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2019 Graduation Gowns Dilemma

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Earlier this February, student learned the administration was considering going to one graduation gown color instead of the two colors, cardinal for men and white for women, that have been used for the past several years. According to Helena High Principal Steve Thennis, the idea for one color robes has been in the works for a while, but it’s still undecided if it will happen this year.

Thennis said this issue was raised in 2016 when a Dear Colleague letter was sent out saying that gender specific gowns should be canceled in schools. Thennis said that he honestly missed this memo, but Betsy Devos, the United States Secretary of Education, revoked this order in 2018, leaving it up to schools. Last year, several members of Helena High, including the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), promoted the idea of only using one color for the gowns. After the issue became slightly more inflamed, Thennis said that before he spoke to the GSA, he spoke to other student groups including the Leadership Committee of Helena High to gather their thoughts.

According to the GSA President and a GSA representative, both of whom asked to be referred to by their chosen first names, said the gowns were only part of a bigger issue. “Grad gowns are not the biggest issue; that’s not even cracking the surface of what we have to deal with,” said Cole, the GSA representative. The two believed the gown issue is an example of a gendered system not only at HHS but in society.

In a gendered system, transgender and non-binary students face a dilemma in fighting back and facing punishment for their views or staying silent and suffering the consequences of doing so. A primary example of this system at HHS is the locker rooms, according to the GSA representatives. They stated that unused classrooms are offered for trans and non-binary students. Cole suggests that these rooms could be converted into locker rooms for trans and non-binary students so that they can feel safer and have less experiences that make them feel as if they are being treated differently in a negative way in comparison to than their peers. Chips, the GSA President, said, “I have to keep pushing for them [LGBTQ students] and I want them to have a safe environment…Some younger students have experienced a lot of violence.”

Chips indicated the color of the graduation gowns in themselves is of little importance. However, the current, gender-specific gown colors force graduating seniors to make a difficult choice. “It would tear me apart that the [LGBTQ graduates] would either have to out themselves or pretend they’re someone they’re not,” Chips said.

According to Chips, the GSA contacted Thennis in October 2018 about changing the gowns to one color. “I really think he is [trying his best] …overall he’s definitely handling the student body well and preventing the LGBTQ community from being attacked,” said Chips.

According to Thennis, arguments against having one gown color fall into three categories: tradition, cost, and a majority rules viewpoint. Regarding tradition, Thennis said, “It’s not tradition…it has ebbed and flowed throughout our history.” He mentioned that the most recent switch to two colors was due to an MTV show called Laguna Beach, which featured a graduating class with the same colors as Helena High, white and red. The Leadership Committee of that year came to him and asked to be “Laguna girls,” or in other words, to wear white. About the cost, Thennis stated that if Helena High switches to one color for this year’s graduation, he will approach Jostens and cover the cost of gowns that need to be ordered or changed to cardinal. Lastly, when discussing the majority rules argument, or the idea most students have no complaints about gender-specific gowns, Thennis said that the majority should certainly be taken into consideration, but that the minorities of this school matter just as much.

Thennis said parental backlash has been surprisingly sparse. He has received no more than a dozen emails and phone calls. Thennis said that the students’ opinions on the topic outweighs the parents’, considering they will be the ones graduating.

Some students express the idea that they should be allowed to choose their gown color, but when asked about this possibility, Thennis shook his head. “It just doesn’t work,” he said, expressing that there were simply too many complications. Thennis leans towards using one gown color, because it will eliminate conflict and simplify the situation. Thennis said he is trying his best to get the change approved this year.

The gowns, though they do represent a deeper issue at Helena High, shouldn’t stop us from having a celebratory graduation, Thennis said. “That’s what that day should be about,” he concluded.

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2019 Graduation Gowns Dilemma