Girls in Pearls, Guys in Ties?

virginia dress code
(Sam T / Flickr)

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?

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A former teacher and a lifelong learner, Avital Norman Nathman is a writer whose work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Mothering Magazine, and more. You can catch her musing online about motherhood and feminism at her blog, The Mamafesto, as well as at Gender Across Borders and Bitch Media. Her passion for feminism and gender equality (and fluidity!) can be found both in her activist lifestyle and body of work. When she's not hosting dance parties in her kitchen, she's knee-deep in dirt in her teensy urban garden, nose deep in some young adult lit, or off in search of the perfect cup of Chai.