At my high school graduation, my best friend and I switched the gold caps female students wore with the green ones belonging to two male friends. We didn’t think there was anything political about not matching. We saw ourselves as bending rules, being rebels, not starting a cross-gender revolution.
That revolution has arrived. While North Carolina scrambles to stay afloat against the backlash regarding its gender-identity legislation, some students at New Rochelle High School in New York decided that making boys and girls wear different-colored graduation gowns should be a thing of the past.
A few months ago, senior Jacob Weingast wrote an open letter—co-signed by many classmates—to Principal Reginald Richardson about the issue. He had no idea it would raise so many eyebrows. “With graduation around the corner, many seniors have begun to recognize the absurdity of using gendered graduation robes,” he wrote to Richardson. “While this may have been practiced at NRHS for generations, we believe that to separate the robes into a binary system of purple for boys and white for girls is archaic and has no place in our community.”
This wasn’t the first time Richardson had heard from students on this topic. “When I got here in 2013, I was trying to get an understanding of the community and the students, and I quickly learned that New Rochelle High School is truly a diverse space in every aspect,” he says. And diversity wasn’t just about the 3,000–plus students hailing from more than 60 countries. “I started hearing some of our students talking about gender-assigned gowns.”
Richardson found that these rumblings increasingly paralleled what was going on in the country in terms of marriage equality and other such issues. “I think it gave my students more courage to be vocal about their reality—they became more confident in their voice because of what was happening in the world.”
This year, the students approached him earlier and were organized. “I’d been hearing about it since I got here,” he says, “so I began some informal conversations with parents.” Richardson went to the PTA executive board and polled the school’s seniors, because, as he notes, “it was midyear, and it would impact them the most.”
“What I didn’t want to do was hold a public referendum, because when it comes to civil rights, they never work,” he says. “The people in the minority will always lose—and trying to protect the minority group is what good democracies do.”
Richardson eventually brought the students’ initiative to school superintendent Brian Osborne, who fully supported it and recommended that the city’s board of education be consulted. Richardson asked Weingast to accompany him to the board meeting to present the student proposal. One of the friends Weingast invited to come along was Jackson Riemerschmidt.
Riemerschmidt and Weingast, both New Rochelle born and bred, have played together in the band The Empty Gestures since seventh grade. Driving home from band practice just before the start of their senior year, Weingast became, according to Riemerschmidt, “the second friend I came out to—I told him that I was transgender.”
Riemerschmidt decided to start senior year of high school as a male because, as he remembers it, “I wasn’t going to hide anymore.” Weingast knew that Riemerschmidt was not the only transgender student at the school. “Jackson is open,” he says, “but lots of kids aren’t.” So when the school handed out forms to order graduation regalia, Weingast looked at where he was supposed to check “boy” or “girl” and thought to himself, “This is silly.”
The board of education agreed. While school colors remain purple and white, starting in 2017, everyone’s graduation gowns will be purple. Riemerschmidt was stunned by how easy it seemed. “We were there for like 15 minutes,” he recalls. “We expected someone to question us about trans issues, but they just agreed.”
“To the board’s credit, it just made sense to them, too—they didn’t have a bunch of questions,” says Principal Richardson. “They complimented the students on their courage and for how well they articulated the issue.”
Just as Richardson had listened closely to the voices of the students, he also listened to parents who asked him to wait until next year to make the change. Senior photographs had been taken months ago, and the girls had been photographed in gowns they wouldn’t march in if the change in gown protocol took effect this year.
Not everyone saw the announcement as progress. An online petition protesting the change quickly gained momentum as passionate voices expressed themselves to the board of education. People wanted more transparency; asked why students couldn’t just choose a color; and—most often—emphasized that purple and white gowns had been tradition for generations. “Tradition is the word I see every time I look at the comments on that petition,” says Riemerschmidt. “I don’t think these people understand that traditions aren’t always that great. We got rid of segregated schools for good reason.”
Richardson agrees with the analogy. “We’ve been here before as a country and a community—tradition gets a pass.”
“I respect tradition, I love New Rochelle,” says Weingast, “but I don’t see why it should be something people are so devoted to that it impedes human rights.”
John Vergara, who graduated in 1983, doubts that the appeals to “tradition” are always sincere. “When people say it’s about tradition and the decision-making ‘process’ and all that, because you ‘don’t have a problem with anyone’s else’s sexuality,’ you should know that not everyone is buying that,” he posted to an online forum debating the issue. “You can try to hide your views behind tradition and process, but it’s like an elephant trying to hide behind a twig. We see you.”
Traditions often hang on past their expiration date until something forces change. Since the 1972 passage of Title IX, which declares that no one can be “subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity,” schools have had to abolish dress codes that require female students to wear dresses. Last summer, the New York State Education Department issued recommendations to support transgender youth, advising schools to “eliminate” any gender-based policies that “do not serve a clear pedagogical purpose.” To illustrate the point, NYSED cited the eradication of different colored graduation gowns.
New Rochelle wears diversity like a badge of honor. “With diversity comes a heightened responsibility to provide an environment that is safe for people from all backgrounds, beliefs, orientations, and identities,” Richardson wrote to students. For those who identify as gender-fluid, transgender, gender-neutral, or non-binary, particularly students who have not shared “their truth with their friends and families,” the act of choosing a white or purple gown is anything but safe.
Those are the students Weingast and Riemerschmidt worry about. “Everyone thought it was because of Jackson—that we were changing the whole tradition because of one kid,” says Weingast.
“I wasn’t advocating for myself—I would’ve worn purple robes anyway, it doesn’t affect me,” says Riemerschmidt. “People don’t understand that I’m advocating for someone other than myself.”
So is his friend who started this whole thing. “He has a voice for all of us who don’t,” Riemerschmidt says of Weingast. Weingast shrugs. “It’s for people we know, and people we don’t know,” he says of the change he and his friends have put in motion. “Helping out this group of kids is helping out everyone.”
To that end, says Richardson, the emails and calls of support have far outweighed the naysayers, including those from “alumni who struggled with their own gender identity—they remember that uncomfortable confrontation, where they had to lie and submit to this gendered policy on the most important day at that point in their life.” For him, the bottom line is clear. “It’s the right thing to do for the kids,” he says. “It’s such a low-stakes way to create a safe environment for kids.”
It’s no empty gesture.