Should a Goal of Higher Education Be Enforcing Gender Expectations?

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(UPDATE: Inside HigherEd now has an in-depth story on this issue as well.)

I was generally displeased with the news I saw this weekend out of Morehouse College.

Administrators at Morehouse, an all-male historically black college in Atlanta, have instituted a dress code for their students. While I would prefer to not attend a school with a dress code, I’m actually not anti-dress code, and if Morehouse wants to raise expectations for its students, a lot of what is in this dresscode is fair. For example:

The policy also bans wearing hats in buildings, pajamas in public, do-rags, sagging pants, sunglasses in class and walking barefoot on campus.

If the campus wants to have a professional atmosphere, that all makes sense. Again, I personally would never want to go to school with that kind of culture, but I can understand and respect that decision.

What really troubles me is that the dress code prohibits all cross-dressing, including the wearing of women’s clothes, makeup, high heels, and purses, calling them all “inappropriate attire.”

I think this raises a lot of important questions about Morehouse College: Is it an “all-male” college or an “all-man” college? Would Morehouse admit a trans man? Would it matter if he were pre- or post- op? If a Morehouse student decided to transition, would she be disqualified from attending? Would it matter if she were pre- or post- op? Who determines whether men dressing like women is “inappropriate” and on what grounds?

This aspect of the policy seems to be extremely regressive and blatantly discriminatory on the grounds of gender identity. One could argue that all single-sex institutions are discriminatory and help maintain gender stereotypes (though I’d counter-argue that women’s college generally have the opposite effect in a very positive way). I think the question here is needing to distinguish between sex, gender, gender presentation, and gender identity.

By initiating this policy, Morehouse has more or less dictated that all of its students must identify as the same sex, gender, gender presentation, and gender identity. I suppose it’s the college’s right to do so, but I do not think it’s right.

What’s more troubling is the reason this aspect of the policy was instituted:

“The dress-wearing ban is aimed at a small part of the private college’s 2,700-member student body, said Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services. ‘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,’ he said.

Morehouse seems to be quite open about sexual orientation. Towleroad reminds us that Morehouse was recently in the news for firing an employee who sent out an email with very anti-gay comments. But at the same time, they seem intent on limiting their students’ expression of their sexual orientation when it begins to affect their gender presentation.

This is a line I think Morehouse has stepped too far across. Apparently, being a Morehouse man is more important than being yourself.

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