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Is There a Point Where Student Cross-Dressing Really Is Too Distracting For School?

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Because there are no hard numbers tracking this sort of thing, the NYT‘s Jan Hoffman must resort to the typical Sunday Styles trend story territory when she reports that a “growing number” of high school teens are abandoning gender norms in their dress. But with folks like Ceara Sturgis and Jonathan Escobar (pictured) making news, sure, we can believe it. And so begs the question: With this growing “trend,” just how much is too much before schools begin dictating what’s acceptable level of gender exploration?

You won’t learn much new from Hoffman’s piece, aside from new anecdotal references from across the country, but we’re pleased to see a few words given to the risks associated with kids cross-dressing in school. Namely, harassment, teasing, and sometimes murder.

But it’s a good read for parents and educators, particularly those who don’t understand why students have to act out their “private identity issues” in the hallways of school. Oh, we don’t know … perhaps it’s because it’s these very schools fostering an environment of queer-phobia, where gender norms are reinforced, and those who don’t fit into them are ridiculed by students and teachers alike?

In some districts, administrators seek to define the line between classroom distraction and the student’s need for self-expression. A few years ago, when Dr. Alan Storm was assistant superintendent at Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, he oversaw legal and disciplinary matters.

Principals would ask him about dress code gender cases: “They’d say, ‘Johnny just showed up in a cutoff top! Should I suspend the kid or make him change his clothes?’ ” Dr. Storm recalled. “And I’d say, ‘Is there a bare midriff?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then it doesn’t violate your dress code. You have no right to make the kid change his clothes. But it’s your absolute policy to keep the kid safe.’ ”

Dr. Storm, now superintendent of a technological program for high school students throughout Pima County, Ariz., helped draft antidiscrimination policies that protect gender expression and sexual orientation, since adopted by some Tucson districts.

Such policies have become woven into the social fabric of Rincon High School, said Brenda Kazen, a school counselor: “Gender expression is very fluid here.” Some boys have worn makeup and pink frilly scarves; girls wear big T-shirts, long basketball shorts — and look like male gang members, she said. Moreover, the student population includes immigrants from more than three dozen countries. “Our kids are just used to seeing different things, and they’re O.K. with it,” Ms. Kazen said.

Yet acceptance is hardly unilateral among teenagers, much less adults.

“There are other places where there are real safety issues,” said Barbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois who studies adolescent gender identity. “Most boys still very much feel the need to repress whole parts of themselves to avoid peer harassment.”

We’re on board with giving administrators the right to keep schools free from distractions so students can accomplish what they’re there for: to learn. But maybe if teachers and faculty reinforced a different idea — that male students who want to wear long wigs and heels, or female students who want to wear short hair and opt for pants instead of skirts in their school uniforms, are not “weird” — the school day wouldn’t be filled with attention-seeking students, but acceptance-seeking young adults.