What it's Like to be a Trans Person Graduating High School

March 14th 2015

Aron Macarow

Next graduation season, Seattle-area Franklin High School is doing something different - dropping gendered robes and other gender-specific traditions to make their capstone celebration gender neutral. 

While the Washington school traditionally made boys wear black robes and girls wear green at graduation, they will move to one color robe for all students in 2016. This spring, they are taking the intermediate step of having students proceed down the aisle in alphabetical order rather than paired by gender, and students will be able to sit where they are most comfortable rather than in separate sections for men and women. (School officials wanted to update the robes this year, too, however, administrators say that black and green robes have already been ordered.)

According to Franklin sophomore Elizabeth Huse, fellow classmates advocated for the change in order to make the ceremony more inclusive of transgender students as well as those that don't wish to identify with a gender. "You want to go up and shake their hand and grab your diploma as the person you are and not be confined to something you don't identify as," Huse explained.  

The changes are the result of efforts of Franklin's Gay Straight Alliance, who worked with faculty members and students to make the update. No opposition has been encountered so far per Franklin Principal Jennifer Wiley. 

When asked by Seattle Times about the changes, Wiley's words were simple: "Our traditional ceremony is wonderful and beautiful and formal, and it will continue to be that. It will just take a different shape."

Were gender-specific graduation ceremonies really a problem before? 

My experience as an FTM student graduating from a women's college was not good. I was forced to walk using female pronouns that did not reflect who I was, and I had my birth name called out to cue me to walk the stage for my diploma, which unsurprisingly also featured my birth name. (I was denied the option to walk as a male student; the college has since altered this practice.) 

But I wasn't shocked by my experience. I was graduating as a male student from a women's college prior to the acceptance that transmen have started to see at some women's college's across the nation. I expected to be uncomfortable; I expected to be treated unfairly.

I had never thought that this would be the case in non-gender specific high schools, where this kind of transphobia obviously has no place. 

ATTN sat down with Ethan Lopez, who graduated from Norte Vista High School in Riverside, Calif., to talk about his experience as a transgender student. 

Lopez skipped his high school graduation ceremony entirely because he didn't want to wear the women's robe.

"At the time, my parents were extremely unaccepting of me being transgender and since my mom was a teacher at my high school, I did not feel comfortable asking my principal to wear the 'male' robe," said Lopez. 

He had already been denied the ability to wear the male uniform for his school's agricultural program (Future Farmers of America) by a teacher, which also impacted his decision: "This completely discouraged me from asking to change school policy in my school." 

Lopez's experience sadly isn't unique. A former student at New Trier High School in Chicago, Ill., had similar challenges at her graduation, which she expressed on a Change.org petition aimed at changing the school's outmoded practices: 

Signer on Change.org petition targeting New Trier High's gender-specific graduation traditions.

A male transgender student at a Catholic high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was also forced to wear girl's robes in 2013. 

Transgender students don't just miss out on graduation either. 

"I also did not go to my school's prom," Lopez told ATTN. He opted to skip the event and his grad night because of their gender-specific nature and concerns about bullying. 

When asked how he felt about missing these celebrations, Lopez response demonstrates why it's important for schools to support trans youth: 

"I still feel some regret for opting out of these events as my friends still talk about their prom nights and grad night with such happiness. I only have the memory of staying home and scrolling through Facebook pictures and posts about what I was missing out on. And even though I do regret not going, I remind myself that getting bullied or harassed wouldn't have been any better."

But schools like Franklin High are making it better. 

Will the Seattle-area school start a trend? Christie Wiedt in Ohio hopes so. The concerned mom recently approached her student's school district after speaking with her daughter and other members of her graduating class about Westlake High School's dated gender-specific graduation practices. 

"It would be sad for a student to have 13 years of schooling and then wonder where I fit in all of this?" Wiedt said

Two Massachusetts schools have already switched to a gender neutral ceremony - Dartmouth High and Sharon High - while other Washington high schools are considering following Franklin High School's lead in Seattle. And some schools have never had gender-specific robes in the first place.  

High school isn't normally on the list of tolerant places. Perhaps these changes, often spearheaded by students themselves, should give us hope.

Studies show that 80 percent of trans students don't feel safe at school, and almost one-third of LGB students have skipped school for at least one day because they felt unsafe. Should students feel the need to skip their own high school graduation, too, when the resolution is so simple?


Lopez obviously agrees:

"Transgender youth should not [...] have to worry if their choice will cost them verbal harassment from other peers or teachers or even being physically assaulted after the ceremony. They should not have to face rejection from their principal when they are told they are not allowed to wear the robe that correlates with their gender identity. That is basically telling them that they are not their 'real' gender and can have a lasting impact on that kid's mental health." 

On a day when schools want to recognize the achievement of all students equally, gendered gowns and seating undermine the unity of these events - unnecessarily and unintentionally isolating trans students. Imagine that students were forced to march in wearing pink and blue gowns. Would we feel differently? What about the arbitrary heterosexism of male-female pairs for the graduation procession?

Franklin High School's students are doing something different, however, by focusing on grads not gowns. Franklin Senior Melan Yemane sums up the students' reasoning, saying, "At Franklin, we're all about equality, making sure everyone is comfortable and everyone can learn."

Isn't that the whole point?