On a cold Friday afternoon last fall, two students reflected on their senior year of high school — the last year they would spend at John O’Connell High, and maybe even in the Mission. As they talked about their graduation, they shared their thoughts about a long tradition.
“I didn’t want to wear the white,” said Larissa Martinez.
“I didn’t want to wear the blue,” said Joseph Chavez.
Graduating seniors at John O’Connell High School have worn white and blue — white for women and blue for men — since the school opened in 1951. When Martinez and Chavez graduate on May 24 this year, however, both will be wearing black gowns.
The story of how the tradition changed begins with Martinez and Chavez simply deciding they were unhappy with a custom that played on sexual identity — in which the gown colors marked sex, just as pink and blue do for infants. The two students viewed sexuality as more fluid.
“In my eyes it shows equity in the LGBTQ community,” said Chavez. Students “were forced to choose a gender, a color.” Chavez considers himself a member of the LGBTQ community and identifies as pansexual — someone who is attracted to others regardless of gender.
Next came convincing the administration and 90 other graduating seniors that it was time for a change. One color would do for all of them.
Dr. Martin Gomez, John O’Connell’s principal, said he recognized the students’ discomfort even though his own high school in Southern California and most of the schools he has worked for have a similar tradition of two colors for graduates.
Early on, only one faculty adviser agreed to sign a petition asking for the policy change, Chavez said. Others he approached recommended that he speak with Gomez and get a majority of staff to sign the petition before proposing the change to the graduating class.
Chavez did the opposite: he approached students first, asking them to sign a petition requesting that they have a chance to vote on the color of their graduation gown. Once he had the signatures, he took it to Gomez.
“He came to talk to me in the middle of it,” said Gomez, adding that he was impressed but wanted all of the students to feel comfortable with any change.
Gomez asked Chavez to research the traditions of other San Francisco high schools. “I was ready to go off on him,” Chavez said. “But I left it as is and went back with what he wanted.”
Chavez researched five Bay Area high schools and found that two of the five used their school colors for gowns, while two schools split the colors, with one for females and the other for males.
One of the five schools, Philip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Visitacion Valley, allowed every graduating class to choose the color of their gowns.
Days later, just before the end of the fall semester, Chavez returned to Gomez’s office with a PowerPoint presentation of his research. He also showed Gomez that more than 80 percent of the graduating seniors had signed the petition.
While Chavez was negotiating with Gomez and the administrative staff, he was also trying to appease his peers.
As soon as word got out about the petition, students started confronting Chavez on social networking sites. The students who most stridently opposed the change voiced their opinions online instead of personally confronting Chavez.
“The ones I would talk to were good. They opposed it but they said it nicely. I respect that and listened to them. No ‘Why the hell would you want to do this,’ even though they didn’t fully agree.”
Gomez said he spoke with a few students and parents who opposed the petition. Some parents questioned why the change was necessary. Gomez would speak to them and then show them their child’s signature on the petition.
Five female students working together confronted Gomez about the issue. They opposed the change even though they had signed the petition.
“There were students that were upset and said they just did it because they didn’t want to make [Chavez] feel sad,” said Gomez. “A few of the female students said they were looking forward to wearing their white gowns.”
Gomez held the students to their signatures, hoping it would serve as a life lesson for those who only signed for the sake of others or to keep up appearances.
“When they put their name down to something it makes a difference,” he said.
Within the first few days of the spring semester, graduating seniors were handed ballots to select the new color that the young men and women would wear — blue, white, yellow or black. While many students signed the petition to vote for the colors, the selection of a single color was the victory Chavez was really looking for.
Forty-one per cent of graduating seniors voted for black graduation gowns. White received 36 percent and blue 23 percent.
Not everyone was happy. As Chavez announced the results over the school PA system, he said, one administrator came over and took the microphone away from him.
“She was more than pissed off,” Chavez said. “I feel it kind of hurt her ego in a way, it’s like somebody betrayed her.”
When asked how he got that impression, Chavez said, “She thought I had my own agenda and wanted to change the prom and the pictures.”
Chavez knew he would face criticism but did not expect it to come from school staff.
“I went into a deep depression,” he said, recalling the days that followed the victory. He said he felt disconnected and withdrawn.
He stayed home for about a week, but when he returned, few problems arose.
“Some students confronted him but we took care of that right away,” said Gomez. “Joseph became very sad because people that he thought were his friends didn’t really want the change. I asked him to refer them to me because I am the one making the final decision.”
“Some supposed friends, I stopped talking to them,” said Chavez.
Chavez said that he will remember the event as a significant point in his life, and he hopes that others will also remember his struggle.
“Not that they remember me, but that they remember my reasons,” he said.
Already he has a fan in Gomez. “It takes a courageous person to stand up and make a big change at the school, and I applaud him for that.” More important than keeping any tradition, Gomez said, the experience reminded him of the administration’s role.
“It’s for the students. We’re here to help the students and to help them find their way.”