Morehouse dress code is more about homophobia than decorum

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Morehouse College, that legendary institution of higher learning in Atlanta, recently enacted a new dress code for its all-male student body. The dress code, called the “Appropriate Attire Policy,” is a perfect example of the good, the bad, and even worse, the homophobic.

The policy – based on Morehouse President Dr. Robert M. Franklin’s notion of the Renaissance Man – is part of his “Five Wells” strategy for the all-male historically black college or university which includes being “well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.”

In an 11-point document, Morehouse outlined its expectations concerning the appearance of its students on campus. For example, the college forbids the wearing of do-rags, caps and hoods in classrooms and other indoor venues. Sunglasses are banned in class except for medical necessity, while “decorative orthodontic appliances,” or grillz, are forbidden altogether on campus. Clothes with offensive messages are also prohibited, as are sagging pants. Students are also not allowed to wear pajamas or walk with bare feet in public.

Perhaps the most confounding, and yet revealing, part of the Morehouse rules is the ban on women’s dress. “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events,” reads the policy. Placed conspicuously at the end of the dress code, and so fundamentally different from the prohibitions that precede it, one gets the sense that in the end, the dress code is really all about that one sentence.

A statement by Dr. William Bynum, Morehouse vice president for student services, seems to support the argument. “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men,” he said.

On one hand, I can understand that a school like Morehouse has a legacy to protect and a brand name to maintain. After all, this is the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, Maynard Jackson, Spike Lee, and others. The value of an institution’s stock rises or falls on the quality of its graduates and the leaders it produces.

Dr. Franklin described part of the Morehouse mystique Soul of Morehouse and the Future of the Mystique – abridged.pdf as “a fundamental sense of discontent with mediocrity and nonsense.” In April 2009, he also told his students that “Morehouse men must be so sensitive to the presence of disorder, mediocrity and injustice that they cannot sleep well at night until they tip the scale toward justice. Unto whom much is given, much is required.”

Black men, America’s endangered species, need special protection and some guidance to help them navigate the waters of a nation that so often vilifies and scapegoats them, even as it elected one of their own as president. So, old school as it may appear to a younger generation, I can see some good intentions in using the dress code as a way to build character and professionalism.

The ban on women’s dress is, however, little more than a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay students. At best, it is a misplaced policy. At worst, it’s pure homophobia cloaked in official college stationery.

Morehouse is telling its students that there is only one acceptable definition of a black man. In that respect, Morehouse is like the black pastor who has a gay choir director yet condemns homosexuality from the pulpit.

At a time when President Obama has announced his intention to repeal the military’s ban on openly gay servicemen and women, the school’s timing couldn’t have been more awkward. And in light of Congress recently passing a Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill to protect gay victims of violence, the Morehouse dress code is insensitive and anachronistic.

Other schools have taken a similarly treacherous course. For example, at the Hampton University business school “braids, dreadlocks and other unusual hairstyles are not acceptable.” This is an oddly Negrophobic policy at a predominantly African-American school.

College should be a place where students expand their minds and prepare for their future. But they should be made to feel comfortable in their own skin, and be allowed to express their identity and creativity. School policies that single out certain people for their sexual orientation set these students up for ridicule, isolation and even violent acts from other students.