By Daniel Chandler
Morehouse College, an "elite," historically black all-male College, boasting such eminent alumni as Martin Luther King Jr., puts its popularity amongst the "best and the brightest" African American men down to the "Morehouse Mystique":
The Mystique is joining a brotherhood like none other. And after being ignored, stereotyped or marginalized, it’s about finally finding that "home" that, deep inside, you always knew existed, where you are the heart, soul and hope of the community. And where you are not alone.
Yet last week, in an act of rank hypocrisy, this very same College instituted an "appropriate attire policy" that discriminates against some LGBT members of this community, who have been persistently ignored, stereotyped and marginalized by society, and whose members must feel increasingly alone.
The new policy, introduced by the College’s President Robert M. Franklin, bans a wide range of clothing, from sagging pants, to pajamas in public, to wearing caps and do-rags inside. But it is one clause, apparently targeted at the LGBT community, that has commentators, if not the students, up in arms:
Clause 9 (of 11) bans the: "wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.
While College officials claim the policy is aimed at "all students", Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space @ Morehouse, a gay-straight student alliance, says he "thinks this borders on discrimination," pointing out that while there "are gay people who sag their pants and wear their do-rags…you don’t find people here who identify themselves as straight walking around in feminine garb."
The new policy is part of President Franklin’s insistence on a broad understanding of education. Franklin has talked of the "five wells," calling on students to be "well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced." Morehouse joins a small group of colleges that have adopted dress codes in recent years. The crucial difference is that these other Colleges are co-educational, and made no attempt to ban women’s clothes. Indeed, it is Morehouse’s distinctively gendered institutional identity, its desire to produce a particular brand of ‘Morehouse Men’, that seems to be driving this attempt to rigidly define the boundaries of its community.
The reaction from the College administration, and to some extent from students, has been disturbingly revealing about their tolerance, or even awareness, of the T in LGBT, and of queer- and gender-identity issues more generally. The issue has been framed in the language of community and values, bringing to the surface the deep, almost unconscious, prejudices underlying these concepts.
Dr. William Bynum, vice president for student services at Morehouse, insists that that the clothing rules be seen in the context of a broad set of values which the College seeks to promote–part of the College’s program for developing students’ minds and "social consciences". Effectively acknowledging that the policy was targeted at a particular group of students, he said "We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress in a way we do not expect in Morehouse men."
The reaction from students has been almost as disappointing. Bynum met with Safe Space before the policy went in to effect, and "Of the twenty-seven people in the room, only three were against it." The rules have been generally well-received, with vocal opposition coming from just a few LGBT students. Cameron Thomas-Shah, co-chief of staff of the Student Government Association, said he backs the new policy: "It’s about the ideals of the school. If you come to Morehouse College, and want to become a Morehouse man, you should know these things… You shouldn’t deviate from the norms of what a man wears."
While the men of Morehouse may allow gendered discrimination to be codified in the rules of their College, the LGBT blogosphere will not. Prominent LGBT bloggers and publications like Pam Spaulding’s Pam’s House Blend and The Advocate, have picked up on the story, as well as mainstream outlets such as CNN. Hopefully this will shock the students and staff of Morehouse College out of the lazy prejudices this episode has revealed, and of which their most famous alumni would surely disapprove. These aspiring leaders of the black community need to recognize the parallels between the struggle for LGBT liberation, and their own, ongoing struggle for equality. And the LGBT community desperately needs leaders from communities of color, such as Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP who was keynote speaker at the recent National Equality March in Washington, DC, to help build a broader base for its powerful demand for equality and respect. We can only hope that the next generation of ‘Morehouse Men’ will rise to this challenge.