Oak Park and River Forest High School’s next graduation is roughly a year away, but based on the sentiments expressed by a popular teacher and a group of student leaders at a board meeting last month, there could be a consensus forming about the event’s dress code — students seem to prefer caps and gowns and, if possible, a ceremony held at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. 

During a meeting in May, where District 200 school board members voted unanimously to revise an already existing policy to increase supports for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, board member Jennifer Cassell said the district should “really rethink our graduation attire.” 

At this year’s commencement, OPRF seniors stuck to a tradition that the high school has maintained, with some adjustments, since 1877. Students wore dresses, dress skirts with formal tops or suits. Although the school’s graduation attire requirements have been modified to fit the times, they are still inadequate for many gender non-conforming students, said PE teacher Linda Carlson, during a regular meeting on June 28. 

“The current system is still very much binary,” Carlson said. “Someone who identifies as female may wear a female dress or a female pants suit. Someone who identifies as male may wear a male cut suit or he could wear a dress, as well. But some of the kids identify as gender non-conforming.” 

Carlson noted that those students don’t say, “I’m male or female,” so making them put on clothing that society identifies as male or female can still be emotionally damaging. 

“The other thing is that some of our non-binary or transgender students are only out to their parents,” Carlson added. 

“So, let’s say grandma or grandpa is coming to the graduation and [the family says], ‘We know you’re trans male, but today, you have to wear a dress.’ Could you imagine that scenario? I believe that can be solved by just wearing graduation gowns and caps. Everyone would be safe. That would truly be equitable.” 

Each year, senior students are allowed to vote on their options for graduation attire. The three students who addressed the board during last month’s meeting said they would like caps and gowns to be a viable option during the upcoming school year’s polling. 

They said caps and gowns would eliminate the stress of having to potentially purchase new clothes and hairdos, among other factors. Besides, they added, most of their peers prefer caps with gowns (caps without gowns is just silly, they said). 

“If only you all could know how expensive it is for a black girl to get her hair done,” said Grace Gunn, a leader of the Black Student Union and a rising OPRF senior, “especially right after prom.” 

Gunn and other student leaders also suggested the graduation be held at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Pavilion — an arena in Chicago that can seat roughly 10,000 people.

They argued that a bigger arena would be able to accommodate more people, would make it easier for people to see their friends and family members graduate (since the arena has jumbotrons) and would eliminate the uncertainty related to weather, among other benefits. 

“I really would appreciate if we would consider moving our graduation to UIC,” Gunn said. “I know that’s a big request, but it’s not a new request. For me it would be very convenient. My great-grandmother is 87 years old. Thank God she’s still alive, and if she can’t see me walk across the stage — because we only get five tickets — I would cry.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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