Friday, April 02, 2004
The "Lesbian Barbie" T-Shirt Controversy 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
In today's news, Natalie Young, an openly gay 15 year-old received a $30,000 settlement from New York City after she was sent home for the day from her middle-school class for wearing a T-shirt with the caption "Barbie is a Lesbian." Young stated in a press interview that the settlement should make life easier on other openly gay schoolchildren: "I think they should feel more comfortable about who they are." But will this settlement help? In my book, $30,000 dollars is a lot of compensation for being sent home one day from school for wearing a T-shirt, no matter what was printed on it.

Of course, gay and lesbian teens should have protection against discrimination, taunting or bullying in schools - but despite the fact that her school did not in fact have a dress code in place at the time she was suspended, I think this settlement may be sending an unclear and potentially divisive message.

The overt implication is that Young was sent home from school for daring to be open about the fact she is a lesbian, and that this deserves financial compensation - but I don't think that's really the issue. I think people wear t-shirts with attention-getting images or slogans for one simple reason: they want to get attention. Young was not sent home because she declared to someone she is lesbian - she was sent home for wearing clothing that had an attention-getting, potentially disruptive message. This wasn't a case of someone displaying a rainbow flag or pin, or something of that sort. What if the T-shirt had read, "Barbie is a Jew"? or "Barbie is an Atheist?"

Outside of school, students should be able to wear whatever fashions they enjoy, and display whatever messages they please. However, a middle or high school is not a mall, a coffee shop, a college, an arcade, or the street. If I wore a T-shirt like Natalie's to work, I'd probably get fired - and we don't have a dress code per se, either.

Some would argue that unlike work, school attendance is mandatory, therefore students should be allowed to dress in whatever fashion they please during school hours, as they have no choice in being there. I don't really think so. I'm not a big proponent of school uniforms, but I do think school dress codes are generally good policy, because they help equalize an environment where the most insignificant details of fashion, appearance or socioeconomic status can create unnecessary disruptions.

Parochial schools have historically required students to wear uniforms, both as an individuality-restricting measure, and to help level the playing field between poor and well-off students. For many kids, it's a far better thing to wear a white button-down shirt, plaid skirt and Mary Janes than to wear tattered hand-me downs when others are dressed like Britney Spears. While I agree it is important to allow kids to maintain a sense of individuality, I think schools would do well to maintain neutral "business-casual" dress codes. That way, there's less ammunition for students to envy or disparage one another on the basis of their what clothing they can afford to wear.

Growing up, I wasn't one of the "rich kids," and I remember how cruel kids could be to one another over something as ridiculous as what brand of shoes or jeans they wore. These days, we complain about how materialistic kids are, but enabling the social basis for ingraining that materialism in schools isn't helping any.

That said, I wish Natalie Young all the best. I also remember very well what it was like to be 15 and gay, and to not be able to tell anyone about it - especially not at school. That alienation can be profoundly hurtful, and we need to find a way to allow gay teens to be themselves without fear of harm. When I was Natalie's age I wouldn't dream of wearing a shirt like that in public, much less on school grounds. That just shows how far a single generation has come.

But while the settlement may make it easier for students to wear shirts that read "Barbie is a Lesbian," will it make it that much easier for others to wear shirts to school that say something like, "God Hates Fags"? I certainly hope not. We may have come far, but just last night coming home on the train, I saw fresh black-markered grafitti scrawled on the train wall near the door: "Fags = Burn in Hell" and "LEZbians WILL BURN in HELL"

Natalie should remember that $30,000 can buy a lot of t-shirts, but not one ounce of peace of mind.