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.”