By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
T-shirt messages, sexuality, cultural identity & schools
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

What you wear says a lot about you.

Clothes - are lack thereof - have always done a lot of talking.

A suit, tie, and Wing Tips says one thing. Flip flops, cargo shorts, and Hawaiian shirt says another.

You name the age - the Victorian era, the Roaring 20s, the 50s - and how you dressed communicated your values without opening your mouth.

It wasn't until the 1960s that people on a wholesale scale started putting words onto clothing other than what was sewn on a label.

At first it was almost exclusively the name of pro sports teams. Next was crash commercialism. People would pay top dollar so they could wear T-shirts that advertised the sports apparel firms that sold them. Then there was the launch of T-shirts as political billboards on everything from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement. Along the way vulgarities and innuendos popped up.

Today is the exception to see people wearing T-shirts that don't display some type of a printed message.

That brings us to 16-year-old Sierra High (in Manteca) student Taylor Victor and her T-shirt carrying the printed words, "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian."

She wore the T-shirt to school in August. Two Sierra High administrators deemed it was an improper display of sexuality. That's not how Victor and the American Civil Liberties Union saw it. They believed it ultimately was an expression of who she was. That's also the stance the Manteca Unified board and district administration took. Last month they settled the free speech lawsuit the ACLU was pursuing on Victor's behalf by agreeing to adopt a policy clarifying that students may wear clothing with statements celebrating their or their classmates' cultural identifies.

This is not a new position for the district. Back in the late 1990s two Brock Elliott School students were sent home for wearing T-shirts with WWJD (What would Jesus do?) on them. Site administrators, erring on the side of caution, interpreted the T-shirts as being in violation of policies that prohibit the promotion of religion on school campuses.

The district revisited its stance noting that many students wore religions symbols such as crosses without it being an issue.

In the case of the Sierra High administrators it is clear they saw it as a violation of school rules in the dress code that prohibited an improper display of sexuality. The clarification the board has agreed to pursue separates statements made on clothes from statements made with clothes.

Plunging necklines, bare midriffs, pants way too tight in the wrong places, shorts or skirts too high or anything else a teen boy or girl can come up with to wear that would either be way too suggestive or clearly emphasize sexuality is still open to corrective steps by school officials.

It also leaves what really concerns educators when it comes to words placed on clothes - vulgar and/or messages that truly incite - as those that are unacceptable. The wording avoids the argument that someone may view lesbians, gays or Republicans per se as being vulgar or an affront to their personal views to open the door to control printed speech on shirts by not allowing it.

Dress codes need to be written with broad brushes to give school officials the ability to assure safety and order on campus given how rapidly things change.

It is understandable how different people - Victor and the two Sierra High administrators - could read the district's dress code differently. She correctly read that there were no rules prohibiting gay messages while the administrators zeroed in on the provision regarding prohibiting the improper display of sexuality. What wasn't crystal clear was whether that prohibition extended to clothes carrying words that simply state a student's cultural/gender identity such as "gay", "lesbian, "transgender, "straight" or the 54 other gender options Mark Zuckerburg gives the 134 million users of Facebook in the United States.

Given how rapidly community mores change in terms of what is acceptable, a fluid dress code is essential. At the same time the change to the Manteca Unified code helps eliminate confusion on a very specific point: Does clothing simply saying the wearer is a specific gender instead as part of a printed message constitute an improper display of sexuality?

As for those of us who believe T-shirts with any printed messages should be barred from school, that ship sailed lights years ago.

The only way to get the genie back into the bottle is for schools to adopt mandated school uniforms.

The chances of that happening is about as great as a high school teen today being unduly influenced, distracted, or offended simply because they pass a schoolmate wearing a shirt with the word "lesbian" or "gay" on it.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.