Gender Troubles at Graduation

Cautionary tales and advice for parents and school leaders.

Posted Apr 07, 2018

The end of the school year is approaching, and graduation celebration plans are underway. This week, a student at a Louisiana high school was told by her principal that the school wouldn’t print her yearbook photo and she wouldn’t be able to participate in graduation. Why? Kami Pham, who identifies as transgender, had the audacity to wear a pink polo shirt and jeans in her photo, and present her hair and makeup in way that was seen as too “feminine” for the school principal. Fortunately, due to grassroots activism (and bit of legal education by the district’s lawyers, I’m sure), the community persuaded the school board to reverse the principal’s decision and allow her to fully participate in the end of year celebrations. A similar yearbook photo case in Mississippi in 2011 already demonstrated that schools should not discriminate against its students based on their gender expression. This school now has all students photographed in gender-neutral graduation robes.

Pxhere/public domain
Source: Pxhere/public domain

Sadly this story is fairly common. During key rituals and turning points in the school year (prom, homecoming, graduation), many transgender and gender nonconforming youth are put in impossible situations where they must display their gender in ways defined by their school, but don’t always reflect their identities. Many schools have graduations gowns that reflect the school colors and assign one color to boys and one color to girls – what do non-binary, genderfluid, or agender youth do? In some private schools, girls are expected to wear dresses and boys a coat and tie: What are transgender or gender nonconforming youth supposed do? Some may opt not to participate at all since the choice between celebrating their accomplishments with their peers or having their identities fully expressed and affirmed is a difficult one — one we shouldn’t be forcing students to make.

In a forthcoming book, Paths to Gender Justice in Education: Theories & Practices, (Information Age Publishing) I have a chapter titled, “Transgressions and Consequences: Enforcing gender conformity in school,” that analyzes controversies that have played out in the media around gender expression in schools. The 8 cases I analyze include: yearbook photos, teacher harassment of students, and gendered dress codes that have excluded kids from school functions. I examine how Title IX, Equal Protection, and the First Amendment have been applied to prohibit discriminatory dress codes and punishments. In addition to legal arguments, it is also important to consider the ethical and developmental issues at stake. When students are denied the space to express themselves and to feel recognized and valued for who they are, they experience isolation, damage to self-esteem, and are vulnerable to bullying and harassment. In the face of these potential harms, the ethical school leader should find a way to ensure that school is a safe and supportive place for students of all gender identities and expressions. Schools can work individually to ensure transgender and non-binary students have options they feel are affirming of their identity, or they can work more systemically to create rituals that are more inclusive and universally supportive of the diversity in their student body (like gender-neutral graduation robes or a gender-diverse homecoming court with ‘royalty’ instead of kings and queens).

In my vision for a world that embraces gender justice, no child would be prevented from participating in an activity because of the sex they were assigned at birth, no student would be prevented from attending school in clothing that makes them feel safe and confident, and no school would try to rigidly define what is “appropriate” for anyone based on what is written on one’s birth certificate. Unfortunately, these sex role stereotypes and gender expectations are deeply embedded in our culture and our schools. I want to congratulate Kami and her supporters for this victory, and I hope that we can promote greater awareness, better education, and continued legal activism so that we can move forward and create more schools and classrooms that openly support and advocate for gender diversity, equity, and justice for all.

References

Meyer, E. J. (in press). Transgressions and consequences: Enforcing gender conformity in school. In M. Pruyn, Donna-Marie Cole-Malott, P. Orelus, & C. Mallott (Eds.), Paths to Gender Justice in Education: Theories & Practices. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.