel like they have to rally for or against."

"But yeah, it's a great byproduct of what is an efficiency in procedure," Sauerwalt said. "It's really cool to see gender not be a distinguishing element in what is a celebration of the student's accomplishments."

Hyde, whose transgender daughter began transitioning from male to female during her junior year of high school, said when her daughter received the graduation gown order form at the start of senior year, she didn't know whether to check the "female" or "male" box.

"She said, 'Mom, what am I going to do? Maybe I just won't go to graduation,'" Hyde recalled. "I was in tears, and I told her, 'You've earned it. If you want to walk with the girls, you're going to check the female box and we're going to make it work."

While Hyde's daughter was allowed to wear the color associated with her transgender identity and sit with the other female students, Hyde thinks that these students should not have to make such a decision.

Students in some Howard County schools began ordering their graduation caps, gowns and other materials this week.

When Marriotts Ridge senior Grace Ellrich, 18, found out about the change Tuesday — that all students would wear navy blue this year — one of her first concerns was that she would not be wearing the same color that her older sister wore to her graduation.

"But I get it, and I think that's an important thing, that everyone's comfortable on graduation day," Ellrich said. "That shouldn't be a stressful point. ... If it is that big of a deal even to one person, then it's worth it for everyone else to put their opinions aside to make that person more comfortable."

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Erica Green and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters David Anderson, Cindy Huang and Lauren Lorrichio contributed to this article.

lphilip@baltsun.com

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