October 29, 2009

Cross dressing crossing lines?

Two weeks ago, Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black school in Atlanta, issued a ban on women’s clothing, sparking national interest and raising questions as to what role attire should play in higher education.

Driven by a vision of creating more leaders like notable alumni Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee, Morehouse hopes this policy will stop students from dressing in a way “we do not expect in Morehouse men,” Vice President for Student Services Dr. William Bynum told CNN on October 17.

At Morehouse, the general student response has been positive. At Knox, criticism abounds.

“I would never want to go to a school that told me the way I express myself was wrong,” said freshman Gretta Reed. “I think [cross-dressing] is a perfectly healthy expression of gender identity.”

Neither Knox’s mission statement nor its student handbook mentions any type of dress code. As explained by Dean Xavier Romano, the way students choose to express themselves through their attire has never been a problem.

“As it relates to Knox, [banning cross-dressing] is such a non-starter,” he said. “It’s an interesting conversation but not a place we would ever go.”

Knox has had several incidents of cross-dressing, including a male student who regularly wore dresses and heels. Rather than respond negatively, the campus barely gave it a second thought.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s gotta be uncomfortable,’” said Romano. “I mentioned this to a female student, and she just said, ‘It’s a crime that he looks better in that dress than I would.’”

Other interesting choices of attire have included everything from wearing a blanket to wearing absolutely nothing. The only incident that has raised objections from the administration was when two students chose to wear flip-flops through the snow.

Romano also points out that the Morehouse ban raises many complicated questions, including how to define “feminine” and “masculine.”

“I have pink – very pink – polo shirts and I’m completely fine with wearing them,” he said.

Freshman Rana Tahir mentioned that the Morehouse ban reflected how society’s view of cross-dressing is somewhat one-sided.

“Funny how if a girl buys a pair of guy pants but wears a pink t-shirt with it, she’s not cross-dressing, she’s wearing cute pants,” Tahir said. “Technically, she bought something from the men’s section, so she is cross-dressing.”

Though the Morehouse ban is controversial on many levels, many in the Knox community feel that clothing is an extension of the individual and should not be criticized or limited.

“Even our professors dress very comfortably,” Romano said. “When you evaluate your professors, you’re not judging them on their Nordstrom’s or Macy’s IQ. You’re evaluating their teaching ability.”

Knox’s incredible diversity also contributes to its acceptance of a wide variety of clothing. Morehouse, on the other hand, is all male and mostly black – a situation that is rarely found in colleges today.

“Morehouse […] is addressing the whole notion of the gentleman scholar,” Romano said. “[Knox is] an interesting cross-section of what exists out there, even internationally.”

This helps explain the vast difference in attitudes towards dress between the two schools, and also why Knox students can rest easily knowing that they will not face discrimination or criticism because of their attire.

“People here have the ability to ‘dress appropriately’, whatever that means,” Romano said. “They know there are job interviews and things like that down the line. But they say, ‘For now, I’m comfortable. Judge me by the virtue of what’s in my head.’”

Anna Meier

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