Metro

High schools changing rules for gowns at commencement

Graduation traditions across the state required girls and boys to wear differently colored gowns

Young men and women wore different-colored gowns at East Longmeadow High School’s 2014 commencement.
Neil A. Hawley/The Republican
Young men and women wore different-colored gowns at East Longmeadow High School’s 2014 commencement.

For years, Sharon High School parents had help finding their sons and daughters among the sea of gowns on graduation day: boys all sported deep maroon, while girls wore pristine white.

But last year, students approached principal Jose Libano with a proposal: end the tradition, which alienated some students. Now, all graduates wear maroon.

Around the region, longstanding customs of assigning graduation colors by sex are giving way to new realities, driven by transgender student activists and supportive educators and classmates of all stripes.

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The change reflects a growing awareness that simple categories of male and female do not fit every teenager.

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Some are transgender but unprepared for a highly public declaration, students and educators said; some are sorting out their gender identity, and others feel they are not strictly male or female but somewhere in between.

At Sharon High, a vote by students to embrace a single robe color was a simple gesture that demonstrated the school’s inclusiveness, said senior Elizabeth Weiss, 17.

“It was just the color of a gown, and it was so that everyone could feel safe and welcomed at graduation,” Weiss said.

The idea of boys wearing maroon, red, or blue gowns while girls wear white — it is almost always white for girls — might conjure images of grads fluffing bouffants and pompadours beneath their mortarboards, but the gender divide still exists at some Massachusetts schools. It is unclear how many, because the state does not keep records of graduation policies.

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Duane E. Fox, president of University Cap & Gown in Lawrence, said many of the 400 high schools his company serves across New England, New York, and New Jersey have long used one color for all students, but others are just now making a change.

Fox, who has outfitted grads since the early 1970s, has observed a gradual shift across the past five or six years that moved into high gear this spring, as about a dozen schools, mostly in Massachusetts, eliminated gender divides.

“It has created a lot of extra work for my office, I will say that. We’ve had orders already packed and shipped to the schools that they’ve called us and changed — I won’t mention any schools,” he said with a laugh.

Gina Flanagan, principal at East Longmeadow High School, said her district has worked to implement changes since the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act took effect in 2012, barring discrimination in housing, employment, and public education.

A 2013 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidance document encourages schools to reevaluate gender-based policies, including dress codes for graduations and proms.

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“We’re trying to support the new law . . . but we’re also, more importantly, trying to support students who might feel uncomfortable on a day that really is an important day for them,” Flanagan said. ”

The high school will move to red gowns for all students next spring.

Joe Piemonte,18, a senior and President of the East Longmeadow HighSchool Gay-Straight Alliance.
Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
Joe Piemonte,18, a senior and president of the East Longmeadow HighSchool Gay-Straight Alliance.

Emily Dunlop and Joe Piemonte, student leaders of East Longmeadow High’s Gay Straight Alliance, said the group encouraged peers to respect transgender classmates — though not everyone was immediately supportive.

“A lot of kids took to Twitter, and they were kind of protesting people’s existence,” said Dunlop, 17. “That was kind of hard to see . . . but there was also a lot of positive support.”

“Even if we only reached one person, it’s still one more person that’s more accepting,” said Piemonte, 18.

Jennifer Faulkner, the group’s faculty advisor, said that even as gay, lesbian, and bisexual students have become widely accepted by peers, until recently she had not seen much progress for transgender students since she graduated high school in 1996.

“But they’re catching up rapidly, especially in Massachusetts, because the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been so supportive,” Faulkner said.

Flanagan said the change also reflects evolving attitudes about men and women.

“In 2015, when we’re constantly trying to promote our female students to get out there and feel that they are just as qualified for anything as a male student, it seems a little archaic to separate by gender,” Flanagan said.

While East Longmeadow and Sharon shifted to a single gown color, other schools have found varied ways to resolve the issue.

Franklin High School students voted to maintain blue and white robes but let each student choose a color, according to Peter Light, the school’s principal.

“I think we were able to move it forward, in that we don’t discriminate on any group of students on any basis, and yet we were able to keep some of the tradition of Franklin High School,” he said.

At the Bromfield School in Harvard, students also chose to keep blue and white robes, but to assign them randomly, said principal James F. O’Shea.

The issue remained in flux last week, O’Shea said, with some still opposed to abandoning tradition.

“It mostly comes from the young women,” he said. “It has been expressed to me that they’ve seen themselves in the white robes; it’s part of their image of graduation.”

At University Cap & Gown, varied solutions mean workers must be especially attentive.

“We’re used to packing by gender. In a lot of cases, that’s how it’s been for 80 years,” Fox said. “Now, when they’re packing the order, they really have to read those labels.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.