Joseph Chavez led a petition to change the colors of gowns for graduating seniors at John O'Connell High School

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.

Chavez stopped attending school after harsh treatment from school staff.

“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.

The percentage of the student vote per gown color. Graph by Joseph Chavez.

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.”

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A swap meet aficionado, the Mission’s outdoor markets and Latino community remind Alicia of her family’s weekly swap meet outings at home, in southeast Los Angeles, where she is always on the lookout for hidden treasures.

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  1. It’s great to see a student like Joseph willing to fight for a cause. But I have to say this is really an odd cause to fight for.

    Maybe it was just the way the article was written, but as one commenter has pointed out, there seems to be confusion about gender and sexuality. What does one person’s pansexuality really have to do with gender equity?

    And refusing to let students remove their name from a petition they don’t actually support so they’ll learn a “lesson” seems oppressive in its own right.

    Finally, when forced to choose, the majority of students did not choose the color black, which they’ll be forced to wear anyway.

    In the end, it seems like most students and parents are unhappy, and I’m not sure anything has been done to further understanding of sexuality or gender. But a very vocal and determined person — whose heart is in the right place and has admirable tenacity — has pushed through a muddled, hard to understand policy that the vast majority doesn’t really want. Welcome to San Francisco.

  2. Joseph, you talk much older than your age, keep it up and unite people with open discussion and wise words.

  3. There are more important issues in the Mission and the world!

    It is a high school graduation, WHO CARES!

    Alicia, if I pierce my lip and color my hair hot pink, can you do a story on me too?

    1. Sorry Joseph, don’t take my comments personally, didn’t mean to mock you. ML staff erase this post.

    2. It truly saddens me that people cannot see past the hot pink or the piercing. Both are personal choices- but above all I am human. I stood up for what I believed in and worked hard for it. I do agree that the mission has bigger issues to deal with, but we have to start somewhere. I may not agree with what you have to say but heck you have the right to do so. I had to deal with several people with the same mind set as you and I still am here. No, I did not feel mocked by your words because I was born to be brave.


      1. It seems to me that when fighting against a culture of hatred, sometimes a small gesture resonates very broadly. Of course there are many important issues in the world, but you could very easily argue that gaining respect and tolerance for difference is the single most important problem in American society. This article is about a high school student who had been marginalized for years having the courage to take on intolerance in his world in a small way. Do you not think that this type of fight ripples out with the other young people in his school and contributes to opening the minds (and maybe hearts) of others? Isn’t this exactly the sort of thing we want our young people to learn how to do so that they are better prepared to fight the “more important” issues when they graduate? Flippant but denigrating comments like this are hurtful and, it seems to me, exactly the opposite sort of rhetoric that should be directed at young people. The article even says that other high school students who disagreed with the boy did not make it personal or insulting. It’s sad when some members of the community cannot adopt the same level of discourse on an important and controversial topic. Bravo Joseph Chavez! Not many people your age have the courage to stand up for what they believe in and take action to make the world a more tolerant place.

      2. Joseph, you rock. I love that you don’t let other people’s narrow-mindedness drag you down. Keep standing up for what you believe in.

  4. Super awesome that this kid took this initiative- But I want to point out that sex does not equal gender, nor does gender expression equal sexual orientation. Sex is the classification of male or female based on bodily characteristics (chromosomes, genitalia, etc) wheras gender is a person’s internal sense of their “maleness” or “femaleness”. Gender expression is how someone expresses their gender identity, while sexual orientation describes who a person is attracted to (gay, straight, bi, etc).

    Check out this great media guide prepared by GLAAD if you want to learn more:

  5. As I read this, I am reliving all the feeling I felt during the months that it took to get this changes. I’m in tears. On this the day of the graduation of John O’Connell, I patiently await to see the class of 2012 walk on stage in black gowns 🙂 BORN TO BE BRAVE!

    1. Congratulations from your Librarian friend, Nicole, at Mission Branch!! I am so impressed by your bravery and perseverance, which led to setting this new, wonderful precedent at O’Connell!!!

    2. Joseph you are FIERCE!! I’d LOVE to meet you and have you participate in our youth intern programs for LGBTIQQ youth here in the city!! Please contact me at L.Y.R.I.C!!