Suzanne Perez Tobias

Gender-neutral graduation gowns make sense — in Maize and everywhere

This spring, high school seniors in Maize will file into their commencement ceremonies wearing a unified color.

No longer will Maize High School girls wear white while their male classmates wear red; all Maize High graduates will wear red caps and gowns. Similarly, all Maize South grads will wear black caps and gowns, rather than black for boys and gold for girls.

And that means that finally, transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming students won’t have another needless stress at graduation time.

“Public school districts around the country are making concerted efforts to create safer, more inclusive, and more effective learning environments for all students,” Maize officials said in an e-mail message to students and parents this week.

“Today and in the future, we would like to celebrate our district’s tradition of friendship and support above a tradition that involves what colors we wear.”

Smart move.

Gender-specific graduation gowns may be a tradition at many area high schools, but it’s an archaic and dispensable one.

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If schools truly are committed to being inclusive, welcoming, safe places for all students — regardless of race, ability, socioeconomic background, gender identity or gender expression — then the red-for-boys, white-for-girls practice needs to go the way of corporal punishment and drill-sergeant gym teachers.

Worth noting: Nearly two decades ago, members of the Maize High class of 2001 voted to wear all red to their commencement as a show of unity — and at least in part because girls had a hard time finding white dresses to wear under their gowns.

When my daughter graduated from Wichita East High School in 2016, she wore a white cap and gown while her male classmates wore blue.

I recall wondering why any school would visually separate young men and women who were there to celebrate the same accomplishment. On a more selfish level, I grumbled at the idea of having to buy another single-use cap and gown two years down the road, when her brother would graduate from the same school.

By the time my son graduated, East High had switched to all blue gowns for commencement, as English teacher Steve Maack noted in a recent tweet:

“A couple years ago I sat in the principal’s office with a trans student while they explained how gendered gown color causes unnecessary grief at home and school,” Maack tweeted. “East changed to all blue gowns. There were questions, but if anyone complained, I never heard about it.”

Before the change, Maack remembers at least one senior who opted not to participate in his graduation ceremony at all to avoid stress at home about which gown color he wore.

As part of its model policies for schools, GLSEN, an organization that works to create more inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and staff, urges schools to re-evaluate any gender-based activities or practices “and maintain only those that serve an important educational purpose.”

Clearly, gender-specific caps and gowns serve no educational purpose. Neither does the classroom practice of lining students up by gender, holding a boys-vs.-girls spelling bee, or assigning lunchroom seats in boy-girl alternating order.

Tradition can be a powerful force. Maize officials have seen that with some passionate and at times angry feedback from students and others who want to keep the gender-specific gowns.

But this decision is a good one, a caring one, one rooted in tolerance and compassion. If they haven’t already, high schools everywhere should follow suit.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.
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