Girls in Pearls, Guys in Ties?

A Virginia school district is currently considering a new type of clothing ban that would impact more than 14,000 students. While most schools across the country do tend to have some sort of dress code, from banning T-shirts with offensive slogans to requiring skirts to be a certain length or forbidding baseball hats and pajamas, the Suffolk school board is attempting to take things one step further.

The district wants to prohibit students from wearing clothing “not in keeping with a student’s gender” and that “causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the education process or poses a health or safety concern.”

The ban came about after some male students at one of the district’s three high schools dressed like girls and other students complained. It is unclear if the students themselves were bullied or upset by the incident.

While the Suffolk school board attempts to come off as protective, they mostly come off as misguided. Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton cited recent LGBT suicides and harassment cases unconnected to the school district as evidence that something needs to be done. She feels that a ban on “cross-dressing” is the best solution:

It has nothing to do with a person’s gender–who they are. Of course I don’t want anyone’s rights being violated, but I have done some research.

However, despite the best intentions, the school district is missing the mark with this ban. Who will decide what is gender-appropriate clothing, and what criteria will they use? I only need to think back to when I attended high school in the mid-’90s to wonder if my own fashions would have been called into question under this ban. While I wore skirts and dresses occasionally, I mostly deferred to flannel button-down shirts, jeans, and Timberland work boots–a stereotypical “boy” outfit.

And what of the students who are indeed expressing their own identity, which may not happen to mesh with traditional gender stereotypes? While this is an attempt to protect them, does it not just squash their individuality and send the message that they’re not “acceptable” the way they are? Where do we draw the line? Can boys wear pink shirts? Would girls be prevented from wearing suits if they wanted to?

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, offered this statement about the proposed Virginia action:

The Suffolk School District’s proposed ban on clothing that students may wear to express their gender identity is an unrealistic solution to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its students. In 2012, GLSEN released a national study, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, that found nearly 1 in 10 of elementary students in 3rd to 6th grade[s] do not always conform to traditional gender norms/roles. We know that enumerated anti-bullying policies, educator and student training and the support of LGBT student clubs are proven strategies for the reduction and prevention of bullying and harassment. The Suffolk School District should instead refocus its efforts on creating a safe and respectful learning environment that embraces difference and takes into consideration the needs of every student.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Suffolk school board doesn’t understand the potential negative ramifications of their proposed ban. Instead of protecting targeted students, the ban actually singles them out, suggesting that they are the problem and need to conform for it to become better, rather than embracing and working with the differences of the entire student body.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has already challenged the proposed ban, which comes up for a vote in March, as unconstitutionally vague and sexually discriminatory. Executive director Kent Willis told Reuters that the state ACLU plans to outline possible legal actions that could follow if the ban was adopted. It is unclear whether the school board will change its mind before March, but perhaps with heightened public scrutiny they will reconsider.

By the way, what did you wear in high school that might have been banned under this ruling?

Photo from Flickr user Sam T under Creative Commons 3.0.



  1. I wore a lot of odd things in high school. But I had a few outfits that might have been construed as gender bending. I’d wear ripped jeans or baggy corduroy pants with one of my brothers’ baseball or soccer shirts. Usually with no bra, no makeup too. Then on other day’s I’d go the opposite end, looking thoroughly “female.” Uniforms are one thing, but arbitrary dress codes always irked me. When I was in elementary school, they banned tank tops for girls, but not for guys, so I cut out two fabric squares and pinned them to the top of my tank top straps to “censor” my shoulders. These kids should protest by wearing name tags specifying their gender.

  2. Trillium Starchild says:

    I wore combat boots all black genderless clothing and cut all my hair off for a year. I don’t think it increased my potential for bullying, at least at my school. What I got harrassed rfor was leading GSA meettings and rallies on the front lawn. People lash back when you make a statement they can’t handle yet. I don’t think that ever means you should stop making it!

  3. My clothes in High School would definitely have fallen more on the “boy” side of things than the “girl” side. I liked my Doc Martens, my plaid shirts, baggy jeans, etc. (this was the 90s). I was most definitely not a girly girl. High School was bad enough without adding being uncomfortable in what one is wearing to the mix. What is going on in the States? Seems like all the advancements for equality in all arenas are being challenged at the moment, and instead of moving forward they’re moving back to the 1950s and earlier. When women didn’t have control over their own reproduction and LGBT people spent their lives in the closet. This is the 21st century people! We shouldn’t even be having these conversations anymore!

  4. Stephanie Mieras says:

    I understand what the administration is going for here…but they are going about it in a discriminatory fashion. I’m sure only the boys will really be effected by this- no one cares if women wear pants, but if a man wears a skirt everything goes to hell.

    Why didn’t they just start requiring uniforms? Hello…easy solution to your “problem” (obviously I don’t think it’s a problem…)

  5. When someone is being bullied, you do not look to them and say, “Well YOU’RE the problem. YOU need to change so people will stop bullying you.” Do you know what kind of message that sends? Do you know how much that will just PROVOKE further suicides and self-harm? You’re telling these kids that the way they were born is going to put them in harm’s way, and that they need to suppress it for their own sake. And that if someone picks on them for it? Well, that’s their own fault.
    That’s absolutely HORRIBLE.

    • Wake up and realize the real world puts standards into play. The earlier children realize this, the better… I can “express” my “creativity” at my desk at work by singing a song instead of working, but if I don’t “fit into” the regulations of my workplace (aka, my job description), I’ll be “bullied” into working by being fired. The world has standards…

      So hypocritical that intead of traditional ways of dress for centuries, we have now figured it out! Who is being small minded? Chronological snobbery! What about the rest of the distracted students trying to learn, but let’s face it, a boy in a dress is distracting. The Few students now would get to “bully” the rest of the world into changing to be “openminded.”

      If I hear I was “born this way” one more time, I might scream… I was born selfish, messy, prefering chocolate to vegetables… we have to work at becoming better, not just “accept” ourselves. This way of thinking is outdated. Grow up.

      • Iliana Echo says:

        Quite frankly, your last statement I find more than a little offensive. I have autism. I was born this way. If I spent my whole life trying to conform (why is conformity supposed to be “better” anyway?) I’d be miserable. I’ve spent my entire life trying to deal with statements that suggest that I must attempt to shed these vital parts of my identity to be better. Yes, I accept and love myself. But statements like yours, that suggest I can only be good if I fight against who I am, make this a steep task. And yes, there is a comparison. A person who chooses to “cross-dress” isn’t hurting themselves or anyone else (your comment about distractions is so broad next we’ll be saying students can’t wear bright colors), therefore it is not a flaw and doesn’t require a correction.

      • I’m sorry, but that is a completely flawed comparison. The work situation you describe is not about standards, but contractual agreements. You *agreed*, deliberately and knowingly contracted to do that work in exchange for your pay, and the company reasonably expects you to do it.

        Students, before a certain age, are not given the choice as to whether to go to school (that belongs to their parents), and after may still feel compelled in order to do a lot of other things they eventually may need or want to do(like go to college, be able to find a job, not get kicked out of their house by their parents).

        What’s more, they NEVER made any agreement, such as the worker did ie. work-exchanged-for-pay, to present as a socially dictated gender in return for… well, being born with the body of that gender.

      • Just because something is the status quo does not automatically make it “better” as you suggest. That is a very harmful way of thinking, and you only need to look at the Holocaust to know that it can get dangerous and deadly very quickly when you lord “normal as better” over a society.

      • Is this a website you normally frequent, or are you just someone here to troll? Thats quite the antifeminist gender normative diclacriminatory statement youve made there with no real backup thanks for joining the conversation though!

  6. Why don’t we just kill all creativity and instill a nation wide dress code for all schools. All students between Kindergarten through 12th grade would just wear white polos with khaki pants and plain black or white shoes. No one will wear skirts or jumpers, no one will be allowed to add any flair to their uniforms. Done and Done. *Waves sarcasm flag*

  7. Harmony Kenney says:

    When I was in school I was bummed that the only clothing my mother could afford to provide me with were frumpy boy jeans, boots and T-shirts she purchased from local thrift shops. When I wasn’t wearing that I was dressed in my only Gothic Style Dress.

    This is completely discriminating, not only to children with a touch of style and individuality who are simply striving to express themselves through a very difficult phase in growing up, but also to the lower income families who cannot always afford the best or “gender appropriate” clothing for their children. Will the school be picking up the tab to support these new clothing regulations??? Likely not!

    What will be next…No Gothic, punk or other styles of clothing that the school may not like???

    Guess what Virginia…You CAN regulate what your students wear to school…It’s call PRIVATE SCHOOL and PAID AND PROVIDED UNIFORMS! If the parents wanted their children to be like everyone else and can afford it….that is where you get to set your regulations without coming off as discriminatory. Not in public venues!

  8. Helen Wilson says:

    This clothing ban will put transgender students under great pressure to gender conform and it will lead to suicides.

  9. One of my “things” in high school was wearing a big top hat, deeming me “that girl with the top hat”. The only time it was a problem was in algebra of sophomore year, when I had a teacher that set a classroom rule of no hats. But seeing as it’s technically a male-directed accessory, it would probably be an issue. I also have a large collection of neckties, so I wore them with blouses regularly. Usually with pants and sometimes with skirts.

  10. Woo boy. The problem with this ban is that it’s so wide open to interpretation. What if a school administrator’s perception of “proper dress” for the female gender was only dresses and skirts? Would they send the majority of the district’s female population to detention for wearing jeans? After all, prior to World War II it was considered inappropriate for women to wear pants or slacks. Obviously that view for the majority of Americans has shifted, but there are still people out there who would like to see that become the norm again. I completely agree that this is counterproductive. Not only could it pose problems for straight students who are just wearing the modern trends, but this policy is just singling out the LGBT students they are claiming to protect.

  11. This is BULL…. i still am in high school….and my usual outfit is a basic t-shirt (sometimes ones i steal from my brother) and jeans… been that way since kindergarten. Also, in most schools, there spirit wear school t-shirts are only available in mens sizes… so what will they do about that? One of my good friends, who so happens to be gay, wears girls jeans half the time… and NO ONE CARES

  12. As a transgender female this dress code policy doen’t make sense. It would make me a target today as I would have been when I was in high school in the 1960s. It is telling transgender boys and girls that they don’t have a proper place in their schools and because the school system disproves of how they dress that it is permissible for teachers, staff, and their classmates to harass them and put them down. This is discrimination and taking away these students First Amendment Rights in the worst way. As a transgender woman it took me over fifty years to start breaking down the mental barriers in my mind against me dressing as my proper gender a woman because I was born with a man’s body and was coherst to live presenting myself as a male for almost 59 years. I thought today that we were past this kind of discrimination to some degree and transgender youth had some freedom to be themselves. Obviously big brother is taking over and inforcing the bigot’s point of view rather than letting transgender children be themselves and punishing the biggots who ever they are. This dress code also makes a big deal out of what they call proper gender presentation thus making it more important than it is and making gender dress a matter of teenage rebellion. It is also drawing a line in the sand and telling every member of society not to cross their physical gender boundaries or it will cost you. This makes gender presentation a matter of strong emotional attachments and importance. This is the kind of message that leads kids and adults to commit suicide especially when they are depressed because transgender people never feel like they will ever be accepted no matter what they do. Being discriminated against for being transgender is morally wrong because you are being punished for what you are and not for your actions. And at 65 years old I know that transgender is who you are and not a choice.

  13. Further policing kids gender is not the solution to students breaking and bending gender rules. This society puts entirely too much stalk in gender rigidity. These notions of “woman” and “man” were always in flux, created on a whim, and socially constructed. I’ll be glad when we get to a place where we can do away with what we “think” it means to be a woman or a man. It’s as different as the day is long.

  14. Where to start…. In high school I was the only girl on the wrestling team. I wore jeans, ribbed tank tops, sports bras, and big baggy sweatshirts to school a lot of the time. I couldn’t be bothered with my hair, so I kept it in a ponytail. I also wore sundresses and heels when I felt like it, and was (and still am) an hourglass-shaped, cisgendered woman. Who cares?

  15. This is ridiculous. If they want to stress about clothes, impose a uniform – black trousers, button up shirts and a v-neck or sweater will do perfectly for both genders. That is generally the uniform of most UK comprehensives (state schools). Some of them allow skirts, but with a tendency for the skirts to get rather short indeed, there’s a trend towards trousers for all. I have never understood why American schools don’t have uniforms in general anyway, but I’m mostly British.

    I was sent to a girls-only boarding school run by the church. We had to wear a very strict and terribly outdated uniform that was green, red and straw-yellow, complete with official hair styles and even official socks and hair ties, and a rule about the styles of shoes… This was a skirts, v-neck, shirt and blazer sort of establishment (that’s upper-class England for you!). The uniform wasn’t the only thing I didn’t like about the place, but that’s a whole other rant. I think that was one of the catalysts for me becoming the rather elaborate Goth I am today. Through what was initially rebellion I found true passion.

  16. I’m currently a High School girl. In eight grade, I pierced my lip, dyed my hair black and purple. I wore skinny jeans, lots of black, and litereally scared people. Even though it wasn’t on purpose. Last year, my freshman year, I wore alot of weird clothes. Something schools would consider a distration. Grayscale plaid button up shirt with the sleeves cut off at the elbow, and I’d wear a black long sleeved shirt underneith. Black skinny jeans. Black boots or converse. I even had short hair, but long bangs. For a while it was black, and for two weeks it was even bright pink. Lots of black eyeliner, dark red and black mixed lipstick. No one cared. People thought I was weird, but bold. And at the begining of this school year I came in looking like a total boy. Mohawk, no make-up, not even earings, baggy dark jeans, black AC/DC shirts and a Nirvana shirts.

    Hell, if I wasn’t able to be myself at school. I would have gotten through school so far. Good thing both of my schools don’t care. But if I’d been this was in 6th or 7th, I would have been kicked out. Good thing I had switched schools between 7th and 8th. You should be able to dress the way you want. No matter what others think. If they don’t like they way you are, then screw ’em.

  17. Why can’t they implement one of the anti-bullying/anti-harrassment programs that has proven to actually decrease this kind of behavior? PBS has a whole documentary I’d love to show them that features a program developed right here in New Haven.

    This is going to be as helpful as my middle school’s ban on hugging, if much more offensive. Yes, they banned all hugging in the school (after I was in high school). They wanted to decrease public displays of affection. Instead, girls just held hands with girls everywhere and hugged it out with each other until they stopped giving students detention for it. Also, making out among 13-year-olds continued.

  18. Would this restrict haircuts too? I cut off all my hair in high school to typical “boy” length, no longer than a couple inches all over my head, and then chose to wear super feminine clothing for the majority of the time I had short hair. keep in mind I went to school in a super conservative area, where there was literally 5 girls in a high school of 1800 with “short” haircuts

  19. Hel F. Kiernan says:

    I can easily imagine how I would feel right now if I was in high school. I would realize that kids would be more aware of other kids’ clothing & what that might mean about them. I would be a bit scared and self-conscious, but I would be even more determined to dress as a man. I probably woulda dressed in dramatic, full punker boi drag. And most likely, few if any people woulda batted an eye, because what they’re really worried about is a boy in a dress, because they’re scared shitless of beautiful, badass transwomen. Which they should be, because all their bullying and bullshit has transformed these women into probably the toughest, most badass group of superhumans on the planet. My heart breaks for these kids. Man, where would our rock stars be without cross-dressing? And didn’t all of our founding fathers wear heels? This school is literally making it against the rules to show the world that you are queer. That is a problem. And What will the Goth kids do?

  20. Nicholas Chase says:

    I’ve love to see the guys go in drag and the girls go in suits to protest this policy. It’s just mind-numbingly dumb!

  21. Huh, I guess no cheerleaders will be wearing football players’ jerseys on game day….

  22. During school I took on many different appearances. My hair was very short and it was very long. It was pink, blonde, purple, orange. Some days I came to school in a dress, but mostly I wore a favoured band t-shirt, my vast converse collection and jeans. I didn’t wear lots of makeup and I barely managed to brush my hair. I liked the way I look and I still do. In contrast I don’t dress this way anymore. I still spend most days without makeup on, but I love to have fun with my appearance…it’s a form of expression. I digress…. I hope this doesn’t pass. To solve a problem in the way we handle rape and other issues disgusts me. Blaming the victims and forcing them to conform to certain people’s definition of ‘normal’. These students need workshops and days to celebrate their difference and begin to accept them.

  23. “In the first place, God created idiots. That was for practice. Then He created school boards.” –Mark Twain

    In my 50+ years on this planet, I’ve seen very little to belie this quote – and as a skirt wearing (straight) male, I find this nonsense abhorrent.

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