“Rules Are Written for the Majority”: Dress Codes in Catholic Schools and LGBTQ+ Students

Emily Grad

Today’s post is from guest contributor Emily Grad (she/her). Emily earned her doctorate in Educational Psychology in 2020, and she has taught in the States, Malaysia, India, and China. Formerly, she was an administrator and coach at a Catholic high school.

When you think of the dress code for a Catholic high school, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine the quintessential school polo, khaki pants, and Oxford shoes.

But have you considered other subtle rules, ones laced in gender stereotypes? For instance, male students must have hair above their collars and must not wear earrings. Female students must wear skirts at Mass and must not merely wear sports bras at athletic practices, despite male athletes going shirtless. At school dances, the dresses for female students must be ‘modest,’ while male students must wear ties and jackets.

As an administrator at a Catholic high school, where I also moderated the gay-straight alliance, I watched gender-expansive students break down into tears when, for example, they were told to cut their hair.

Gendered dress codes can prohibit gender-expansive students from feeling fully comfortable. Many gender-expansive adolescents—when forced to conform to unrealistic expectations or deny themselves due to ridicule—struggle with shame, suicidal ideation, low self-worth, and body dysmorphia/seeing one’s body as flawed.

One nonbinary student at my school wrote, “I can be myself around a few people… I get scared when people say there are [only] two genders. It’s just another person I can’t be myself around.”

Why exactly are dress code rules gendered? Let’s use shorter hair for male students as an example in light of answers sometimes offered.

Is it biblical?

In my interpretation, no, short hair for men isn’t stated in the Bible. If anything, the ancient Nazarite vow encouraged long hair as a sign of dedication to God (Numbers 6:1-5). Not to mention that Jesus is depicted with flowing locks.

Is it an attempt to be “not of the world” (John 17:16), to avoid looking like ‘secular’ culture?

Like many issues, the meaning of long hair has evolved. In the 1960s-1970s, long hair was associated with gay and hippie culture; in reaction, conservatives forbade it  to avoid any association with what they thought of as a culture of drugs, promiscuity, and homosexuality. But today, man buns are a fashion trend, not a political statement.

Is it a way to prepare for the world of professionalism?

In looking at hired faculty and staff members at schools, tattoos, those trendy man buns, facial piercings, and gauges are found to be acceptable.

If it’s not any of the above reasons, does it just come down to ‘tradition’  [cue Fiddler on the Roof] and the desire for ‘neatness’?

If short hair is required, couldn’t a compromise be male students simply tying their long hair back neatly? At the end of the school day, they could freely wear their hair how they wanted.

Curious about dress codes at other Catholic high schools, I scoured online handbooks and had conversations with other administrators. Beyond reading their dress codes, I wanted to understand the rationale behind them. One administrator told me, “rules are written for the majority, not the minority.”

This response embodied the ideology of schools that promote heteronormative, monocultural conservatism, as many Catholic schools do. Are rules, however, only for the majority? Should rules that don’t negatively impact the majority—but may harm minorities—be allowed?

In my opinion, exceptions to rules need to be made when they’re harmful to a minority. And gender norms are not the only way dress codes harm; problematic policies also unfairly target students of color and other marginalized groups. Using the aforementioned example of shorter hair for male students, this can unfairly restrict Black male students with dreadlocks. Though this post focuses on the LGBTQ+ community, the dress code conversation must ultimately be wider.

Thus, rules can be written to allow for inclusivity of the marginalized. Jesus embodied someone who fought for those on the fringes, debunking legalistic traditions and laws in favor of protecting the minority.

Tangibly, the dress requirements for Masses can be the same for everyone, such as requiring a school sweater with a white polo underneath it—with  the option of wearing khaki pants or skirts.

Beyond dress codes, other policies and procedures in Catholic schools can oppress those from marginalized groups. For LGBTQ+ students, schools may not allow chosen pronoun usage or provide gender-neutral bathrooms. Schools may not portray different family/guardianship dynamics in communication, offer diverse representation in curricula, or provide resources for those with learning differences or lower socioeconomic status. And, in employment, there may be a dearth of—or even discrimination against—BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals, or women as sports coaches.

As David Palmieri, a Catholic theology teacher and founder of the Without Exception network of educators working for inclusivity, says, “This kind of thinking seems to oppose the Catholic social teaching principle of Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.”

Rules should not be written for the majority. Rather, rules should be written to promote community, which celebrates and empowers all.

As a concluding challenge, if you are involved with Catholic education—as a teacher, staff member, parent, alum, or student— can you have conversations with your school’s handbook committee about rules that might be hindering diversity? It may seem like a small task, but it could change the life of a student who may be suffering as they hide their true self.

Emily Grad, May 18, 2023

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