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Monday, November 9, 2009

Clothes Make the Man or Woman?

I must admit a recent New York Times article title made me more than lightly consider my own prejudices. The title of the article by Jan Hoffman (November 6, 2009) was posed as this question: "Can a Boy Wear a Skirt To School?"

As Hoffman astutely relates, "By now most high school dress codes have just about done away with the guesswork.
Girls: no midriff-baring blouses, stiletto heels, miniskirts. Boys: no sagging pants, muscle shirts. But do the math.
'Rules' + 'teenager' = “challenges.'”

The questions remains: "If the skirt is an acceptable length, can a boy wear it?"

Teenage dress can confound gender identity and sexual orientation. With gay male prom queens, girls in senior picture tuxedos, and makeup and wigs on boys, the schools' attempts at quelling disruption and providing safety become difficult. Yet, Hoffman points out that "when officials want to discipline a student whose wardrobe expresses sexual orientation or gender variance, they must consider antidiscrimination policies, mental health factors, community standards and classroom distractions."

Of course, schools must rely on dress code decisions based upon sound educational policy and legal precedent. And, generally, courts give local administrators great latitude. Cross-dressing, for example, has been found by some courts to be "disruptive in the normal educational day." Many administrators seek to define the line between classroom distraction and the student’s need for self-expression.

Hoffman states, "There are 4,118 gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools across the country, which raise awareness of such issues. Gender-boundary questions are even bubbling up in elementary schools, with parents seeking to pave the way for their children, in blogs like and"

Last fall, Stephen Russell, a University of Arizona professor  who studies gay, lesbian and transgender youths, conducted a survey of about 1,200 California high school students. When asked why those perceived as not as “masculine” or “feminine” as others were harassed, a leading reason students gave was “manner of dress.” (Jan Hoffman, New York Times, November 6 2009)

Sometimes, a student’s fashion-statement clothes can be misread as an advertisement about sexuality. In recent years, “emo” style has moved from punk fringe almost to pop mainstream, with boys wearing heavy eyeliner, body-hugging T-shirts and floppy hair dyed black, to emulate singers like Adam Lambert and Pete Wentz. Wearing styles such as these can bring a student a lot of grief from his classmates.

But, the title question of the article remains disturbing. Honestly, almost all of us now tend to make concessions for outlandish dress that we observe on a daily basis. Granted, most of the time, it is adults who are wearing provocative outfits that grab our attention and shake our standards of code. When we see girls and boys wear clothes outside our sexual or gender comfort zones, we normally just shake our heads in response to their lack of maturity or absence of parental control.

There is no question a critical safety issue exists in schools, yet I can remember when our high school dress code prohibited shirts that were not tucked in and blue jeans. No one would enforce such strict standards in the public schools now. Are the safety issues ultimately a result of cruel hazing or anti-gay sentiment, which are also not permitted in schools?

I guess what I am trying to say is this: I have no logical reason why a boy should not be allowed to wear a regulation skirt to school if he wants to risk embarrassment and possible injury. I would implore other students to treat that boy with respect and not allow him to become a "lightning rod" of attention. I don't like admitting this, but I can not defeat the opposition with solid argument. Foolish behaviors must be denied but honest, within guideline preferences for dress should be allowed. Ouch, that hurts me say.

We must remember that some countries are so repressive that women are forced to wear veils and robes to cover themselves - or risk violence not just from male passersby but also from the government. Sudan sentenced two women to 20 lashes and $110 each for wearing pants, reported Reuters. According to Sudanese law, the women committed an act of indecency by wearing trousers. After public outcry, they were spared from the whipping.

Also, I think the issue of dress code is a little lopsided in favor of females. A girl can get away with cutting her hair short, and wearing mannish-looking shirts (including shirts that button left over right), unisex jeans or chinos, and work boots. Schools can be especially lenient to rich, attractive female students.  But if a boy adopts a feminine looking hairstyle and wears something on top that looks more like a blouse than a shirt, he is likely to draw exclusion.

The Issue Tested

Check out these two incidents reported by Tom Baldwin (January 26, 2006) on, Times Online.

1. Nathan Warmack, a student at Jackson High School in Missouri, was barred from a school dance because he was wearing a kilt. The actions prompted outrage among the the many Americans who claim Scottish descent and an internet petition was signed by more than 10,000 supporters. Nathan has now received an apology from school officials.

2. Michael Coviello of New Jersey's Hasbrouck Heights High School at first only wanted to bend the uniform code at his high school by donning shorts, which he had started wearing because of a knee injury. But, he was told that district policy prohibited shorts in winter.

So, he sought a meeting with Joseph Luongo, the school superintendent, and argued that it was unfair that girls were allowed to expose their legs and he was not. The superintendent suggested that if he felt that way, he should dress like a girl.

Michael bought three skirts and started wearing them to school. On the third day, the principal, Peter O’Hare told him that his clothing was disruptive and that he could be sent home. But, the Coviellos, an ACLU representative and school administrators crafted a compromise: Michael is still not allowed to wear shorts, but he can wear a skirt.
“This is the right outcome,” Jeanne LoCicero, an ACLU lawyer, said in a written statement which hit out at a “senseless, discriminatory school policy."

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