10.20.09

Morehouse College's Gay Travesty

This week the historically black college banned crossdressing. Elizabeth Gates on why the decision disgraces a school that once groomed iconoclasts like Spike Lee and Martin Luther King.

Atlanta might have one of the largest, most colorful gay communities in the South, but apparently none of them belong at historically black Morehouse College.

Morehouse recently updated their “Appropriate Dress Policy,” implemented specifically for “five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,” according to Dr. William Bynum, Morehouse vice president for student services. The new dress code has banned do-rags, baggy pants, walking on campus with bare feet, and finally, “the wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events.”

To tell a student that his sense of self is only as good as his ability to conform is to reduce this student, and Morehouse at large, to the exact consciousness it fought so hard to defeat.

Some students laughed at the new rules, others cringed, and a few men on Morehouse’s campus lost their identities. It’s simple to brush off—or even support—a ban on men wearing dresses, especially at a historically black intellectual Mecca like Morehouse College. You could argue it’s distracting. It could be interpreted as a sign of rebellion, or worse still, it could go against some misinterpreted detail of the Bible’s version of masculinity, thus embarrassing the whole campus in the eyes of a suddenly judgmental God.

But individuality has no dress code. I attended Spelman College, Morehouse’s sister school, for three strong years, leaving at the tail end of my junior year because, in many ways, I saw this coming. I watched gay men toy with the idea of presenting their full selves to their critical peers, often deciding against it for fear of a backlash. I watched the world beyond our campuses grow to accept and support homosexual love, intimacy, and partnerships, and I felt trapped in a time capsule of sexual politics. I loved being at Spelman. It was the only college I applied to out of high school. But as my ideals began to extend beyond my own socialized standards, I knew I couldn’t stay.

The year before I left, a boy was brutally beaten with a baseball bat in a bathroom stall at a Morehouse dorm for “looking at” another student in the shower. The victim was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency brain surgery that saved his life. The abuser was sentenced to serve two consecutive 10-year sentences in prison. Astonishingly, the campus was left divided about whether or not the incident should be considered a hate crime. Shortly thereafter, I packed my things and left.

To educate a black man was once unheard of—to teach him to love himself was nearly impossible. Morehouse once dared to do both. Since its inception in 1867, the college has upheld a tradition of greatness: positioning Martin Luther King to lead our community toward equality in a world that said we weren’t worthy of basic human rights, helping Spike Lee build a foundation for numerous films that would single-handedly give the world a vivid glimpse of our normal, human struggle, and offering Samuel L. Jackson firm shoulders to launch an acting career from. It allowed countless others who have come and gone to leave with one profound truth: that they, too, were groomed in a place that allowed them to be their very best, most powerfully free selves.

This time there is nobody to blame but us. No finger to point. No crutch to lean on. This is about our community and the pain we inflict upon each other. “The Man” does not exist here. It’s not a secret that the black community has struggled with identity for years, often forcing us into the dark corners of our own self-loathing. Black masculinity has often raged against itself on street corners in Brooklyn, after-school programs in Chicago, even in open-air parks with young children standing by. We are so disjointed as a people that we no longer recognize ourselves in each other; we divide ourselves based on class, color, social status, and now the manifestations of homosexuality.

We have become so warped by trying to squeeze ourselves into the talented tenth that we are willing to off our own kind to reach an ideal we aren’t even sure exists. We wince at the vast diversity in our own community when in fact we should be celebrating the reality that some of us finally feel so free that we can, actually, after all these years, be ourselves. Dressed up, dressed down, wearing gold fronts or stilettos.

For Morehouse to turn against the men that have chosen to hand over their hard-earned scholarships, loans, or family savings is unacceptable. To tell a student that his sense of self is only as good as his ability to conform is to reduce this student, and Morehouse at large, to the exact consciousness it fought so hard to defeat. To trivialize the decades of work that the institution and its dutiful student body has labored so hard to establish is to argue that Morehouse is no longer a safe place for all black male intellectuals, but rather only open to those who can tie a Windsor knot and clasp cufflinks to suit jackets. And to promote the idea that to dress the part is as important as the standard of education is to mock the legacy of empowerment Morehouse has held fast to for so many decades.

As a community we often wonder why the world at large questions our standards; why our inner-city public schools are underfunded places where new textbooks are as rare as art programs. All too often we search beyond our own shadows for justification of our internal strife, when in reality we should take one long look at ourselves.

James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Countee Cullen, Angela Davis, Alvin Ailey, Ma Rainey, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Bill T. Jones, Billie Holiday, Johnny Mathis, and Bessie Smith.

Our history is woven with great homosexual and heterosexual heroes. Our legacy is ripe with internal diversity. To cultivate a space that would offer students a chance at strengthening their true, colorful selves should be Morehouse’s mission. To instill such pride in their students’ imaginations that it spills over into colors, patterns, clothing, and beyond should be their aim. Homosexuality is not contagious and it doesn’t rub off on others, even when it’s swathed in “dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.” It is an individual state of mind. Instead of controlling their students’ clothes, Morehouse should be looking at how to promote self-acceptance and personal freedom. I, for one, would speak out against the dress code if I was still winding away hours over at Morehouse. They might be able to hinder what you wear, but nobody can ever change who you are.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New Shcoool University and a former intern at Vogue magazine.