Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Schools, Normative Language in Policy and Gender

Coming of the heels of my first “What Does That Really Mean?” post about the word Normal, we have a story about dubious application of norms and normative language coming off the wire.

Justin Reynolds, a gay male student in Florida, was removed from class after coming to school in a v-neck shirt, blue jeans, high heeled boots and jewelry. He did it so he could make a presentation about transgender rights. He checked with his teacher first, and though the teacher discouraged him they did not explicitly tell him not to do it. Later in the day was removed from the school due to a dress code policy that states that student’s clothing should be "keeping with their gender", and that a student can be removed if their clothing is "inappropriate" and "disrupts the school process".

Besides issues about whether under that logic girls shouldn’t be allowed to wear typically “male” clothing (and I can tell right away that would get me in trouble), there’s a clear application of norms here, and since they never actually define what clothing “keeping with their gender” is there are huge assumptions at play here. You’re expected to know what your gender is supposed to wear, and I suppose if you come from a country where it’s different or reversed you’re out of luck.

There have been similar cases in the past, including one in Massachusetts in 2000 that tackled the issue of whether Pat Doe, a biologically male student who identified as female, was allowed to wear clothing matching her gender identity to her high school. The court ruled in favor of Doe, and rejected the idea that the harassment she was receiving from her peers constituted a “disruption” to the learning environment and grounds for her to be forced to wear “male” clothing. Justice Linda E. Giles’s opinion on this facet of it the case was particularly succinct:
"To rule in [the school's] favor in this regard, however, would grant those contentious students a 'heckler's veto’… This court trusts that exposing children to diversity at an early age serves the important social goals of increasing their ability to tolerate such differences and teaching them respect for everyone's unique personal experience in that 'Brave New World' out there."
Of course, that’s Massachusetts, and this case clearly isn’t identical. However, it does raise some interesting points about whether what Justin did should be considered educational as well, since he was doing it for the express purpose of giving a presentation. And is this issue really about what he wore, or is it about whether people respect each other enough to not care what another person wears? There’s an interesting cause-and-effect relationship here, and several of the students interviewed for that particular article didn’t seem to think he was disruptive, if anything it seems that it was the staff who had a problem with it.

The attire worn by Justin doesn’t strike me as especially “male” or “female” – it’s just jeans and a shirt, though he did pad a bra to give the illusion of breasts and wear eyeliner and mascara, though in the case of the latter two many men who aren’t in drag wear it as well. A bit of personal bias is about to creep in here, but I personally prefer clothing that’s gender neutral. I’m also critical of clothing and products that are gendered when I don’t feel they have to be, like slippers and socks. Part of this is because I happen to have very wide feet and am not fond of high heels, but also it’s because I really don’t think it’s needed in some cases, and it just complicates things when all you want are things to keep your feet warm. Now, would he have been considered disruptive if he'd just worn it without trying to make a point? The policy is so unclear that it's hard to tell, though other things about this school make me think that they would have done it anyway.

I don’t think there’s much about what he did that could be considered inappropriate or disruptive, since trying to make a point is not the same thing as being disruptive, though they can overlap. It’s been my experience that school policy tends to use very ambiguous language, and it tends to result in issues like this. What do "disruptive" and "inappropriate" mean? To whom is it disruptive? Is it still inappropriate if only one person feels that it is? If they change their mind does it stay disruptive, or can it stop being inappropriate? As you can see it gets muddy, and this is the danger of using subjective language in policy, especially when it's normative language, and the administrators at Dunnellon High School have fallen right into it.

Justin says he’s not planning on pursuing the issue any further, but maybe this will make them rethink their policies and what they're really saying in them, since from the sound of it they don't know themselves.

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