Last month, the fifth grade parent group at my daughter's school had the first of many conversations about how to mark our children's transition to junior high. Unfortunately, the issue we discussed -- whether the kids would be wearing caps and gowns at the end-of-year celebration -- sidelined a much more important issue: what the kids would be wearing under these gowns. (My daughter's school had sent out a notice to parents that boys must wear one thing and girls another.)
For many children, a gendered dress code may be just another imposition by adults, and to some it may seem small compared with decisions related to bedtime, computer usage, and the precise meaning of the phrase "clean up your room." But to others it is a big deal. Indeed, clothing is such an essential expression of who we are that international law recognizes it as a human right to wear what we want, barring reasonable restrictions for the purposes of safety or to protect the rights of others.
And it is precisely because clothing can project our identity so concisely that the clothing associated with particularly stigmatized populations is vigorously policed around the world. For example, several European countries and some North American jurisdictions place restrictions on head coverings. These restrictions are closely linked to discomfort with Islam and are based on the negative and erroneous stereotype that Muslim women are "oppressed" and "submissive." In fact, even where headscarves are not explicitly prohibited by law, women can be fired for wearing them, and many are discriminated against even before landing a job.
Likewise, many jurisdictions enforce strictly gendered dress codes in public by either requiring specific attire or criminalizing cross dressing. These restrictions are tied to stereotypes about sexuality and sex. Cross dressing is conflated with transgenderism, which again is conflated with an insatiable, predatory, or "perverted" sex drive. A good example of this is the comment reportedly made by a lawyer who was arguing against a 6-year-old trans girl's right to use the girl's bathroom at her school. "How do you know if someone is really thinking this way or not?" the lawyer is quoted as saying. "How do you know if someone just wants to go in the restroom and be a peeping Tom?"
The suspicion directed at trans people, cross dressers, or anyone whose gender expression is not traditional finds its most extreme expression in violent crimes committed against individuals who visibly do not conform to gender norms. But it is fueled by the little injustices in our daily lives. Being forced to wear clothing associated with an identity that we do not share or cannot align with is a powerful reminder that our true sense of self must be hidden to be safe.
Moreover, dress codes facilitate abuse, first by enforcing the notion that there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to dress, and that transgressers can and should be punished, and secondly by normalizing the punishment. Where we face sanctions and exclusion for being who we are (such as being thrown out of a public bathroom, being expelled from school, or being fired, for example), it is hard to avoid the basic feeling of being somehow "wrong." Over time, this feeling of "wrongness" can contribute to depression and the conviction that violence and discrimination is inevitable.
But it is not.
There is no legitimate reason for gendered dress codes, or for dress codes that enforce or prohibit a specific faith. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted that gender identity, including the right to dress according to who we feel we are, is one of the most basic essentials of self-determination. In the Americas, this sentiment finds legal expression in the adoption of several new laws that seek to protect everyone against discrimination, regardless of their gender identity.
We, the adults, need these laws because many of us have internalized gendered dress codes, which we have to unlearn. Not so for our children: They learn dress codes from us. So I, for one, will be telling my daughter that she can wear whatever keeps her warm, comfortable, and happy under her graduation gown (if she chooses to wear one).