Proposed Suffolk Ban on “Cross-Dressing” Mobilizes Activists
The city of Suffolk’s public school system has proposed a ban on students wearing cross-gender clothing, resulting in an outcry from LGBT advocates who say the proposed policy is transphobic.
The specific wording of the proposed rule bars apparel “not in keeping with a student’s gender” that “causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the education process or poses a health or safety concern.” At a school board meeting last week, the rule was introduced, but was tabled for further study. Suffolk School Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton has said that the proposal was made with students’ safety in mind, citing the 2008 murder of openly gay California student Lawrence King, who often wore women’s clothing to school.
Meanwhile, the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to file suit if and when the rule is implemented. The ACLU claims that the rule is a violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting public institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex. The ACLU further asserts that the policy is “unconstitutionally vague”.
“To be constitutional, a policy must give clear notice of what conduct is prohibited, and must provide clear standards to the officials charged with enforcing the policy,” said Virginia ACLU Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg, in a letter to the school board. “This policy does neither. For example, some girls have been wearing neckties since the film Annie Hall, but some teachers may view it as a ‘male’ garment. The vagueness of the policy makes it unclear to students what clothing is forbidden, and opens the door for arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement by school officials.”
Hermelinda Cortes said that the policy had even deeper implications. “What a ban like this does is tell kids and our communities that we will be punished for not looking a certain way and makes the identities of LGBTQIA people invisible and invalid,” said Cortes, a field organizer with the advocacy group Southerners on New Ground. ”Can you imagine being told every single day that you don’t exist?”
James Parrish, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Virginia, said that another major problem with the proposed rule is that it puts the onus on victims of bullying rather than bullies themselves. “EV clearly thinks this is more of an educational issue for the board and staff at the Suffolk school system,” said Parrish. “We don’t think it’s a positive thing to put the responsibility of being bullied or not bullied on the victims. It should be on expecting appropriate behavior from staff and students.”
Parrish also said that the wording of the rule displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of transgender students. “There’s some terminology… that’s being used incorrectly here,” Parrish explained. “If there’s a transgender individual in some school system, in clothes [reflecting] their self-identification, that would not be cross-gender dressing, that would be appropriate gender-dressing.”
Suffolk Public Schools spokesperson Bethanne Bradshaw said that the board is listening to complaints about the proposal. “We are gathering any emails we receive,” said Bradshaw, who said the rule was expected to come up for a vote again in March. “It’s board policy, so it’s kind of in their court at this point.”
Parrish said that the controversy illustrated the need to train educators to address LGBT issues. “Equality Virginia… is starting this year to [work with] all the school districts in the state to make sure they have comprehensive, enumerated board policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Parrish, “because part of that policy is always an education training program… I think with that program, we will have less of these problems.”
Zack Budryk, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, has been writing since age 10 working towards a career of advocacy-based investigative journalism.
Southerners on New Ground aims to improve life for LGBTQs and people of color by educating those who oppress
“We’re a liberation organization that focuses primarily on racial and economic justice for any and all people that live in those intersections and deal with it on a day to day”December 15, 2016
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