Friday, October 9, 2009

Georgia School Makes Clear that Different is "Not Okay'

Well, of course, Jezebel beat me to posting this, but here it is in any case.

Transphobia in Public Schools

A Georgia high school has “asked” a 16-year-old, male-bodied student to dress in a “more manly” fashion or consider homeschooling. Jonathan Escobar, the student, wears—according to this article (and as is evident in the video interview)—wigs, high heels, skinny jeans, women’s ‘vintage tops’ (whatever that means), and makeup to school. After being involved in a lunchtime fight in the cafeteria, Jonathan withdrew from school, and—as he remarks in the video—would be happy to return if he is allowed to express himself in the manner that makes him happy; i.e., while cross-dressing. There is some disputed evidence involved in the situation; Jonathan claims that he cleared his attire with the school before moving from Miami to Georgia; the school, it would seem, denies this. Administrators are defending themselves by reminding everyone that, although there is no official dress code, attire that might potentially ‘cause disruption’ is prohibited.

Jonathan comes across as an incredibly mature and well-adjusted teenager, especially considering he’s (and it’s unclear whether he prefers ‘she’ or not, since he’s being referred to as masculinely-gendered in all of the articles I found, not to mention he retains the name Jonathan) making one of the most difficult statements a high-schooler can make: as he remarks, “I want people to know that it’s okay to be different.” And, as I well remember from high school, when ‘different’ is specifically construed in the mode of crossing gender boundaries, there is little to no support from peer groups—or, for that matter, from authority figures in the school. As Jonathan’s school shows, administrators are more concerned with avoiding conflict than with creating—perhaps at some risk—an accepting and open environment. An assistant principal blamed Jonathan’s attire for the resulting cafeteria fight—though at what point this same principal made clear that students should never lay hands on one another in violence, I’m not sure.

Though I was tough-skinned enough by high school to handle myself against homophobic taunts, I distinctly remember teachers and staff in junior high, and even elementary school, turning a deaf ear to the kids who would scream “faggot” or “sissy” or “little girl” at me in the hallways. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single time when an authority figure made it clear that insults and threats of physical violence were not okay, even if the person being threatened were ‘different.’ Not to say that all teachers are scum, but to say that the public education system does not foster an environment where ‘difference’ is accepted into the fray. Again, the impetus is to avoid conflict rather than to cope with it—and perhaps this is because there’s so little protection for public school teachers in situations like this. People lose their jobs over giving a student a kind word, or for defending themselves against a student that physically threatens or lays hands on them. So I can see why, perhaps, authority figures in the public educational system prefer to keep their hands clear of anything like this.

Nonetheless, there should be some way to get the message across that, as Jonathan says, “it’s okay to be different.” There should be a support system in place, particularly seeing as so many kids who don’t fit in with the norm are not accepted in their home lives, either; ultimately, with no one at home, in their peer groups, or in positions of authority (teachers, administrators, employers) to create a support system, the so-termed ‘deviant’ is left entirely alone. One of the highest rates of attempted or successful suicide occurs in the transgender community. There is, it would seem, no place in which trans folks can feel safe—and this extends, more generally, to the GLBTQ community, particularly at that vulnerable moment we all find ourselves in in high school. Jonathan is fortunate in some sense, because it seems that he knows who he is, what will make him happy, and will stand up for his right to express himself freely. But he is a special case; most are not so fortunate.

Reading over the comments to this article, I’m positively struck by how many people are casting all blame on Jonathan. One commenter remarks that taxpayers’ dollars are putting him through school, and so he better wait until he can “exercize [sic] his adult right” to become “Boy George.” Commenter closes by implying that if he can’t accept the normative system, then he can “go join a circus or a drama school.” Many other comments reiterate the idea that Jonathan should be forced to follow the policy, because he is disrupting the classroom with his ‘inappropriate’ clothing. My younger sister is still in high school; I’ve seen the wide range of styles that, though purportedly violating the dress code (for example, no loose jeans, no girls in strapless or thin-strapped tops, no offensive remarks on shirts, etc.), kids get away with. I’m not going to play with the politics of what it means for a teenage girl to dress like a “slut”—because I recognize the kinds of demeaning attitudes in place to make sure girls cover up all their naughty bits in the right way—but the fact is that the girls get away with it. Ditto on the loose jeans, the ‘offensive’ shirts—I don’t want to say whether or not these are okay, because that’s a whole ‘nother ballpark with very different implications, but ultimately, the only reason Jonathan is being legitimately put into this position and harassed to such a great extent is because he has violated normalizing ideals of masculine gender performance.

The comments on the site repeat over and again that he can “do what he wants” when he’s out of school, but that children need rules and regulations. But these are 16-year-olds; they are not ‘children’ who need a bit of a refresher course vis-à-vis the paddle. Comments like this infantilize people like Jonathan, who are clearly at a point where they are self-aware enough to make the decision to dress themselves in the morning; does anyone comment on the fact that the nice little “children” that beat him up in the cafeteria need to be properly regulated? No. They do go on and on about the fact that school is not a “freak show” in which Jonathan can dress the way that makes him feel comfortable. Finally, one comment shrieks “SEND HIM TO IRAN.”

On that note, I’m too furious to continue.

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