Schools all over America are searching for ways to respond to bullying, and especially some way to address the specter of gay teen suicide which seems to be connected to bullying much of the time, even if the connection is apparently hard to make for some school administrators. But some of the solutions they’re coming up with are better than others — some schools veer dangerously close to castigating bullied children rather than their tormentors, or making “gay” the root of the problem as opposed to “bullying” or “suicide.” And when hurtful norms of gender presentation and sexual orientation are reinforced instead of questioned, kids are only helped, not hurt.
For instance, the Suffolk school district of Virginia is considering a ban on clothes “not in keeping with a student’s gender” — and referenced the murder of Larry King to defend it as an anti-bullying measure. The idea is that if students wear “appropriately gendered” clothes, they will be safe from any and all cruelty that could be potentially visited upon them by their classmates. Why didn’t someone think of that before!
The issue was apparently raised after “some male students were dressing like girls at one of the district’s high schools and other students complained.” It’s not clear what “dressing like girls” entailed, or whether any bullying was actually involved. And the district now claims that “It is not a straight prohibition of anything, unless it … forms a disruption of the education process.” Which would keep the policy more or less in line with more standard dress codes, which often prohibit students from wearing clothing that would in any way disrupt other students’ learning. Although it would still be based in deeply problematic and fundamentally confused understanding of both gender expression and bullying, so there’s that. Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton was quoted as saying “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,” which serves to not clear anything up at all.
One problem pointed out by James Parrish of Equality Virginia is that enforcing the wearing of clothing “in keeping with a student’s gender” is maybe more complicated than the school district is bargaining for. “If a girl comes to school wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, is that considered cross-gender dressing?” And what about a boy in a pink shirt? Where do you draw the line?” There’s also the issue of the district’s use of “cross-gender dressing” or “cross-dressing” — as Parrish points out, if a child is transgender or identifies with a gender other than their biological sex, then wearing the “wrong” clothes would in fact be in keeping with the student’s real gender. If a student identifies outside the gender binary, it seems like it would be a very difficult thing to decide and then enforce the clothing that’s “in keeping” with their “gender.” And even if you could, who would it ultimately benefit? The child who’s forced to wear clothes they don’t feel comfortable in? Or the people around them, who don’t have be confronted with anything they don’t understand?
The ACLU is calling the idea “unconstitutionally vague and sexually discriminatory,” and preparing to challenge it if it comes to fruition. It’s frustrating, though, that regardless of what ends up happening with this school’s initiative, this kind of wrongheaded thinking about addressing bullying will persist, at least in some schools. The fact is that some kids are always going to be different from their peers — too poor or too dumb or too smart or too queer or too small to blend in, and then picked on for it, sometimes for years. If they want to solve this, they can punish and prohibit students when they embody their differences — or they can try to teach their peers that difference isn’t something to fear or act out against. Either way, those students are going to take those attitudes with them for the rest of their life, so maybe it’s worth a second look at whether we want to teach our kids to try to modulate themselves to fit in or care enough about other people that they don’t have to.