Rights Clash in Cross-dressing Case
[ST. LOUIS, MO] - At the heart of the hoopla in St. Charles County over a father dressed as a woman chaperoning a school field trip is a debate about parental rights:
The right of a father to participate in his child's school life and the rights of other parents to decide what their children should be exposed to at school.
For a number of years, a father has volunteered at Castlio Elementary School in the Francis Howell School District, attended school events and come to parent-teacher conferences dressed as a woman. In October, he chaperoned a fourth-grade field trip to Jefferson City and wore a sweater, jeans, makeup and a woman's hairstyle. The parents of some of the fourth-graders objected.
Parent Vickie McMichael asked the School Board last week to come up with a dress and behavior code for school volunteers and chaperones. School Board President Donald Wescott has said the board will take no action until its attorneys study the matter.
McMichael, 40, says, "The issue has become who decides what to teach and when to teach our children. The answer: the parents."
But local legal experts say the issue is whose rights outweigh the other.
Bruce La Pierre, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Washington University School of Law, said the school district would have to prove to a court that a considerable amount of harm was done to the children by having such a chaperone.
"It's hard to see the harm other than that the children are seeing a lifestyle or a way of living or a way of dressing that's inconsistent with what they're familiar with," La Pierre said.
"Does that harm override the parent's interest in participating in school affairs with his child? This parent has a significant constitutionally protected interest here."
In the absence of a policy preventing a male chaperone from wearing women's clothes, McMichael and other parents said they would like to be notified when such a person is around the school so they could remove their children.
Patti Hight, 44, whose daughter went on the field trip, said she didn't want the school district to teach her children about sex and gender without her permission. Who would answer questions from children who might ask why a man was dressed as a woman?
"That sexual education is mine and my husband's responsibility, not the school's," Hight said.
School Board member Lisa Naeger agreed. "I see this as a special interest group pushing the envelope to force tolerance," she said. "In doing so, they take the rights away from parents to decide when or how or if they want to address these issues with their own children."
But the issue isn't quite so clear, experts say, if the parent is of transgender. Denise Lieberman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said a cross-dresser refers more to a person who dresses in clothing of the opposite sex as a fetish. A transgender person lives his or her life as a member of the opposite sex, in nonsexual ways.
Jane Aiken, a Washington University law professor, said the parent could have altered his sex surgically. If he had become a woman, she said, questions would arise as to whether the district could require him to wear men's clothing.
But Thor Hearne, an attorney with Lathrop and Gage who has worked on constitutional and civil rights issues, said the school district could create a policy listing appropriate behavior and dress. Free speech can be limited in a school setting, and a policy would require research that showed what effect a person wearing clothing of the opposite sex would have on students. "If it's done rightly, I would certainly believe the school board is acting within their Constitutional authority to create some limitations on inappropriate dress or behavior on a field trip," he said.
The Francis Howell parent's identity has not been made public. No one has said whether the parent has surgically changed his or her sex. He has two daughters in the school district, the younger in fourth grade.
Marty Hodits, 54, whose wife teaches at the school, has worked for the same business as the father in question. He said no one had said anything about his involvement at school until now.
"This individual made time to support our district and made the education of his and other children a top priority ahead of other personal activities," Hodits said. "This is more than I can say for some of the individuals that are now trying to persecute this individual."
The McMichaels said they had volunteered at the school for years, too. Their fourth-grade daughter is the last of four children to attend Castlio. Rick McMichael said they had not previously encountered the parent, and their children had not been in his children's classes.
Aiken said that while parents have the right to pull their children out of activities, a list of who would be chaperoning a trip might present legal problems if its purpose was discriminatory. The question leaves room for debate, she said.
A list made with the intention of letting parents know that an African-American would be a chaperone would be deemed intentional discrimination. But transgender people are not a protected class in the way that people of different races, sexes and creeds are.
Still, Aiken said, such a policy could offend the Constitution. And if the district developed a dress code that demanded that men and women wear gender-appropriate clothing, could women wear pants?
Dr. Tim Jordan, a behavioral pediatrician, said the issue provides an opportunity for parents to talk about tolerance. Parents may be upset because they feel they have no voice and no control, he said, but children might not be upset about a man dressing as a woman or vice versa until their parents become upset.
"Kids tend to be a reflection of the adults around them," he said. "In my experience, kids are pretty tolerant by nature. They don't have all the judgments that we have."