On June 10, we will be graduating from Nathan Hale-Ray High School in East Haddam. Although graduation should be a joyful experience, our rite of passage has already been marred by controversy.
Over what? Graduation robes.
For decades, male students at Hale-Ray have marched at graduation in royal blue gowns, while female students have worn white.
It may seem so to some, but there are good reasons why sex-based distinctions like this one, in our view, violate the U.S. Constitution and Title IX. We have spoken to several law professors, including experts on gender discrimination, who agree with our position. Making whether we are male or female the most visible aspect of our graduation communicates the message that we are, first and foremost, men or women. Yet our gender has nothing to do with the accomplishments we celebrate.
We have studied in the same classes, received the same grades, played in the same music ensembles and will receive the same diplomas. Why then are we being distinguished based on our gender? Even something as arbitrary as separate robe colors creates the impression that our gender is more important than our accomplishments — a climate in which stereotypes flourish. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are only further cemented by the fact that a serious, professional color — blue— is assigned to men, while a color meant to suggest innocence and purity — white — is assigned to women. These symbols are powerful and reinforce harmful stereotypes that reach far beyond any particular sex-based distinction.
We honor and respect tradition; nevertheless, it should not be something to which people are so devoted that it impedes human rights. The law does not allow sex-based distinctions unless they are supported by a very good reason. And tradition is not an acceptable reason. In fact, sex-based distinctions based on tradition are especially suspicious, because they are so often based on outdated, harmful stereotypes.
Imagine having members of different races wear different colored robes at graduation and then justifying that practice based on the fact that we had always treated races differently. Different sports teams for males and females due to sex-based averages in sports ability are one thing, and allowed by Title IX. But just as it would be irrational to have a separate orchestra or physics class for males and females, it is irrational to distinguish students by gender at graduation.
While we are proud of who we are, our gender is not what has determined how we use our minds, serve our communities or learn to live ethically and responsibly. So, it is absurd that our gender is foremost at the ceremony in which these achievements are celebrated.
We are told it is too late to change the policy. That robes have to be ordered. This issue, however, was first raised in early March and we have been raising it ever since. The school administration has stonewalled progress and dragged its feet on implementing the much-needed change. Glastonbury High School just made the change in January when it was announced that all the graduating seniors would wear the same blue robes with white sashes. So should this year’s graduates from Nathan Hale-Ray.
We are saddened that this controversy is dividing our small, close-knit class. Derogatory comments and hurtful posts on social media continue to divide it further.
At the last minute, seniors were hastily given the choice to wear a different color than the one assigned to their gender. This compromise put students in the awkward position of deciding what to communicate, and how. What would it mean to choose the “other” color? What would it mean to conform to the administration’s expectations of us? The “compromise” suggests that the problem is which gender graduation robe we were assigned, rather than why our robes had to even be distinguished by gender at all.
The policy is wrong. And we are embarrassed for our community that it still exists.
Elizabeth T. Ryan will attend Indiana University this fall, where she plans to study music. Jordan E. D’Addeo will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this fall, where she plans to study cognitive science.
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