Virginia School District Decides Secret to Gay Bullying Lies in “Cross-Gender Dressing”

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!

INAPPROPRIATE

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.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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45 Comments

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    I hate living in VA. In my school district, we have no anti-discrimination policy about gender identity or sexual orientation. A student in an AP government class said he felt all gays should be castrated and forced to undergo reparative therapy for their crimes against humanity and the teacher didn’t say anything. Because it’s his “opinion”. Fuck no, that’s not an opinion, that’s hate speech. And our principal is openly hostile to the GSA. It breaks my heart because I don’t need any support from our school, I love being queer and don’t mind any shit I get for it. But what about those that are questioning or not out yet?

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      Oh my god I want to fly you out to NYC and take you to my schools’ GSA, and I mean that in the least creepiest way possible. While we’re really small and (apparently) had some trouble in convincing the school to let us start up, the entire school is extremely intolerant of homophobia at least most of the time and I’ve never seen anyone get away with saying something homophobic or misogynistic without getting the patriarchy/homophobia verbally beaten out of them (and by verbally beaten I mean called out on their shit and asked how they would feel if they were disowned, shamed, and shunned over a permanent part of themselves).

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      Wow, that is fucking awful. I’m sorry things are so hostile. I remember what it was like in school and it always felt the worst when even the adults were against you. You’re a kickass person for standing up for yourself and your identity. I don’t want that to sound trite but I just want you to know.

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    So basically this is a vague, regressive and futile attempt to address a horrible problem without fully considering what is causing the problem. To me “It is not a straight prohibition of anything, unless it … forms a disruption of the education process” sounds a lot like they are placing the onus on the victims to avoid dressing in a way that will provoke bullies, which is awfully similar to blaming assult victims for provoking their attackers with ‘slutty’ clothing. How about insisting that we all wear shapeless boiler suits? I bet that would fix both problems and we’ll never have to address the underlying culture of victim-shaming and moral hysteria.

    (If anyone can suggest a more constructive response to this than rage and sarcasm then I would be much obliged)

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    oddly enough theres a school or school distric in scotland who are discussing this very issue right now with one of the many equality commision groups in the uk (sorry o dont know which one or the exact details) but the solution they are mooting there seems to be that any gender can wear and gender approriate clothes at all to solve the bullying/descrimination issue. ie: boys can wear skirts and girls wear the male uniform. seems a far better way to deal with the whole issue.

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    i just looked it up…the idea is being floated by the scottish parliaments childrens advisor after he backed a 13 year olds fight to ban gender specific uniforms. i f*cking love the scottish!

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    What would be the diffrence between this and blaming the woman who had just been raped that it was what she wore not the person who raped her that was the problem? Really what are they thinking?

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    I would contend that this is a violation of the Equal Protection clause, as are all restrictions on “cross-gender” presentation or activity.

    In the 11th circuit case of Glenn v. Brumby the court ruled:

    In each of these foundational cases, the Court concluded that discriminatory state action could not stand on the basis of gender stereotypes. The Court’s more recent cases reiterate that the Equal Protection Clause does not tolerate gender stereotypes. Accordingly, governmental acts based upon gender stereotypes–which presume that men and women’s appearance and behavior will be determined by their sex–must be subjected to heightened scrutiny because they embody “the very stereotype the law condemns.”
    We conclude that a government agent violates the Equal Protection Clause’s prohibition of sex-based discrimination when he or she fires a transgender or transsexual employee because of his or her gender non-conformity.

    This sounds like a direct correlation. SCOTUS Justice Abe wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights…. at the schoolhouse gate”

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    Words fail me on the f*cked up-ness of that proposal…
    I’m afraid the people who came up with this “idea” are just ignorant, uneducated (re: homophobia, heteronormativity and all that $/!&) and helpless. And that’s the only solution they could think of.

    Could AS please write some pieces on schools that get their sh*t together regarding preventing or counteracting (homophobic) bullying? Some hopeful examples of good (and working) practice?
    *Pretty pleeeeeeeeaseeeee*

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    Suffolk is right in the middle of a bunch of military bases. And even though there are plenty of liberal and/or gay people in the military, for the most part, those are outnumbered by strict conservatives. So this really doesn’t surprise me. Also, Virginia gets more and more conservative and/or homophobic the further you get away from Richmond and DC.
    But seriously, Virginia! WTF? Not cool.
    When are school administrators going to learn to read some fucking books?

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      In reading these comments, Heather, I see a presumption that political conservatism or military membership equals bigotry. I think that’s just wrong. Bigots come in all political persuasions. I’m certainly not a liberal and I’ve spent three decades in the military. As a child, I experienced the sort of bullying being discussed. Attire is only the tip of the iceberg. The school administrators want “boys to be boys” and “girls to be girls.” Heaven forbid that a child of either gender might actually want to play with a child of the other gender–other than to play “doctor” of course. In grammar school, most of the boys (except me) ended up in a pig pile at recess. Because I didn’t view that sort of grab-ass as fun, I played hopscotch and jumped rope with the girls. That instantly labeled me as a sissy and I took abuse for it all through school. I became acutely aware that neither the school nor the children had any interest in respecting me for who I was. All wanted me to conform to what they considered appropriate gender norms. I became quite angry and I’ve maintained that anger for fifty years. I boycotted my high school graduation because the school expected all of the boys to wear purple robes and the girls to wear white ones. The girls got a rose; the boys got nothing. When my youngest child graduated from the same school thirty years later, the school had quit issuing roses to the girls and the policy was that any child who wanted to wear the other color robe could do so. Gosh, that sounded a bit like progress, except that the principal then issued a decree that boys could not wear shorts to graduation! I’ll bet if a boy wore a skirt under his robe, he’d have been considered in violation, since the whole idea of the policy was to avoid seeing male legs under the robes. I’d really like to see gender neutral clothing as a school dress code and encouragement of children to play together with children of both genders. Then, nobody would have “cooties.” Maybe, just maybe, friendships between genders would develop. Imagine that!

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    simple solution,you bully someone you get kicked out of the school no exceptions.Often seems the bullies are the jocks on the football team that seem to get away with everything because there seen as god’s..give me a break.To many times i have seen the jocks in my prior school bully and even rape girls but yet don’t get in trouble for it.Don’t recall the last time i seen a pot head starting a fight with anyone,not that i agree or support legalizing it at all.Just saying that the problem is not with what you wear,and a dress code is only going to anger the students even more.
    I don’t think theses people in administrations remember what it was like in school.Face it,it’s a fashion show every day and a fight to fit in..If a guy want’s to wear a pink shirt and skinny jeans..well go for it but you know you’ll get teased,or if i “female” wear jeans and a button down..omg i would never hear the end of it.
    If at my work i were to look over my cubical wall and call the lady sitting there a dyke”no offense to anyone that is a lesbian as i am one myself” i would be fired and gone in a minute.Something similar should apply at school..you bully your gone,or required to sit in counseling for an extended period of time.

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    Okay, so riddle me this.

    I am a survivor of 13 years of catholic schooling. We wore uniforms for the first 9 years and really never had many problems with the typical gay-bashing bullying style that is so prevalent at schools in my area, particularly in middle school. I don’t ever remember anyone being cruel about what everyone else wore because we had the great equalizer: Clothes in the color of navy blue, light blue and white. Things were very simple back then, even in middle school where everyone seems to be ripping each other apart in most places.

    I know this doesn’t solve everything, but it breaks my heart to think that kids can’t just hop on the bus, learn some things and come home without being belittled, terrified or anxiety-ridden by the end of the day.

    However, when I got to high school and received some leniency in terms of what we wore (no jeans, t-shirts, hoodies or sneakers) there was CONSTANT bullying. My best friend left after freshman year because he just could not stand to be treated so poorly. It was amazing how night and day the bullying was when we got to high school. Also, I do recognize that most people would think the bullying in catholic schools would be more extreme, but actually, it was pretty tame compared to public schools. We also had school administrators that had NO IDEA what the hell to do with us queermos, but they tried their best to protect us from the cruelness of our fellow homophobic classmates.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think that all students should be forced to wear uniforms until well into high school. I definitely do not blame the students who wish to dress in whatever gender they happen to identify with, because hell, I was about as androgynous as it got back in 6th grade (no jumpers for this lady)…I just think that students do not deserve to wear anything, except for uniforms, until they prove that they are mature enough not to terrorize each other over what they are wearing.

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      At my school the bullying was severe despite the uniforms, which were really damned strict, and sometimes still managed to be about what you were wearing. Haven’t rolled the waist of your skirt exactly one time? You are a fail girl and shall be dogpiled on until you are fixed. Feel too hot to wear your jumper? Attack! Ankle socks instead of tights because again, too hot? Attack! The wrong by the tiny fraction allowed within the dress code shoes? Attack!

      Also we had to wear above the knee skirts even when it was godamn snowing outside. No trousers for us.

      So uniforms are not a blanket answer, they can work if implimented in an intelligent fashion and the school is paying attention in other areas.

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      But then you have the problem of the transgender kids. Or hell, the straight up gender non-conforming kids.
      I’m really smart. Just before both middle and high school, I was offered scholarships to (good) private schools. Both times, I turned them down on the basis that as much as I would have liked the more specialized classes, and classmates who HAD to behave lest they get kicked out, I turned them down both times. Because both required girls to wear skirts. And that just wasn’t happening. If my public school required those, I would be shit out of luck. Either I could wear the skirt and feel uncomfortable, or I could wear pants and get a giant target painted on my back.
      Unless you mean gender-neutral uniforms. That’d be awesome.

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    As a costume/fashion designer I find this so utterly ridiculous. I make clothes and I now how trivial and insignificant they are, they’re costumes! The power that we give clothing in our society is so absurd. It’s such a distortion of what humans are truly like. I find it ridiculous when people attach a gender to an article of clothing, whether it is for their fit, color, etc. If only they knew how it is all a matter of fashion trends, and throughout history, even skirts and heels have flipped flopped between men and women roles. Anyone who assigns gender to clothing, including those who feel a type of clothing defines who they are as a human, is missing the big picture in life.

    As for bullying, it’s inhumane to force gender variant people to follow society’s norms of clothing to prevent verbal abuse, just as it is inhumane to blame womens’clothing and sensuality for rape and sexual abuse.

    As for Virginia School Systems, they usually do everything a$$ backwards. I was banned from theater[and almost suspended] for producing a remake of “The Children’s Hour”. Homophobes!

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    What I don’t understand in this article is why you’re showing a ‘tomboy’ picture when the proposed change is completely targeted at femme boys and, most specifically, trans girls? Let’s get real, masculine girls wearing pants aren’t going to be harassed by this… this is completely about trans feminine persons.

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      While its primarily aimed at femme boys and trans girls it probably really is going to be aimed at masculine presenting girls and tomboys too by teachers who want to enforce femininity. Maybe I’m wrong but I thought that was a picture of the author when she was a kid.

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        Primarily? In the 5-6 stories I’ve read about this legislation, I’ve never seen masculine girls mentioned… it’s all about ‘boys in makeup and dresses.’ What I have seen mentioned in several of the stories were references to Bobby Montoya, the 7-year old trans girl who wanted to be a girl scout. Letitia (Larry) King was also a trans girl (even if the media, both straight and LG repeated referred to her as a gay or queer boy). I’m not saying that girls expressing masculinity get a free ride, but I don’t think it’s right to just brush by the issue that our society has a lot more negative and even violent reactions to perceived ‘male-bodied’ people expressing femininity and even girlhood. It’s the expressed intention of the authors of this proposed legislation to punish those who do.

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          I understand this, and I’m not arguing that trans girls and femme boys aren’t going to be the primary target. I’m sorry if it looked like I was saying that. I was just trying to offer an explaination for why the picture was of a girl.

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    I think they should enforce a dress code that has anyone who’s “uncomfortable” with non-gender conforming modes of dress wear something that they, too, feel ridiculously uncomfortable in – that way everyone’s on the same page! Hooray!

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    #1 top priority should be to address bullying. but, since kids are terrible and mean…

    second priority: uniforms. pants and polos for everyone, male and female. twisting the dress code like this is a distraction to learning in itself. avoid all controversy and just dress everyone the same. sorry high schoolers, i know this sounds like a shitty solution. but you’ll be done with school before you know it.

    i grew up in a small texas town, and i presented very much as a tomboy. in retrospect, unisex uniforms would have saved me a lot of pain, not to mention physical assault by boys and girls.

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    I worked in a very gay-friendly school (it was a performing arts magnet), so take this with a grain of salt.

    On Halloween, a sweet, gay freshman boy in my class proudly showed up as Batgirl. SKINTIGHT latex, short-skirted costume, kneehigh boots. He flounced past the gang-member-hopefuls in my classroom and said “You know you want me”.

    OMG I had to talk to him about the appropriateness of his comment, but between you and me, I was cheering so loudly on the inside.

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    It is really a must to focus on bullying particularly in school where it normally happens. I would like to introduced the safety solution that I have learned in one of my office mates. I registered my son to SafeKidZone for they offered something to used during emergency. It has an application called panic button and by just pressing it the alert will go to a list of safety network and to the nearest 911 if help is needed the most. Check out their site http://safekidzone.com/

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    The source of this foolishness really is the parents. Statements like: ‘Red shoes are for girls” or “Climbing trees isn’t ladylike” create an unnatural gender polarity in children. It is that polarity that causes the type of bullying at issue here. This polarity is reinforced by teachers and administrators, who were once children themselves, of course. The cycle needs to be broken. This school’s answer is to treat the superficial symptom while ignoring the highly contagious disease.

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    That is the school discrimnating against how you express yourself and what you feel most comfortable wearing
    And they call it distracting or it could make some one uncomfortable they are not considering the person who is wearing the cloths what about them being distracted or uncomfortable with their clothes

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