Here's some background and personal thoughts to accompany my recently posted letter to Morehouse administrators.
As some folks are already aware, Morehouse College recently announced a new “Appropriate Attire Policy.” According to CNN, the policy prohibits several things, including "the wearing of “women's clothes, makeup, high heels, and purses” by members of the all-male student body. In public comments about the policy, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. William Bynum implied that “about five” students were particularly problematic, in that their wearing feminine attire and "gay lifestyle" did not fit the college’s vision of Morehouse men. This latest incident does not come out of the blue. As Reverend Irene Monroe writes, there has long been tension within the Morehouse community about the possibility of gay or bisexual Morehouse students.
I have seen a few blogs carry this story, as well as CNN. I haven’t yet seen anything in The Chronicle of Higher Education, perhaps because there isn’t anyone in their offices who has the vision to see this as one of the top 10-20 stories in higher education on any given day. Hopefully this will change. The Morehouse gay students’ group, Morehouse Safe Space, hasn’t spoken out against this policy—reports are that they largely supported the new dress code. As a white woman, life-long northerner, and a transsexual woman who constantly has to fight for her right to be included in women’s spaces (and not relegated to men’s ones), I’ve had to overcome my worries about having my voice dismissed on this issue. However, more people need to speak out.
This policy isn’t about some imaginary, tangential issue that we can push into someone else’s inbox. This isn’t about whether people who wear feminine clothing belong at a men’s college. While the majority of people who wear “women’s clothing” are women (either cissexual or transsexual), other possibilities exist. It is possible to imagine a world, this world, in which wearing “women’s clothing” is not synonomous with identifying as a woman. This isn’t about whether single-gender colleges are right or wrong. Indeed, I see the value of spaces restricted on the basis of race (another discussion that’s come up before in the context of Morehouse), or sex, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or any number of personal characteristics. Rather, this is about how those in power choose to systemically disenfranchise and dehumanize those people (not blacks, not gays, not women, not some other stylized, codified, imagined, and homogenized group, but actual human beings in flesh and blood) who threaten the dominant group’s status as the powerful, normal default against which all else is measured. This is about an institution that celebrates its mission to fight for justice as it uses its might to kick undesirables to the curb.
I’m worried that this issue is going to fade away. I don’t want to let it. I’m still thinking about those Morehouse students singled out by administration as problematic. Like them, I cross dressed in college (although that’s not how I like to refer to it, nor do I know how they think of it). It’s not easy to summon the courage to be yourself in a world where allies are scarce. It’s not easy facing bureaucracies that are unaware of your existence, that don’t care about your needs, that leave you struggling and alone. It can be terrifying. Unfortunately, these Morehouse students do not face institutional indifference.
I am not inclined to react to hostility with indifference. Rather, I remember a particularly scaring incident shortly after I came out. I was standing on a street corner in relatively modest, uninteresting dress when a young man came up to me, pointed, and begun to laugh. Soon he was bending over at the waist with excitement. I barely heard him. What I did hear was the silence of the midday, downtown crowd. I heard the dozens of people on that street corner that didn’t feel that this was enough about them to bother speaking out.
I don't want to leave these students in that same void. I don't want them to endure the silence of whites too indifferent or too sheepish to speak out against the actions of a traditionally black college. I don't want them to suffer the silence of transsexual women who consider women's clothing an issue for women's colleges, nor the silence of gender-normative gays who are worried that these students' behavior is somehow unfair to the "good" gays. I don't want them to suffer the indignity of hearing the silence from women, from straights, or from any other group that thinks it can afford to not relate to people who are like that. If we all need to wait for someone just like us in order to fight for our own humanity, where does that put us?