Sunday, November 8, 2009

boys can wear skirts, girls can wear tuxes: let's rethink school dress codes

"The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H–G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides."

Because it helped to shape my earliest understanding of gender and rebellions, I remember with great clarity the day my high school classmate Justin C. wore a skirt to school.

Actually, I never saw the skirt; I only heard about it from my friends (my high school, after all, had thousands of students spread over three buildings). I don't know if Justin was sent home to change. I can't remember if he got in trouble--this was what I now think of as the freewheeling early '90s, a relative utopia compared to the post-Columbine, post-family values, post-culture wars high school of the 'new' century. It's entirely possible Justin pulled the whole thing off without a suspension.

I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that somebody would wear such an obviously off-limits item of clothing. Then, suddenly, because someone had simply crossed what I thought was an inviolable border, I could believe it. And a boy wearing a skirt no longer seemed quite so off-limits.

Fifteen years later, opposition to sex-based dress codes has hit the big time with today's New York Times article, "Can a boy wear a skirt to school?" By all rights, of course, the answer to that question should be of course. But there are real, significant reasons to approach this issue more thoughtfully, to answer that question with a resounding of course...except that....

The challenge of this issue goes far beyond the lame, I-don't-understand-it-and-therefore-it's-just-not-right stance embodied in the NYTimes article by Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who argues that "It’s hard enough to get kids to concentrate on an algorithm — even without Jimmy sitting there in lipstick and fake eyelashes." As the article explains, dress codes are as much about maintaining order as they are about keeping students safe. The most extreme recent illustration of this is the shooting death in February 2008 of Lawrence King, a middle school student who sometimes wore heels and makeup to school.

But harassment doesn't have to erupt into violence to be devastating to the victim and the community, and the everyday cruelty of a school environment that enables difference-phobic attitudes contributes mightily to deeper personal and cultural attitudes toward gender. My classmate Justin was smart, confident, and mature, and I'm sure he was strong enough to reject any hateful reactions to his decision to wear the skirt. Another student may not have been. Any school dress-code policy must take this into account.

The problem, though, is that school policies, and by extension cultural attitudes, toward clothing choices tend to skip over the difference between sex, sexuality, and gender. In case you need a refresher, sex is biological and tied to genetic makeup, hormones, and sex-based traits. Sexuality is socio-biological, meaning that it's a product of the interaction between biology and culture: It's who you're attracted to, and when, and why.

Gender, which is really what we're talking about when we're talking about clothing, is a social construct that's linked to but different from sex and sexuality. Not all boys who wear skirts are gay, and not all girls who wear skirts are straight. Gender is about identity performance, is about presenting yourself to the world in a way that feels right given your sex, sexuality, and general perception of yourself in the world. Gender performance is always a dance between the individual and her culture, and it's never fully clear who's leading whom.

I first learned about the gender dance when Justin wore a skirt to school. Before that day, and for much of the time that has passed since, my approach to gender performance was more mechanical than intentional, more reflexive than reactionary. It's good for all of us to be reminded from time to time that we're all up on stage and that we have some say in the lines we read, the props we use, and the costumes we present ourselves in. When Justin wears a skirt to school, he gives us exactly this reminder.

What the world needs now, sings Cracker, is a new kind of tension / cause the old one just bores me to death.

Rigid dress codes of the sort identified in the New York Times piece make school flow more seamlessly, sure, but they do it at the expense of the kind of critical thinking that schools purport to value. Every time Justin wears a skirt to school, he lowers the risk, just a tiny bit, of another Lawrence King incident. He cracks open a window, props open a door, and invites us all to take a look at what's outside. We all have to decide for ourselves whether to accept the invitation, but when schools, out of fear of or for their students, keep the doors and windows locked they not only fail their students but help to foster an environment where fear and hate can continue to rule the day.


Anonymous said...

These schools are trying to stop this to 'protect' the students, because they might be harassed or in severe cases, killed. What the schools fail to realize is that people are harassed for being black/muslim/homosexual/etc. Does that mean we should ban being black/muslim/homosexual? I believe the word you're looking for is no.

ardhie said...
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