It’s graduation time! Kids across the country will be donning caps and gowns and walking across stages to get their diplomas.
It’s a weird ritual, really. From the shape of the hats on down. It can also be an extremely gendered ritual, which isn’t great for trans or non-binary graduates. Some schools have strict dress codes for graduation and any deviation is not tolerated. I remember when I graduated from high school there was a zero tolerance policy for messages on the top of hats. I also remember that I had chosen not to wear the academic awards I’d received. I think they were medals made to wear around your neck? I don’t remember. I do remember feeling kind of stupid when I saw other people wearing theirs and realized that there would never be another occasion to wear or display them. Oh, well.
What I did not have to worry about, however, was what I was wearing under my robe. Spoiler alert: It was a dress. As a cisgender teenage girl, it made sense. I do not remember anyone making me wear a dress, nor did I mind wearing one. It was a non-issue. Which is how it should be.
Unfortunately for at least two graduates in Harrison County, Mississippi, the Harrison Central High School graduation ceremony dress code left them out. Literally and figuratively.
A trans student identified only as L.B. was told by the principal that she could not wear a dress to graduation even though she identifies as female and lives every day presenting as female. In fact, she’d already gone shopping and bought the dress she wanted to wear at the graduation ceremony when she was told that she had to wear “a button down white shirt, tie, black pants and black shoes,” according to WLOX.
And so she and her mother sued. And the Trump-appointed judge who oversaw the case ruled against the student. And so instead of dressing as a “biological male,” as the school district required, L.B. did not go to graduation.
“Me going to graduation in what they asked me to wear would be me telling them that it’s OK, and it’s not. It would just feel like I was shadowed and tainted by bigotry, hate,” L.B. told WLOX. “My graduation, it’s the start of a new life, a better life.”
Unfortunately, L.B. wasn’t the only student who lost out on a once in a lifetime rite of passage at the Harrison Central graduation. Moments before Jai Dallas was to walk across the stage and get her diploma, she was pulled out of line. For wearing pants. She was told that she could take her pants off and walk in her underwear, however.
“I don’t understand how this, a moment this important, can be taken away from a child that’s worked 12 years to get here,” Jai’s grandmother, Michelle Faison, who traveled 800 miles to attend the graduation, told WLOX.
That Harrison High School officials thought it was more important to police gender than it was to honor all of their students at the graduation ceremony was made clear in the testimony by Harrison County School District Superintendent Mitchell King at the hearing over L.B.’s attire.
According to WLOX, “King said at an earlier event, he saw a young man wearing a dress and that led him to look at the [dress code] policy. He then called the principals at [district] high schools and asked them to identify students who might be suspected of breaking the dress code.” Four students, including L.B., were identified.
Four students. In the entire district. Which King made it his job to ferret out. And then went to court to defend his right to be the gender police. Sounds like targeted harassment to me.
“It’s really emotional for me, you know, because this is an experience that we’ll never be able to get back, ever,” Samantha Brown, L.B.’s mother, said.
King, and every adult involved in denying these kids their graduation experience, should be ashamed.
D’Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.