This year has been tough for queer Americans. In the past two election cycles, campaigns for marriage equality in California and Maine, two of the country's most progressive states, have been defeated at the ballot box. President Obama, who many in the gay community had hoped would effect an about-face in federal policy, has done little on signature issues like Don't Ask Don't Tell, which he could end with a stroke of a pen. Meanwhile, his vaunted political mobilization group, Organizing for America, refused to take a stance on the Maine referendum despite weighing in on the state's election.
So it wasn't great timing when all-male Morehouse College announced a controversial new policy banning cross-dressing by its student body. While hardly on the level of the previously mentioned issues, the policy represents a culture that, in many places, is still open to the sort of blatant discrimination against gays that is now unthinkable if analogous discrimination were targeted at racial or ethnic minorities. Even small-scale practices like these reinforce such retrograde norms among the affected community, emboldening bigots while sending GLBTQ students yet another message that their lifestyle is unacceptable to the "mainstream." The policy ought to be rejected.
William Bynum, the Morehouse vice-president of student services, said the rule on cross-dressing was aimed at "five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them todress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men." Bynum does not contest that these students choose to cross-dress as a means of expressing their identity. Instead, he argues that such expression contravenes his college's "expectations" of how men ought to dress — a clear statement that the rule is in practice and almost certainly intended to enforce norms of proper behavior that exclude some forms of GLBTQ identity. Singling out one group's identity in a school dress code is discrimination. There's no way around it.
The fact that Morehouse's rules also ban other "inappropriate attire" hardly gets it off the hook. We have other concerns with those policies, but they're in a separate class from the ban on cross-dressing. If Morehouse administrators can't tell the difference between pajamas and grillz, on the one hand, and clothing that expresses someone's fundamental gender or sexual identity, on the other, than their prejudice is more deep-seated then we thought.
That the administration got a putative stamp of approval from the campus gay affinity group, Morehouse Safe Space, is also non-exculpatory. Though the group voted (after consulting with the administration) to approve the ban, its co-president is on record saying that the ban "verges on discrimination," indicating that there might be more dissent than the university was letting on. Further, we question whether the organization speaks for the five students the University explicitly targeted or any other GLBTQ students who believe cross-dressing is an integral part of their identities.
Finally, we recognize that Morehouse is a historically black college and that cross-dressing, given its historical use in minstrel shows, has some unsavory connotations. But the context here is radically different: Self-expression can hardly be compared to racist stage performances. Nor can it help relations between the black and GLBTQ communities to equate the two.
In the new dress code, Morehouse claims an "outstanding legacy of producing leaders." Repealing the cross-dressing position would help demonstrate that Morehouse is okay with some of those leaders being gay.
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