Chloe Martin-Poteet will be wearing a white cap and gown when she graduates this month. Her brother, Julian, will be dressed in royal blue. It’s part of a two-color tradition at James Hubert Blake High School: girls in one hue, boys in another.
That tradition is ending.
As a growing number of the nation’s schools work to embrace transgender students and enact policies to protect their rights, there’s a movement afoot in Maryland’s Montgomery County to make graduation robes gender-neutral, with one color for all. Some students argue that no one should have to wear a garment that doesn’t reflect who they are, nor should there be any separation between the genders as they all cross into adulthood.
“Some people say it’s just a color, but if it is just a color, why can’t they all be the same color so we can be inclusive?” asks Chloe, a leader in her school’s gay-straight alliance, which has pressed for change in letters to principals at the county’s 25 high schools.
With graduation season here, three Montgomery high schools — Damascus, Sherwood and Walter Johnson — have shifted to single-color robes, and at least five others have decided to make the change for next year’s graduates.
Principals at several of those schools said the student letters played a role in the decision.
“They are all Class of 2015,” said Jennifer Webster, principal at Damascus High, where students graduated late last month in green caps and gowns. “Why differentiate?”
Webster said she has worked with students who are conflicted about which gown color to choose because they associate with one gender yet are listed as another. When she received the letter from students at Blake, it immediately resonated. “You’re right,” she recalled thinking as she read it.
The move comes amid growing awareness of the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students nationwide.
“Schools around the country are beginning to reconsider their policies to ensure that unspoken assumptions and long-held ideas about gender don’t have a discriminatory effect on their students,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
There is no district policy about cap and gown colors in Montgomery. Some schools have long had a single color for all graduates, but the dual-color scheme has been popular at others.
The issue arose at Blake last spring after teacher Mary Wagner, faculty sponsor of the gay-straight alliance, got a call from a counselor at another county high school where four transgender students were not allowed to wear their preferred colors.
Students in Blake’s gay-straight alliance came up with the idea of pushing for a change across the county to prevent similar situations. The group, Allies 4 Equality, has a history of activism, winning a national award in 2012.
“It kind of galvanized us to realize there are way more than four kids out there,” Wagner said.
The student group believed single-color robes were the best way to go for many of their peers, including those who are transgender or questioning their gender identity.
So they wrote to the principals last June, noting that colleges use robes in one color as well as practical benefits of a change: Same-color robes make it easier for staff to organize students and for families watching the ceremony to follow along. Girls would no longer have to buy white outfits to wear beneath white robes, and more families would be able to pass down robes from child to child.
“Best of all, students will only be recognized for their accomplishments, which is the true meaning of the ceremony,” the letter said.
But Blake was divided from the outset, with some senior class leaders backing the school’s tradition and the student body generally split.
“A lot of people had a hard time understanding because they don’t have to deal with it themselves,” said Ariel Gomez, who supported the move to one color and is co-president of the senior class.
Co-president Kate Campbell also supported the move, saying that for the majority at Blake, the gown color had only “a superficial importance.” But for some in the LGBT community, she said, “the color of the gown correlates with their identity, and it can be like coming out to their parents and family members on graduation day.”
Jenna Ramirez, who created a petition against the change and gathered signatures from more than 50 percent of the senior class, said she wanted a middle ground in which robes would not be distributed by gender but would continue in Blake’s two colors. Ramirez said she would not want any student to feel uncomfortable on graduation day, yet is attached to the colors, which she wore as a student athlete.
“It’s a sentimental thing, it’s a traditional thing,” she said. One of her suggestions was an alphabetical system: “I think there is a way to keep both parties happy.”
Principal Christopher Berry decided that the school would change to one color starting with the Class of 2016 to give opponents time to adjust and so juniors would know what to expect for next year.
At Walter Johnson, Principal Jennifer Baker said several considerations went into her school’s change this year, including cost, logistics and gender equality. The decision came in the fall, about the time when the school also decided to reconfigure one of its staff restrooms into a gender-neutral bathroom for students and staff.
“We all care deeply about our kids and want all of our kids to feel comfortable,” she said.
Aishling McGinty, faculty sponsor of WJ’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, described the changes as significant. At least four students openly identify as transgender, she said.
McGinty, selected as master of ceremonies for WJ’s 2015 graduation May 29, said she was thrilled to look out from the stage at a sea of students in green robes. “It was incredible,” she said. “What I liked about it was how united they all looked.”
Washington-area school districts have a variety of policies; in Virginia, some high school graduations divide robe colors by gender, and some use one color for all. The D.C. public school system has a gender-neutral dress code.
At Blake, Julian and Chloe Martin-Poteet, both leaders in the gay-straight alliance, said the effort has been rewarding, even as they are scheduled to graduate Wednesday in colors designated by gender.
“For us, it’s a victory,” Julian said. “The change could have come faster, but it was still pretty good.”
Chloe agreed: “It’s exciting to accomplish something you know will last.”