Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Fashioning Children: Gender Restrictive Dress Codes as an Entry Point for the Trans * School to Prison Pipeline

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Fashioning Children: Gender Restrictive Dress Codes as an Entry Point for the Trans * School to Prison Pipeline

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Dress codes are a point of controversy within many school districts, raising questions of classism, racism, and conformity. When debated in the media, the constitutionality and desirability of dress codes typically focus on their effect on the student body in general, or on large classes of students like those too poor to afford the cost of a mandated uniform requirement in a dress code.1 Dress codes are constructed to reflect the type of adults the children are to be molded into, a conservative norm which values a narrow definition of success. Girls are to become ladies and boys are to become gentlemen, without regard for what type of adult the child wants to become. For students unable or unwilling to conform to these norms, dress codes are more than a mild annoyance. Dress codes become a controlling force that students must either conform to or face repercussions that can last a lifetime. For trans*2 students, that conformity may come at the cost of their gender identity, a cost which can cause negative reverberations throughout their life, including lowered academic performance, higher dropout rates, and increased disciplinary action.3 Essentially, dress codes serve as an entry point to the school to prison pipeline for trans* students.4

Although a small percentage of the population, the visibility of trans* students has increased significantly in the past few years. Moving beyond an invisible minority, trans* students are challenging the gender norms that are an ingrained part of the American public education system. Trans* students' very existence calls into question the binary application of gender expectations through dress codes because they break the binary and smash gender expectations. As society becomes more aware of trans* people, there are inevitable questions about terminology. Terms like transgender can be read to include only those who at birth were identified with one of the binary genders and seek to have a medical transition to the other binary gender.5 However, this does not encompass every person who has a non-cisgendered identity.6 Sex and gender can be complex concepts to unpack, even without disagreements on definitions. This article does not endeavor to give definitive definitions. When used herein, sex refers to a person's biological organs. Gender refers to the combination of gender identity and expression. In general, gender identity refers to a person's internal perception of their gender, and gender expression is the external display of their gender.7 A person's gender identity may not always correspond with their gender expression, often due to fear of the repercussions of expressing gender identity that is viewed as deviant.8

There are a line of historic cases that challenge the legality of gendered application of dress codes.9 However, these cases reflect the confrontation of two generations' differing notions of gender norms, rather than a challenge to the gendered nature of dress codes themselves.10 In the recent years, trans* students and their allies have challenged the gendered enforcement of dress codes in schools across the country, both through complaints to individual schools and school boards and legal challenges via the court system.11 Many of these lawsuits were successful, relying on novel uses of already-established jurisprudence governing sex and gender discrimination.12 However, because the ability for trans* students to challenge discriminatory application of dress codes does not explore the relationship between dress codes and future criminalization they will not be analyzed in this article.

Part II of this article will explore the relationship between gender norms and dress codes, focusing on schools' rationales for mandating dress codes and how gender norms are enforced through enforcement of those dress codes.13 Part III explains how dress codes create a negative environment and allow for specific targeting of trans* students.14 Additionally, Part III will explain the relationship between dress codes and the school to prison pipeline for trans* students, finding that both purposefully harsh application of dress codes and disproportionate but unintentional application of gendered dress codes result in similar negative outcomes for trans* students, including disproportionally high rates of poverty and incarceration. …

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