A Virginia school district is considering a ban on cross-gender dressing in an effort to protect students from harassment, though civil liberties and gay rights groups charge it would violate First Amendment rights.
Board members in Suffolk, Va. say they want to protect students from the rash of bullying-related suicides and other tragedies that have swept schools across the country in recent years, Reuters reported.
If enacted, the proposed dress code would prohibit students in the district's 19 schools from wearing clothing "not in keeping with a student's gender" and that "causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the education process or poses a health or safety concern."
Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton, one of the members behind the ban, told Hampton Roads WAVY-TV her main concern is student safety. She said the issue was brought to her attention by teachers and that she knows of several male students who have worn makeup, wigs and dresses to class.
During a board meeting Thursday, Hinton cited the killing of a 15-year-old cross-dressing California student by another student in 2008 and the suicide of a 14-year-old gay student last year in New York after online bullying, Reuters reported.
"It has nothing to do with a person's gender -- who they are," Hinton said. "Of course I don't want anyone's rights being violated, but I have done some research."
The proposal is expected to be put up for a vote in March and if approved would take effect July 1.
The Virginia American Civil Liberties Union is among the groups speaking out against the proposed ban, arguing that any mandate about what a student can and cannot wear violates freedom of expression and is sexually discriminatory.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, told Reuters the ban's language is also far too vague.
"If a girl comes to school wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, is that considered cross-gender dressing?" he said. "They're calling it cross-dressing, but if that individual was wearing clothes that reflect their gender identity, that's not cross-dressing, that's appropriate gender dressing."
Sean Artis, a senior at King's Fork High School in Suffolk, told WAVY a former classmate is gay and dressed openly as a woman everyday, but was never a distraction.
"I've talked with the guy and he's perfectly fine," Artis added. "There is nothing wrong with him. It's just the way he feels and if he feels he can express himself that way, he should."
But Hinton maintained she's focused on student safety above all, fearing cross-gender dressing students could be targets for violence.
"Freedom of expression is good, but there is a limitation," she said. "Anytime there is a threat upon a child, to me, that's where you draw the line of freedom of expression."