By Shani O. Hilton
It's hard to know where to begin when talking about the firestorm surrounding Aliya S. King's Vibe article about "The Mean Girls of Morehouse." King's focus on three young men who are expressing a nontraditional, queer gender identity has rankled many, including Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin. In fact, Franklin rebutted King's piece based on its title alone, saying he was disturbed that it referred to a subset of Morehouse men as "girls."
It's not surprising that the Morehouse administration, with a dress code that bans women's clothing, is marching in lock step with the acceptable rigid gender identity to which black men are expected to conform. But doubling down on regressive policies will leave Morehouse men unprepared for a society that is slowly but surely becoming increasingly accepting of more fluid gender roles and gay rights.
King's story, while a little on the sensational side, presented these men in their own words. As Diamond Martin Poulin told King: "I'm about freedom of expression. I'm about being whomever you truly are inside. I came to Morehouse because of all the historical leaders that attended and impacted the world so heavily. You know, I really wanted to follow in their footsteps. I don't think Morehouse believes that someone like me — someone who wears heels and dresses — can uphold that reputation. But they're wrong."
The Vibe article comes a year after Morehouse instituted the dress code emphasizing proper attire for the Morehouse "Renaissance Man." The most publicized provision, which Morehouse Vice President Richard Bynum dismissed as applicable only to five students (possibly including some of the men whom King interviewed), banned clothing "associated with women's garb," such as purses, high-heeled shoes and makeup.
Eddie Glaude, director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and a 1989 alumnus of the college, said in an interview with The Root that no such dress code existed when he was a student and suggests it inhibits the kind of personal growth that a high-quality liberal arts education should be promoting.
"I am not a supporter of dress codes," Glaude said. "I'm one for freedom of expression. College is a space where young men and women can create new selves, repeatedly. As they experience life-transforming encounters in the classrooms and with their friends, they find the life they can settle down in."
Although Glaude found the article title to be "deliberately controversial," he said, "It's important that these young men who had been faceless have an opportunity to give voice to their opinions."
Expecting gender conformity from all of the men who attend Morehouse may sound reasonable, but those who can't live up to it have few options. Indeed, Phillip Hudson's story in the Vibe article is an example of the fine line walked by some men at the school. Hudson told King that he tried to be "masculine" on his first day at the school and was immediately called a faggot. He decided that he at least needed to be comfortable in his own skin and went back to the appearance he prefers. Other, non-cross-dressing gay men at Morehouse said that there's a sense that it's "okay to be gay. But not that gay."
He is correct — the dress code also bans baseball caps and hoods indoors, do-rags other than in residence halls and sagging pants. These bans may seem innocuous enough. After all, with all of the issues that young black men face today, why permit Morehouse men to wear items associated with criminal behavior?
The problem is this: By declaring popular styles to be inappropriate and focusing on a narrow version of respectability, Morehouse and those who support this kind of ban are merely reinforcing the idea that there's something inherently wrong with young men who wear baggy jeans. But as Colorlines discovered, innocent young black men in the New York City neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, get stopped and frisked constantly because they "fit the profile" of someone who committed a crime.
That "profile" often relies on two things — skin color and attire — and has almost no basis in actual criminal activity. Working to legitimize current fashion and self-expression within black communities and institutions could go a long way toward making these things more acceptable within society at large. Perhaps, instead of reacting to what others think, we should embrace street style and nontraditional gender expression as just more of the many facets of black folks.
In the process of marginalizing young men who don't conform to a surface ideal of a Morehouse man, the school is marginalizing itself. And with a ranking of 127 out of the top 200 on the U.S. News & World Report National Liberal Arts College list (Spelman College is at 59), and failing to graduate nearly 40 percent of its students in six years, Morehouse, it would seem, should be using that energy to preserve its academic reputation.
The Morehouse policy, and its inability to embrace all of the men who wish to strengthen and perpetuate the school's legacy, is lazy at best and harmful at worst. A thoughtful, deliberate reaction to King's story would have been a good start if Morehouse were interested in engaging those who would like to see the school progress.