Trans students’ rights are more than dress codes

Seeing women’s and feminist issues relegated to the “Styles” section of The New York Times is nothing new. And while I was glad to see students’ rights and gender taken up in the NYT, presenting the continued harassment of trans students (by peers and educators) as a mere dress code problem is incredibly problematic.

Last week, a cross-dressing Houston senior was sent home because his wig violated the school’s dress code rule that a boy’s hair may not be “longer than the bottom of a regular shirt collar.” In October, officials at a high school in Cobb County, Ga., sent home a boy who favored wigs, makeup and skinny jeans. In August, a Mississippi student’s senior portrait was barred from her yearbook because she had posed in a tuxedo.
Other schools are more accepting of unconventional gender expression. In September, a freshman girl at Rincon High School in Tucson who identifies as male was nominated for homecoming prince. Last May, a gay male student at a Los Angeles high school was crowned prom queen.
Dress code conflicts often reflect a generational divide, with students coming of age in a culture that is more accepting of ambiguity and difference than that of the adults who make the rules.


Outside of the fact that the article explicitly refers to someone who identifies as male as a ‘girl’, positioning these recent stories as nothing more than “dress code conflicts” ignores what’s actually going on in schools across the U.S. – straight up discrimination. Dress codes are a policing tool being used by school administrators to enforce traditional gender norms and presentation – they’re not the real issue.
And though the article touches on student safety and how young people are challenging the gender binary, it narrowly describes students’ gender identities in terms of skirts, tuxes or lipsticks – furthering the notion that trans students’ genders are a put-on or a performance instead of, you know, who they are.

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6 Comments

  1. susanstohelit
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking that while I was reading this article – that by framing the situation as just about matters of personal dress, rather than issues of gender identity and discrimination, the NYTimes was downplaying the issue. And the commenters were no better – many were taking the “it’s disruptive/distracting” or “we need to protect these kids” approach, both of which are just fundamentally wrong. First of all, it wouldn’t be distracting if we didn’t make a big deal out of it and were more accepting of gender fluidity and expression. Secondly, if you’re concerned about kids’ safety, maybe the focus should be on teaching potential harassers not to harass, rather than telling potential victims they should hide their identity. High school is about learning, yeah, but it should also be a safe space where kids can express themselves as they grapple with identity issues.

  2. Lilith Luffles
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Adults give children so much lip-service about “being who you are” and all that, but apparently we are only supposed to be who they tell us we are. Unfortunately who we are is not our decision, but in fact our penis or vulva’s decision. So much for “be yourself.”

  3. Muffin
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I really hated the end of the article:
    Bathrooms can be dangerous for transgender students. But the other student replied off-handedly, “That wasn’t a girl. That’s just Jack.”
    It’s trying for a kids-are-alright-about-gender-thing but ended up explaining that these students don’t recognize Jack’s female identity. So, uh, nothing solved?

  4. conductress
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    susanstohelit, I agree completely. It smacks of victim blaming.
    I also liked this condescending gem: “Rules” + “teenager” = “challenges.” Not only are trans student’s rights reduced to this silliness, but all teenagers are reduced to children who cannot think for themselves, and thus need a paternal system to do it for them.
    Going back to the yearbook photo controversy, it absolutely appalling that not only are there gender-mandated outfits, but that school officials *require* girls to wear a drape that reveals their bare shoulders. What if they’re uncomfortable showing that much skin? And they wonder why teenagers rebel over rules regarding things like skirt length. When you send these mixed messages, what do you expect? It’s also interesting that the Florida rule is that students must dress “in keeping with their gender.” I don’t think that word ‘gender’ means what Florida thinks it means…
    At least the article included links to two good blogs on the subject.

  5. change4good
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    When I came across the article “Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School” by Jan Hoffman, in the NY Times today I was adamantly hoping to be met with new material. While the piece gave the appearance of trying to represent both sides of the “argument,” it only continued to re-inscribe the gender binary. The article began with “Rules” + “teenager” = “challenges,” as if to suggest that gender expression is linked to teenage rebellion rather than an assertion of an individual’s identity. Adolescence is the time when many people first become aware of their sexuality and gender. To propose that these teenagers are seeking sensationalism and attention does a great disservice to many youth who solely do not want to repress a huge part of themselves, as the quoted Barabara Risman suggests often happens with young boys and also can occur with young girls. The idea that schools believe they have the right to suppress these individuals is grossly wrong. A boy wearing clothes that are traditionally viewed as “feminine” and girls wearing clothes that are traditionally viewed as “masculine” are not promotions of violence such as gang attire. To say that administrators must censor such clothing choices because they don’t want other students to hurt these individuals or because, as the quoted Kay Hymowitz appalling proposes, to not create distractions in class would be the same as saying in the 1960s that a student of color should be kept out of a student body of all white students because it would cause a distraction and that it would be unsafe for the individual student. I think we can agree that that argument would not stand today, so why can the same not be said when such arguments are about queer students? The reason: a lack of understanding that has been perpetuated in society, re-established by such articles as this one. In writing about Rincon High School in Tucson’s homecoming prince and the Los Angeles high school’s prom queen, Jan Hoffman conflates gay, cross-dressing, and trans identities. Not everyone who is gay cross-dresses. Not everyone who is trans is gay. By throwing together all these categories without any distinction, Hoffman reinstalls confusion into our public. I think Hoffman wanted to craft an even-sided article, to depict both sides of the story and to paint an unbiased viewpoint, but her evident lack of social consciousness in queer studies makes an article like this damaging for queer identities.

  6. Tortured Soul
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    This is actually something i had quite a lot of trouble with at my school i have always thought of myself as either not being really either gender or a girl but i guess from what people say i’m stuck with the way i am. and i’m too afraid to wear the clothes things i want and act the way i want to because there’s this constant fear that people won’t except it or will reject me. i have thought for a while that as long as people re fine and don’t hate me that it didn’t matter if i was uncomfortable or not happy. i finally want to be me and even my girlfriend is willing to except it but her parents don’t. advice would be appreciated. i need help!

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