After reading the New York Times article “Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?,” exasperation and a wee bit of fury rumbled in my belly. As presented by Jan Hoffman, increasing numbers of school children are pushing the boundaries of so-called acceptable attire by cross dressing– a term used quite loosely here. “Cross dressing” could mean a boy wearing a bit of eyeliner or all-out lip gloss, dress and purse, or a girl in a tuxedo. Immediately obvious is a discrepancy between acceptable cross dressing for girls and for boys: girls may wear pants and button-down jackets or cut their hair short without having a finger pointed at them, but boys in a blouse are unacceptable.
Comprehensive dress rules are typically segmented by gender, revealing in and of itself. Girls may not wear midriff-baring blouses, stiletto heels, or miniskirts; boys may not wear sagging pants, tank tops, or hair longer than their shoulders. Dress codes in the office are an attempt to present a uniform level of professionalism, simultaneously curtailing skimpy clothes (generally targeted at women) that are deemed potentially distracting to coworkers and clients. In educational environments, they are supposed to improve academic and social behavior. Dress codes in schools have an additional moral argument: that of almighty child safety.
Hoffman sensationally mentions Lawrence King “who occasionally wore high-heeled boots and makeup” and who was murdered by one of his 8th grade classmates. Proponents of gender-specific dress codes claim they want to protect students who might attract assaults based on their garments, insinuating that the clothes themselves provoke violence, without actually addressing the root of the hate crimes and the subsequent pressure to outlaw gender bending in school dress codes. If a child or teenager has the desire to cross-dress in whatever subtle or loud form, I think that should be applauded. Thinking outside gender boxes and expressing creativity and originality should be integrated in every school curriculum– and dress is a wonderful, harmless playground in which to experiment with these concepts.
Though the article does not once mention homophobia, that is clearly at the crux of the anxiety surrounding cross dressing. It was instead pointed out that many so-called cross dressers are emo or punk kids whose boys may wear eyeliner and lipstick but who are staunchly straight, pointing to pictures of themselves with their girlfriends. While I agree that wearing makeup does not a fag make, the latent and pervasive fear of gays is undoubtedly the reason for people’s reluctance to accept even small gestures of cross dressing without trying to stamp it out under the guise of “safety” and learning without “distractions.” These anti-cross dressing codes are acts of willful, repressive ignorance. Hoffman mentions those who believe “high school should not be a public stage to work out private identity issues. School, they say, is a rigorous academic and social training ground for the world of adults and employment.” If unusual or gender bending clothes cause a dreaded disruption in class, banning the clothes is still not going to address the core problem: that gayness is considered an undesirable aberration, and adopting aspects of the opposite sex is interpreted (or misinterpreted) as a flaunting of gayness, which is inherently distracting. The feared (and yet misleading) link between gender ambiguity, cross dressing, and homosexuality should be confronted and addressed intellectually, ideally in an open health and sexuality class (and yes, I am woefully aware of the non-existent or inadequate health classes in schools).
Sexual self-discovery is an important and unavoidable part of puberty, and I can think of no redeeming argument to suppress this exploration– most especially in that playground of self adornment. The world is full of different people who dress is vastly different ways based on age, culture, personal taste, gender, sexuality, and more. By prohibiting creative or atypical dress in classrooms, are we teaching students that there is an inherent inferiority or unnaturalness in those who dress outside the “normal” dress codes they’ve been exposed to? If a youth in his awkward teenage years has the self possession to cross dress — in whatever form that takes — only hateful detractors should be afraid of reprimands. Think of the hypocritical disgust the Western world directs at the Muslim world for enforcing total body concealment and banning pants for women, circa 2009…. Uncomfortably similar, non?