Because universities are places to learn, and not — gasp! — draw attention to yourself, the all-male Morehouse College has placed women’s clothing on its list of banned attire, right up there with wearing sunglasses, pajamas, and do-rags in class. And yes, banning cross-dressing is specifically aimed at gay students.
Morehouse, the HBCU (historically black college/university) in Atlanta, is cracking down on those silly gays who think a college campus is the appropriate place to express themselves. “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,” says Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services. And what happens if you do show up to class wearing a cute Marni number? You’ll be asked to leave. Keep doing it, and Morehouse will suspend you. The change comes “from the vision of the college’s president” Robert Michael Franklin, Bynum tells CNN, “who wants the institution to create leaders like notable graduates Martin Luther King Jr., actor Samuel Jackson and film director Spike Lee.”
Couple this knee-jerk response with Morehouse’s recent firing of an employee who made fun of that fabulous gay wedding, and we’re not sure what to think of the school’s feelings towards the gays. (Morehouse’s Bynum insists the policy change came after he met with Morehouse Safe Space, the campus’ gay organization, which voted to OK the policy change. “Of the 27 people in the room, only three were against it.”)
It’s all part of President Franklin’s “five wells” campaign. He wants students to be “well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.” That’s reasonable. And admirable! But if the trade off is a policy that’s so strict it clamps down on a student’s ability to express his gender identity, we can’t get behind it.
Is wearing pumps in class really going to distract from academia? Only if Morehouse contributes to a campus that ostracizes those individuals. Or they could teach tolerance and acceptance. You know, like that Martin Luther King Jr. fella.
The only vocal opposition to the new rules has come from some gay students on campus. Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space @ Morehouse, a gay-straight student alliance, said that under Franklin’s leadership, the college has been more committed to equity for gay students than ever before, and that “as an openly gay student, I feel privileged to have matriculated now.”
Webb said that gay students are divided about the dress code. But although he will not have to change his style, he said he was bothered by the new rules.
For many gay students, fashion is an important part of self-definition, he said. “Once you try to stop people’s expression, everything that is unique about people is going to start to crumble, and you will produce robots, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
A few gay Morehouse students do dress in women’s clothing sometimes, and Webb said that should be allowed. While all Morehouse students are covered by the new clothing policy, Webb said he was bothered that a specific rule singled out a style popular only with some gay students. “I think this borders on discrimination,” he said. “While someone can say that it applies the heteronormativity of other students in terms of do-rags and sagging of pants, I can also say that there are gay people who sag their pants and wear their do-rags, but you don’t find people here who identify themselves as straight walking around in feminine garb.”
If male students wear feminine clothing, he asked, “what impact does it have on how intelligent they are, their grade point average and how much community service they do?”
He also questioned the idea that someone who wears more formal clothing is necessarily a better person. “We are focusing too much on the exterior,” he said. “If you put a clown in a suit, he’s still a clown.”