The school board of Suffolk in southeastern Virginia is considering a ban on students cross-dressing in order to minimize “safety risks, disruptions and distractions.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has already sent a letter to the school district informing it that such a dress code is “unlawful and unfair to students” and that the district should not be banning “nonconforming behavior” but addressing the issues of bullying or harassment.
The proposal specifically bans “clothing worn by a student that is not in keeping with a student’s gender and causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the educational process or poses a health or safety concern.” In addition, the district is seeking to not allow students to wear “sexually suggestive or revealing attire,” including “spandex, ripped clothes, sagging pants, short skirts, sleepwear, open-toed shoes, sunglasses, head coverings unless worn for religious or medical purposes, and clothes advertising alcohol or illegal substances. That is, cross-dressing is thought of as somehow provocative rather than as students seeking to nonconform and express their identity and individuality.
MSNBC reports that the Suffolk School Board reviewed the proposal to ban students from cross-dressing on Thursday night but has yet to vote on it.
Banning Cross-dressing Instead of Addressing Bullying
In defending its stance, the Suffolk School District says that it is not exactly seeking an “outright ban on certain clothing.” Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton raised concerns about cross-dressing after a number of teachers spoke of “several male students who were wearing makeup, wigs and dresses to class,” according to WAVY-TV. Make students dressed in such clothing have had to use a faculty restroom after they were said to be threatened by classmates.
Hinton raised the issue of “safety.” But this can be seen as a code word that the school district’s first concern is to protect itself legally, rather than to address the disturbing and potentially violent behavior of some students towards others. By seeking to create a ban on cross-dressing, the Suffolk School District is in essence “blaming the victim,” by telling students who cross-dress that doing so is inappropriate. MSNBC quotes California psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, who studies gender and child development, and says that
..the proposed ban is “a subtle form of harassment” and the school district should focus instead on monitoring bullying.
“They should do education about gender instead,” emphasizing empathy and understanding, Ehrensaft said. She said that when nonconforming students don’t feel safe or accepted at school, their sense of anxiety, anger and depression may increase.
Ehrensaft emphasized that cross-dressing is a “healthy variation on gender.”
The killing of 15-year-old Lawrence King by another student — King occasionally wore jewelry, high-heeled boots and makeup to school — has been ruled a hate crime. The Suffolk School District is doing exactly the wrong thing by creating a ban; it is sending a message that it is ok to bully students who cross-dress and who are different. Is this really what the Suffolk School District wants to teach its students?
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