Morehouse's Dress Code: Anything Goes, But Not Everywhere

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By Deron Snyder

Morehouse College is among our most venerable HBCUs, alma mater to prominent African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Howard Thurman and Lerone Bennett Jr. The nation's largest liberal arts college for men, "the House" has conferred bachelor's degrees on more black men than any other college.

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There are no statistics on the number of graduates inclined to wear makeup, dresses and high heels. And if the administration has its way, we'll never know, because it instituted a dress code that prohibited those practices last year. Although feminine clothing wasn't the focus of Morehouse's "appropriate attire" policy, that aspect was the most sensationalized and publicized.

The school finds itself in the news again this month, with a lengthy article in Vibe called "The Mean Girls of Morehouse." Reading the headline, I thought the story was about women from nearby Spelman College or perhaps the surrounding neighborhood. But no, in an article highlighting the difficulties faced by a small group of current and former cross-dressing gay students, Vibe took the conversation in a childish direction from the start by calling the men "girls."

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That headline prompted a protest letter from Morehouse president Robert M. Franklin before the story was published. "I strongly disagree with the likely substance of this article," he wrote, adding that "addressing our young men as 'girls' is deeply disturbing to me, no matter what the remainder of the article may say.

"It seems clear from the headline alone that the Vibe editorial team's intent is to sensationalize and distort reality for the purpose of driving readership. The title of the article speaks volumes about a perspective that is very narrow and one that is, in all likelihood, offensive to our students, whether gay or straight."

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Franklin was correct to assail the magazine's choice of words. But the story itself showed how far we are from resolving our issues with the LGBT community. There's no escaping the shock value of Diamond, Brian and Philip, the men who are profiled. With their dangling earrings, arched eyebrows, makeup, scarves and tote bags, they're guaranteed to turn heads everywhere they go.

Dressing like that is their choice, and it should never be accompanied by verbal or physical abuse. Treating those who are gay or transgender with respect is a choice we should make, regardless of our opinions on sexuality and masculinity.

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Safe Space supported the dress code, which includes a ban on "clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events." Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space, told Vibe that the policy caused dissent. "In some ways, it's like it's okay to be gay. But not that gay. Or it's okay to be queer. But not that queer," he said. "There is homophobia even within the gay community — which is something we have to deal with if Morehouse is going to progress."

But if saying "anything goes" is a sign of progress, count me out. For the record, I'm a big fan of dress codes. Morehouse's prohibited fashions include "caps, do-rags and/or hoods in classrooms, the cafeteria, or other indoor venues; sun glasses in class or at formal programs; jeans at major programs, as well as no sagging pants on campus; and clothing with derogatory or lewd messages either in words or pictures." I agree with each and every one of those bans, and I agree with the ban on women's attire, too.

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Yes, the Diamonds, Brians and Phillips of our community need places where they're free to be themselves, in all their glory. But Morehouse isn't obligated to be one of those places. Different schools have different standards, and Morehouse has a right to define what is acceptable or not. While it's presumptuous to judge folks based on their attire — consider billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has attended NBA league meetings in jeans and a rugby shirt — it's reasonable for schools and employers to institute dress codes as they see fit.

You can't work on Wall Street dressed like some rap stars, but those same rap stars can become millionaires and line pockets on Wall Street. Like movie studios, recording companies don't sweat their star performers on attire issues. They recognize that "artists" need freedom. Conversely, corporate America recognizes that its work force needs guidelines to present the desired image. Morehouse has defined its desired image and asked the student body to handle itself according.

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If certain gay students believe that they're being discriminated against, they can stand in line with the saggers and the do-raggers. Or they can transfer to another school — as Diamond did — where their fashion choices are tolerated. Just don't call Morehouse intolerant for asking its men to dress a certain way.

I call that setting the bar, not denying civil rights.

Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at deron@blackdoorventures.com.

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