Lambda Legal fund is suing a Gary Indiana high school for forbidding a dress-wearing male from attending prom. The student, who self-identifies as female, had women's clothes to school during the academic year, and met with little resistance from other students. But when she donned some taffeta and tried to enter the end-of-year formal, the principal literally blocked the door. The principal's rational, according to The Stranger? A man wearing a dress violated the school's code of conduct, forbidding “clothing/accessories that advertise sexual orientation, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, profanity, negative social or negative educational statements.”
The Lambda lawyer is upset that sexual orientation is lumped into the same category as drugs and alcohol. Fair enough. But consider that a female student was allowed to enter in a tux. Why is a man wearing a dress that is more evocative of sexual orientation than a woman in a tux? And why do the clothes we wear broadcast messages about for whom we’d like to take those clothes off?
It's an old, tired question, one with lots of potential answers. But it raises importantquestions about the link between gender and sexuality and the faulty assumption that wanting to wear a dress also means you want to have sex with a man. (In fact, the majority of transvestites are heterosexuals. And lesbians wear dresses, too. As do nuns, who last I checked weren't sleeping with anyone.)
The student in question was, in fact, transgendered. The irony is that while crossdressers (mostly straight dudes) initially wear women's clothing for a sexual charge, transgendered thinking has less to do with sex and more to do with identity. Yes, part of that identity may be sexual. But the all-too-common tendency to conflate the two is dangerous.
Back to The Stranger for an example: last month, Dan Savage came under fire for this column, wherein he confirms the suspicions of a concerned aunt. Yes, he says, her dress-wearing, musical-watching, 3-year-old nephew is gay. (Or rather, "There's a 99 percent chance your nephew is gay.")
The rest of his advice tells the aunt to create a safe space for her nephew, in which he can engage in "gay" behavior, even if it means lying to the boy's disapproving father. A debate ensued, with some readers taking Dan's side and others saying the father, though possibly in the wrong, had to be respected. Others said just because you wear dresses doesn't mean your gay. Only one reader brought up what I think is the most salient point, which is "How 'bout we add the advice of not making assumptions about our young nephew while providing a safe space in which he can work it out for himself?"
It's admirable to want to accept kids for who they are and not force them into any pre-ordained expectations for gender play or normal behavior. Why then turn around and label them with yet another category with pre-ordained behaviors and norms?
This is not to say that kids "turn" gay when they hit puberty, or that gay children don't already instinctively know that they're gay from an early age. But we don't looking at a Barbie-playing girl and saying, "She's going to grow up to love banging dudes!" Why then are we comfortable saying a kid will grow up to be gay? In essence, we're identifying a norm (a girl playing with dolls) and an abnormality (a boy wearing a dress); we feel the need to label the latter as "other" instead of expanding our view of the former. So even though the impulse to name is kindly, we reinforce gender and sexual norms in the naming.
Of course, we know that being gay carries with it social and personal signifiers far beyond who you want to take to bed. But isn't it time for a little deconstruction? As Judith Butler said, "identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression."
Boys of all ages should be able to wear dresses and have that be accepted at face value - not, as it stands now, be accepted in spite of their difference, or be accepted along with a whole other host of unspoken assumptions about what else or who else they like. Remember the nineties, when all those progressive straight boys would go see Michelle Shocked wearing hippie skirts? What ever happened to them?