Franklin High School recently decided to change its longstanding gender-bound graduation traditions because they make some students uncomfortable. Students there hope other Seattle schools will follow suit.
For as long as anyone at Franklin High School can remember, young men and women have marched in pairs into the school’s graduation ceremony.
The band strikes the first note of a processional song. Then come the students two by two — girls draped in green robes, boys in black. For the whole event, the girls sit separate from the boys on opposite sides of a wide aisle.
Five other Seattle high schools graduate in a similar way, with gender-specific gowns. At least one school in Shoreline and two in the Lake Washington School District do, too.
But Franklin will start a new tradition this year, one in which transgender students and others who don’t fit the typical male and female roles won’t have to pick a side.
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The school’s instructional council voted last month to switch to a more gender-neutral ceremony. While the details are still being ironed out, the students and teachers who pushed for the change see it as a victory.
Male-female seating arrangements can put some students in a tough spot, said Lennae Varlinsky, a mental-health counselor at Franklin who helped students in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance lobby for the change.
Some students are forced to sit uncomfortably with a gender they don’t identify with, or switch sides and reveal something about themselves that their family may not know.
Not everyone is ready to make such a bold statement, Varlinsky said, especially not on graduation day.
The students see the tradition as a vestige of a bygone era where gender norms went unquestioned.
The old traditions were “just really pointless,” said Ami Diouf, 15, a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “Like, why? I mean, who cares? How about if you don’t identify as a girl, (and) you want to wear black instead?”
Elizabeth Huse, 15, also a member of the student group, said the change would benefit friends who feel trapped by gender roles.
Principal Jennifer Wiley said the decision hasn’t encountered any opposition so far.
“Our traditional ceremony is wonderful and beautiful and formal, and it will continue to be that. It will just take a different shape,” Wiley said.
But students say many of their peers don’t yet know about the change, so it’s unclear whether any opposition will surface.
David Ehrich, a language arts teacher who leads the council that approved the change, said the school won’t lose anything.
“I’ve been to a lot of graduations in 32 years, and I don’t really see the clear value of boys on one side and girls on the other,” Ehrich said.
The seniors in his classes applauded when he told them the news, he said.
In Seattle, Chief Sealth International, West Seattle, Ballard, Garfield and Rainier Beach high schools all still practice the tradition of females wearing one robe color and males another, said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Stacy Howard. Nathan Hale High recently made a change similar to the one at Franklin, she said.
Schools in other districts have similar traditions, including Eastlake and Juanita high schools in the Lake Washington School District and Shorecrest High in Shoreline. In those schools, girls and boys wear different color robes, but do not sit separately based on gender.
One wrinkle with Franklin’s planned change: This year’s gender-specific graduation gowns were already ordered before teachers and administrators voted to scrap the tradition.
But they have a short-term fix for that. Girls may still wear green robes and boys black this year, they said, but at least they will sit in alphabetical order and walk in alphabetically, linking arms with whomever they’re assigned.