Gender-specific graduation gowns spark discussion

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Gender-specific graduation gowns spark discussion

The Class of 2018 at their graduation ceremony wearing gender-specific gowns.

The Class of 2018 at their graduation ceremony wearing gender-specific gowns.

The Class of 2018 at their graduation ceremony wearing gender-specific gowns.

The Class of 2018 at their graduation ceremony wearing gender-specific gowns.

Molly Baldino and Molly Pogue

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The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) has many graduation traditions, one of which is gender-specific gown colors: females wear white gowns and males wear purple. This custom has recently provoked a discussion within the school and Island community that culminated in a meeting between 30 students and 4 adult members of the School Advisory Council (SAC), during which students and teachers were given the opportunity to express their opinions on whether or not this gender-specific tradition should be reconsidered.

While some favor upholding tradition, others believe the ritual excludes nonbinary students and are hoping for a change. With a January deadline for ordering gowns fast approaching, officials are pressed for time with regards to a change in policy.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has taken a stance on the issue in their publication entitled “Guidance for MA Public Schools, Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity.” In it, they state: “As a general matter, schools should evaluate all gender-based policies, rules, and practices and maintain only those that have a clear and sound pedagogical purpose. Gender-based policies, rules, and practices can have the effect of marginalizing, stigmatizing, and excluding students, whether they are gender nonconforming or not.”

Former Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) president and MVRHS graduate, Ev Wilson, initially raised the issue back in June of 2015 by surveying the student body. Responses were too varied to incite any further action. Wilson said, “As an MVRHS graduate, I was given the option to choose a purple or white gown, however, as a nonbinary person who still wasn’t out at the time, I settled on the female gown, my assigned gender at birth, for my safety and to avoid causing any potential discord on my graduation day. I believe one color would be more unifying for a graduating student body without having to needlessly show if a student is a boy or a girl when walking the stage. When you graduate, you graduate as a group who has made it through four years together. Making a very solid divide between gender at this time feels outdated and trivial.”
MVRHS has long held the tradition of two gown colors. Music teacher Michael Tinus said, “One color would be boring. When you look out into the audience and see purple and white, it looks cool.”

Community members are currently in the process of offering suggestions in place of gender-specific gown options. Suggestions include separating students by height or alphabet. While discussion on changes are still being conducted, people around the school are using their voices to try to preserve school colors while dissolving the use of gender to represent them.

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