There's been a shitstorm around Morehouse as of late, and it has to do with the Mean Girls. The Plastics, really.
Specifically, it's Aliya S. King's "The Mean Girls of Morehouse" piece, in Vibe magazine, which sparked the controversy; the story shed light on a minute but visible student group of androgynous men who dress in women's clothes. The irony was not lost on those familiar with Morehouse, the only all-male Historically Black College & University in the country and arguably the most-prestigious college of the nearly 100 HBCUs (its most famous alumnus being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The Vibe story was a follow-up to the dress code Morehouse implemented in October 2009, a mandate that received national news coverage. It prohibited caps, hoods, do-rags in any indoor venues; it declared that sagging pants could not be worn on campus, nor could any clothing with "derogatory or lewd messages." Also of note in this dress code was the bulletpoint that declared, "no wearing of clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events." Hm. Interesting, that last bit, particularly at an all-male school. And while the dress code was both lauded and attacked, it was mostly noted for targeting the men who proudly dressed as women.
These Morehouse men are known as the Plastics, coined from the 2004 film Mean Girls. They are a group of seven to eight former and current students who are gay and prefer to wear makeup, rock pumps, tote purses and take female hormones. Because of Morehouse's reputation for producing leaders in various fields, attending the university was these students' dream. But they were in for a rude awakening once they arrived on campus. Diamond Martin Poulin, Brian "Bri" Alston, Michael Leonard and Phillip Hudson quickly learned there was no room for androgyny at the all-male institution. The straight community despised them; according to Brian and Michael, "the gays hate us." They didn't fit in anywhere. Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space says, "In some ways, it's like it's okay to be gay. But not that gay. Or it's okay to be queer. But not that queer. There is homophobia even within the gay community — which is something we have to deal with if Morehouse is going to progress." This lack of acceptance — and the resulting loneliness — led two of the men to transfer, and only Brian and Michael have stayed. For Phillip, the experience compounded that of his past struggles, and he contemplated suicide.
The Vibe article gave names and faces to a near-invisible group. But the telling of the story of their everyday struggles – isolation, taunting, alienation — was interpreted as an attack on Morehouse. In an effort to protect the institution's image, Morehouse's president, Dr. Robert M. Franklin, released a preemptive response denouncing King, Vibe and the contents of the article:
It seems clear from the headline alone that the Vibe editorial team's intent is to sensationalize and distort reality for the purpose of driving readership…
As president of this institution, as a Morehouse graduate and as a father, I am insulted by what is to be published. Addressing our young men as "girls" is deeply disturbing to me, no matter what the remainder of the article may say…
It is astoundingly problematic that the leader of the college, someone who holds a PhD and represents a prestigious and storied academic tradition, would release a statement of this caliber without even having read the article. But Franklin was not alone in his response; his reaction was echoed across theweb. The overarching sentiment was that King had distorted reality, misrepresenting Morehouse and casting it in a negative light by focusing on a mere handful of students who were hardly representative of the school's student body of 3,000.
As a graduate of an HBCU myself, the backlash is not surprising. Homophobia in the black community is reality that we'd rather hide from the rest of the world.
For all of the outcry over the Vibe article, very few people seemed to grasp the real issues: the dress code, the homophobia (at both Morehouse and in the black community at large) and the well-being of the students. Confronting the harassment to which the Plastics were subjected – being called faggot, escorted off campus and asked by professors to pull their hair into a ponytail – took a backseat to the need to defend Morehouse's reputation. But this has happened before: Supporters of Morehouse completely disregarded the November 2002 incident when a gay Morehouse student suffered a fractured skull after being beaten by one of his classmates. And few frowned upon the dress code's restriction on freedom of expression, or the fact that it was so blatantly aimed at members of the gay community. The sentiment implicit in how the Morehouse community responds to these incidents is that airing the school's dirty laundry – that is, its existing gay and androgynous population – was crossing a line; jeopardizing the school's esteemed image is intolerable. Intolerable like gay men in women's clothing, apparently.
I get it. In the black community, it is a blasphemy to let the larger world catch wind of our unpleasant prejudices and ugly secrets. There is an unspoken code that we must internally solve any problems that arises without "the man" being in our business. But King's article wasn't about exposing the institution or the community. There was a story to be told in the experience of The Plastics, and she reported it — the end. But in the drama of a mass knee-jerk reaction, this simple fact was missed.
It is painstakingly obvious that hiding homophobia in the black community is of higher importance than eradicating it. In masking that secret, the image is protected, even if the school is failing to provide a safe haven for those members who are considered not to fit the bill of what a "Renaissance Man" embodies. And while the alumni, faculty, administration, students and community protect the prestige, they are also essentially promoting the continuance of homophobia.
But false appearances can only last so long.
The Mean Girls of Morehouse [Vibe]
Bené Viera is a freelance writer and journalist. She blogs at Writing While Black.