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No One Will Protect You: The Suffolk County “Cross-Dressing” Ban

When I was a freshman in high school, some of my friends started a Gay-Straight Alliance, and I was one of the first people to join.  That year, we observed the National Day of Silence by wearing black t-shirts, printing out those little speaker cards, and refusing to talk all day.  (For some of us who were smack in the middle of our embarrassing teenage gothy-pants phase, only the speaker cards distinguished Day of Silence from, like, a Wednesday.)  Fortunately, we were at a school where all forms of weirdness were nurtured and encouraged, and the concept spread like wildfire among all the baby queers and queer allies.  By the time we were seniors, perhaps a quarter of the student body participated; the GSA printed several hundred stickers and cards to identify participants and supporters, and we ran out of them before the first bell rang.

You could make a persuasive case that our nascent teenage activism caused a serious disruption of the school day—the traffic jam in the hallway around our table alone made plenty of people late for class—yet I can’t remember the faculty being anything but supportive.  Teachers allowed Day of Silence participants to reschedule oral presentations for another day, or give written answers to questions.  At least one teacher even enforced the Day of Silence in her class, turning it into an hour of “work quietly on your own projects” so she wouldn’t have to speak that day.  And if anybody ever expressed discomfort about students showing support for LGBTQ rights on school property, I never heard a word about it.  We were unbelievably fortunate to go to a school where minimizing disruption was considered less important than allowing us to stand up for what we thought was right.

Students in Suffolk County, VA may not be so lucky after next month.  That school district will be taking a vote in March to determine whether they’ll be implementing a new dress code, one which bans clothing “not in keeping with a student’s gender” to the extent that it “causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the education process or poses a health or safety concern,” according to this article. To be clear, they don’t mean “safety concern” in the sense that the clothing is covered in spikes, or made of asbestos, and thus could be hazardous to the student wearing it or to passersby.  They mean that, if a student gets beaten up for dressing weird, the clothing—not, say, the bully—is to blame.

I have so, so many concerns about this proposal, but let’s just get the obvious one out of the way first:  This new dress code is horribly transphobic.  A student who is biologically male but identifies as a girl would be risking punishment for wearing girl clothes, even though she is dressed in a manner “in keeping with her gender.”  Trans students will therefore have to choose between conforming to a gendered manner of dress that doesn’t fit their self-image—essentially, going to school in a costume every day—or facing whatever consequences the schools deem appropriate for violating the dress code.

The fact that this new rule would almost certainly be enforced in a way that conflates sex with gender and reifies cissexism is the most immediately troubling thing about it, to be sure.  But you know what, when you’re given a cornucopia of fuckery this abundant, why stop there?  Let’s dig deeper!

For starters, even leaving trans kids out of it (not that the dress code would do the same), banning “cross-gender” dress strikes me as really troubling.  Why shouldn’t cis boys be allowed to wear skirts if they feel like it?  Why shouldn’t cis girls wear pants?  I understand that different schools have different rules about appropriate clothing and not every educational facility would let kids come to school in a black leather miniskirt and combat boots like I did in tenth grade, but as long as the boys aren’t wearing skirts shorter than their fingertips and the girls aren’t showing their boxers, where’s the harm?  The insistence on traditional gender roles is simply archaic and irrelevant.

Which brings us to another point:  Although it’s not stated in the article, you just know this sort of policy is going to end up disproportionately targeting transfeminity, whether that means trans girls or femme queer (or even straight) boys.  “If a girl comes to school wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, is that considered cross-gender dressing?” asked James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, but come on, we all know the answer is probably “no.”  The school board has stated that no clothing will be specifically banned; rather, the dress code will be enforced only in situations where a student’s gender variance “forms a disruption of the education process.”  Girls wearing pants is yesterday’s news, and not even the most conservative Republicans get upset about it anymore, much less the teenagers with their skinny pants and their tiny phones.  This is not to say that butch girls don’t face bullying—they absolutely do—but there’s a greater scope to the traditionally-male attire that girls can wear without reading as butch.

Boys wearing dresses is still shocking, however, and for one very simple reason:  sexism.  As long as we live in a society that values the masculine and devalues the feminine, people who choose femininity when masculinity is readily available to them will be a threat to the status quo, and will therefore be seen as rebels or perverts.  If you ever want to check whether sexism is still a thing, just count how many ladies you see wearing pants vs. dudes wearing skirts.  And if a boy comes to school in a pencil skirt and some comfortable-yet-stylish pumps, you can bet your ass that someone will find it “disruptive” enough to get him sent to the principal’s office.

So this new dress code will punish trans kids, and specifically transfeminine kids, and in so doing will perpetuate a culture of sexism and cissexism, but if it keeps our children safe from the horrors of teen bullying, won’t it all be worth it?  The proponents of the new dress code are trying to spin it as a move to protect queer and trans kids from being picked on by their peers, which sounds like a noble goal is really just so much victim-blaming with a slightly spiffier hairdo.  Wait, let’s do this in pop quiz form:

 

Q:  Whose job is it to protect children from bullying?

 

A.  Teachers and administrators, by making it clear that bullying is never acceptable and will result in punishment.

B.  Bullies, by showing self-control and choosing more positive ways of expressing themselves.

C.  Victims, by not being so weird, gross, and/or freaky.

 

If you answered C, congratulations!  You are qualified to serve on the Suffolk, VA school board.

Thelma Hinton, Vice Chairwoman of the board, cites bullying-related suicides of gay teenagers as a reason to support the ban.  “Of course I don’t want anyone’s rights being violated,” says Hinton, “but I have done some research.”  It is left up to the reader’s imagination to determine what kind of research she has done, but I like to think that she means “I Googled some pictures of baby monkeys wearing diapers, and called it a day.”  Because I can’t imagine what kind of research she did that told her queer kids are happiest when they’re not allowed to express themselves.  Is there a study out there to that effect?  “Repression, Hitting Self In Head With Blunt Objects Key To Happiness, Experts Say”?

Look, here is the thing, Thelma Hinton (can I call you Thel?).  You don’t make kids not queer by forbidding them to dress funny.  You don’t protect trans kids by requiring them to pretend they’re not trans.  Not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away; it just convinces those kids that everything the bullies say about them is right, that they’re bad sick broken dirty crazy, that they don’t deserve to be the people they want to be.  By putting the onus of preventing bullying on the victims rather than the perpetrators, you’re saying that they’re the ones in the wrong.  Your attempt to “protect” students is, in actual practice, the opposite—a downright refusal to protect these particular kids, because their right to express themselves takes a backseat to your desire not to deal with this issue.  You are telling them, “You’re on your own.  We will not help you.  Better start working your asses off to pass for normal, because if someone calling you names causes a disruption in our classrooms, you’re the one who’s going to pay for it.”

Your students should not have to pretend to be someone they are not in order to be safe.  It is your job to keep them safe.  It is your job to send the message that targeting someone for bullying, whether it’s because of their gender, sexual orientation, size, hair color, or favorite soccer team, is always unacceptable.  But by considering this new dress code, you’ve gone ahead and sent a different message entirely.  You are abdicating your responsibility to teach your students—the picked-on as well as the ones doing the picking—a valuable lesson about right and wrong.  Instead, you’re teaching them that when their rights are being violated, the most important thing to consider is whether or not speaking up will be disruptive.  You’re teaching them that the best thing they can do is just keep quiet.

Lindsay Miller has written for The Atlantic, The Hairpin, Role/Reboot, and elsewhere.  She tweets at twitter.com/AskAQueerChick but mostly just about RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

19 Comments

  1. Doone wrote:

    I highly condone the writing on this site on issues like this. Your words are extremely effective at articulating why this new rule/law is a crime. It is an open confession by Suffolk County that they WILL NOT PROTECT CHILDREN FROM BULLIES.

    I hope any of you in the local area can print this article out and perhaps read it to the town council. Make them believe that they’re supporting bullying and shaming children for what they are. Don’t let them do this without forcing them to acknowledge precisely what it is that they’re doing.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  2. automaticdoor wrote:

    Lindsay! (Commenting under my Pin name.) When I got to the bottom of my RSS feed and saw that you were the one who wrote this, it all clicked. I knew I recognized the voice, but it was very different from TBD’s other contributors. Anyway, I just wanted to say that this was a brilliant piece and that also I am so not surprised that you were part of the founding of a GSA. <3

    But yes, the worst of this will fall on trans girls/femme boys. I dressed up as Dr. Watson for Halloween in 2010 (the Jude Law version) and I think without the mustache and hat, I'd probably not get in trouble for wearing that costume to school in Suffolk County. After all, without the mustache and hat, it becomes a button-down shirt, pants, suspenders (maybe those wouldn't be okay?), etc. In fact, even with the mustache penciled on some people didn't realize I was dressing as a male on Halloween! (I have such a femme baby face. We've discussed on the Pin. I can't do butch convincingly.) But yes. So. Girls could probably wear tuxedos and get away with it: after all, look at Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt in some recent photos. Boys in skirts? Not so much.

    And, of course, what of the non-binary students? "Wear whatever you closest resemble physically?" "Wear what your birth certificate says?" "Wear what you are biologically (if you are in fact on the binary biologically on a physical and/or chromosomal level)?"

    How about, for simplicity's sake, we change the dress code for all kids to this: "For god's sake, just don't go around naked? And if you have gym, bring some tennis shoes?" Kids will wear what they want to wear and rules-lawyer the hell out of you. (The fingertip rule, with some very careful adjustments for posture and tugging on skirts and whatever, can be stretched, etc. Now, try enforcing the "three-finger-width tank top strap rule." Who thought that was a good idea?) First rule of dealing with teenagers: the bigger a deal you make out of it, the bigger a deal it is. Do the school board members even have children? Ugh.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Mym wrote:

    May I ask where you went to high school? Seems rather better than most, so I’m curious to know.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Thanks for this. I must admit, I do not love the phrase “biologically male” for the reasons outlined in this Questioning Transphobia post as well as the inequality in applying “identifies” strictly to trans people (cis people just ARE). Which actually raises further points – what would they do for trans students who are on blockers or hormones? Kids are transitioning younger and younger.

    It just makes me laugh (bitterly) that they would have the nerve to talk about “safety” with this given the rates of bullying (by students *and* teachers), attempted suicides etc etc for trans youth. Safety? It’s already unsafe, and will be until trans students are accepted and protected by those that are supposed to look out for them.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  5. AMM wrote:

    The only thing I find surprising is that the school board felt the need to make a formal policy about it, or that they were so specific about the victimology. My experience (and the experience of my kids) is that most^H^H^H^H virtually all schools’ unwritten policy is that the victims of bullying are the ones at fault, regardless of the pretext for the bullying.

    I grew up in central Virginia (which I refer to as the “Ante-Bellum South”) 40-50 years ago and the cult of masculinity was (and probably still is) very strong. Being bad at sports and not enjoying being beaten up were considered gender-variant behavior. God knows what would have happened if I’d shown up in a skirt.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink
  6. Berenjena wrote:

    It is so horrific. Thanks a lot for writing this.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink
  7. Caitiecat wrote:

    I’d like to add to Emily @4′s comment that trans* people aren’t being forced just to “wear a costume” if we’re forced into crossdressing as our assigned gender. We’re being told our very identity is not allowed in this place, that we may not be who we are in this place. Clothing, as the primary noncorporeal signifier of gender in our society, is much more than “the wrong costume” to a trans* person, especially when in the first days and months of trying to find what expression will work for us. It’s not just pants and skirts. Women’s shirts tend to be very, very different from men’s shirts, in a host of ways, all of which signal that the wearer is advertising their gender as woman to mainstream society. A trans woman who is developing breasts will probably want a bra, like her schoolmates; in this school district, no such luck. But surely it’ll be better for her to go to school dressed as a boy with her breasts swinging free. Yeah.

    Excellent article, but could use a touch more familiarity with the trans* spectrum of experience, perhaps.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  8. Duncan wrote:

    I stumbled upon this site a few weeks ago and have been loving it completely. One thing I don’t understand is what does ‘cis’ mean? Something to do with being straight? Clueless white-straight-male here :)

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Catherine wrote:

    Didn’t several cities have rules like this (aka 3 pieces of chromosomally correct clothing) and didn’t they get repealed because the DIDN’T WORK??

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  10. Amy wrote:

    @Duncan

    cis means same while trans means different.

    The context I learnt it in was my Chemistry degree where functional groups in a carbon chain can be cis (on the same side of the chain) or trans (on a different side of the chain) which is where the name ‘trans-fats’ comes from.

    In this context though it’s referring to people who are the same biological gender they are born with (cis)and people who have changed the biological gender they were born with (trans).

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  11. Oddity wrote:

    @Duncan: It’s short for cisgendered. The opposite of transgendered. Like in chemistry. Get it?

    You got gendered on the *same* side of the gender molecule as your identity, and I got gendered (by the doctor, my parents, society etc.) on the *opposite* side.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Dom wrote:

    There’s no way this will hold up. Lawyers have been handed a case on a platter. Hope the place gets sued collectively and learns something about rights in the process.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  13. Duncan wrote:

    @Amy & @Oddity
    Ahh, I see, that makes sense. Chemistry was never my strong suit. :)

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Megpie71 wrote:

    Duncan, there’s this wonderful tool out there. You may have heard of it. It’s called Google. I put the term “cis” into it (all lower case letters) and the third item that comes up as the result of a search is a link to a definition article in Wikipedia (another wonderful tool available for those who wish to broaden their minds). Maybe you should try it…

    (Yes, I realise this is very much “do your own bloody homework”. There’s a reason for this – research has shown that people learn better if they go to the trouble of learning for themselves rather than sitting with their mouths open like baby birds waiting for others to stuff the knowledge down their throats.)

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Sara wrote:

    Oddity: thank you for that explanation! Not because I didn’t understand was cisgendered was, but that’s such a great way of explaining it. I plan to steal and use from now on.

    Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  16. Emily, thank you for the link and good call about “biologically male.” It was a poor choice of words anyway, because what is the school district going to do–test students’ chromosomes? Check their genitals? No, they’re going to look at a kid, decide “this one looks like a boy,” and enforce the dress code accordingly. And the way that this disappears students with a non-binary sex or gender is just one more excitingly terrible factor that the Suffolk school board has utterly failed to take into account.

    Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  17. elayne wrote:

    I attended a convention a few years ago with my son, who was 15 at the time. A fellow attendee was apparently male (including the beard), but wore dressy pumps with his otherwise “men’s” clothing. (On the last day of the con, he added a corset worn over his button-down long-sleeve business-type shirt and slacks.)

    It was one of my proudest moments as a mother when my son looked at the man, did a double-take when he noticed the shoes, then whispered to me, “Mom, do you see that guy’s shoes?” I tried to keep my face neutral while I prepared for a teaching moment and said, “Yes?” Then my son replied, “They’re like, two sizes too big for him. I hope he doesn’t trip and break his camera.”

    Things like that, and the Day of Silence mentioned in this post, give me hope for the future. I just wish it would hurry up and get here.

    Friday, March 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  18. Romeo wrote:

    It’s strange for me reading articles like this. An aspect of surrealism and disconnect from my High School experience is created.

    I spent the bulk of my High School experience in a very small French only High School. (By very small I mean my senior year had 16 students) At the time in Ontario we had an optional 13th grade, and the only school that offered the grade 13 course I wanted was a local Catholic School. (In Canada Catholic Schools are public not private)

    This catholic school had a very strict uniform policy, which my previous school did not. And while I didn’t strictly hate the uniform or uniforms in general, I regarded it as a point to be mocked. So I appeared in all manners of out there dress.

    Once a month we where aloud to wear “civies” cloths (IE: non uniform) and I took the opportunity to wear all sorts of out of character manners of dress (I think showing up in the wetsuit takes the cake, I still get people asking me about that when I go back to my home town and it’s been more then a decade.) When the school allowed us to add red MADD armbands to our uniform I took it as a chalang and by the end of the 2 week campaign I had more then 200 arm bands some where on my uniform. They didn’t allow “unnatural hair colours” so I died my hair a crazy and unnatural mix of a verity of natural hair colours.

    But I digress.

    Our school never had a GSA, or anything of the sort. But despite being a Catholic school, the staff was not there to judge or condemn queer students. If any teachers had problems with gay or queer students they kept it to themselves.

    Now, while I am by no means trans, I have always carried with me a certain envy for female beauty that I, though I am by no means an unattractive man, will never be able to encapsulate. This would lead me to later in life to self identify as gender queer.

    But I am digressing again…

    Anyways, me being the young rabble rouser that I was. I one day while looking over the uniform policy realized that there was nothing in there that said only girls could wear the knee high pleated skirts that are ubiquitous with the Catholic school uniform. So after trying to borrow some from various girl friends of mine, (They where all to short for me, I’m a big guy at 6 foot 3.)I broke down and just bought one from the schools mail in uniform program. I wore it to class many times, not because I was trans or gender queer, but just because I like causing a stink (especially with those confounded uniforms) and you know what happened? I got a couple rude comments in the hallway, and that was it.

    Maybe I’m a 6 foot 3 Native man who could probably have beat the living snot out of any one who tried to pick a fight with me. Maybe I got of easy just for that alone. Maybe by this point I had just developed such a reputation as a jester who loved fucking around with the uniform that people just took it as a given. Maybe that’s why I was never bullied.

    But it also should be pointed out, that never once, did any of the teachers ever come to me and tell me to stop. A few thought it was fabulous, a few thought I was childish and annoying. But every one of them recognized my right to express myself. My wearing a skirt was hurting no one, it wasn’t disrupting class. So no mater how they felt about it, myself, or anything else, they let me express myself. All with in a Catholic School with a very strict uniform policy.

    Less then half a decade later another Catholic School in another small town not far from us was set in an up roar because a gay student dared to want to bring his boyfriend to the prom. Oh the humanity!

    Had he gone to my school, oh maybe a handful of parents would have been written angry letters that would have been ignored, but no one would have actually cared. One little town, a half hour drive between us, made all the difference between acceptance and controversy. It boggles the mind it does.

    I am firmly of the belief that by enforcing rules like this, they are actually creating the bullying. If people are viewed as abnormal they will be bullied, that’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature. Telling kids it’s wrong to express themselves only creates a false visage of abnormality, thus leading to bullying. But, I expect I am preaching to the quire on this one. You don’t need me to recite opinions you almost certainly hold. So instead let me leave you with something a little fun:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UynapJKACt8

    An oldie but a goody.

    Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  19. Romeo wrote:

    Jeez, I accidently wrote a bloody novel!

    Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink