A Controversy That Wasn’t

Consider this scenario.

A 16-year-old boy transfers to a high school in Georgia from out of state and shows up the second day wearing a hot pink wig and high heels. He wants to use the girls’ restroom. Administrators tell him to drop the wig, and they keep him out of the girls’ room. A Facebook page with 1,700 people springs up to defend him, and T-shirts are on the way. A few fights break out over the issue. A news reporter shows up.

It sounds like a principal’s nightmare. With test scores in the state at embarrassing levels and a nearby school system losing its accreditation a year ago (the first in four decades to do so–see here), he has to deal with this?

It actually happened just last week, but the sequence of events might be a lesson in effective handling of controversial matters.

The account appears here under the headline “Pink wig, heels on boy too disruptive for school.” The young man arrived on Day Two of the school year in ultra-feminine costume. He had come from Miami to live with his sister/guardian, and his appearance sparked the expected attention, but the school responded well. The principal allowed him to use one of the administrators’ restrooms (he chose the ladies’), and they let him keep some of his attire–just drop the wig. They met with other students to keep bullying and mobbing from spreading. And they offered to sit down and talk with the young man and his sister about the school dress code, which forbids clothing that is too disruptive.

The young man has chosen to leave school, however, and officials haven’t heard back from his guardian. Halfway through the story we learn that he’s told the reporter that “he doesn’t want to go to school if he’s not allowed to dress the way he wants–in women’s clothing,” but later we read that he’ll agree to give up the wig. School officials want him to come back, and they appear lenient on most of the cross-dressing impulses.

One has to appreciate the terrain the administrators have carved out. They made all the right moves to turn what could have been a hot kettle of culture wars controversy into a whimsical (although somewhat sad) episode. Nobody is blaming the officials, and the words “homophobia” and “hetero-normativity” and “free speech” don’t come up. It’s a good lesson in diplomacy–sometimes a shrug and a smile and some rule-bending turns a provocation into a mild distraction.

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