I'm Getting Gender Whiplash! 14-Year-Old Student Chris Martin Punished for Wearing Makeup to School

The problem here wasn’t with the makeup, but with who was wearing it.
Publish date:
June 13, 2013
makeup, education, LGBQT, gender, femme presentation

I feel like I’m having gender whiplash this week.

In Multnomah County, Oregon, history has just been made by the county board, which put through an executive order requiring: “single-occupancy, gender-neutral bathrooms in all new construction projects for the county.” Businesses are not required to make conversions under this framework (which would have opened up grounds for an undue burden suit), but if you are building something new for the county and there is going to be a toilet in it, by gum, it needs to be gender-neutral.

This may only apply to county-owned and leased facilities, but it’s still a huge deal. As always with moves like this, in addition to making things safer and healthier for people, it also sparks conversation, and it’s getting a lot of attention from across the United States. Gender-neutral bathrooms just make sense.

Meanwhile, in Florida, 14-year-old Chris Martin decided to wear some makeup to school and was chastised for it. This isn’t the first time this has happened, of course -- in 2008, Matt Allsup (13) was actually banned from school for wearing makeup, and he’s far from the only teen boy who’s faced this kind of treatment.

In other words, gender-neutral bathrooms, yay! Boys wearing makeup, nay!, apparently.

Obviously, Multnomah County, Oregon and St. Petersburg, Florida are two very different places. (One gets a lot more sun, for one thing.) But these two stories really highlight the tensions the United States is experiencing as it goes through the pangs of gender pains -- gender pangs? Growing pains? I’m not sure what to call them, but they’re obvious and everywhere as gender becomes a more fluid thing, and a more openly discussed thing, and this seems to terrify people.

Let’s start with the basics, here: Wearing makeup doesn’t tell the people around you anything about your gender or sexuality. All it means is that you’re wearing makeup. The way you wear your makeup might be performative -- for example, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have a very distinctive makeup style -- but makeup itself doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything.

Lots of girls do not wear makeup. Some boys do. Some people who aren’t either of those genders do and don’t wear makeup.

But because makeup is so gendered, thought, it often becomes a form of gender expression, and it’s often used in gendered performances. It tends to be associated specifically with femme identities, for example, despite the fact that it can be used in a wide variety of gender performance, or simply because it’s fun.

Chris, the Florida student who was punished for wearing makeup, pointedly hasn’t said anything about his gender or sexual identity (not that these things are anyone’s business). Tellingly, his mothers didn’t think there would be any problem with his wearing makeup to school, and even helped him put it on -- femme mentoring forever! -- not even considering that the school would get on his case about it.

We don’t know why he chose to wear makeup that day; experimentation, fun, self-expression, a dare, a genuine desire to pop on some lipstick and eyeliner for the day. What we do know is that when he went to school, he was told the makeup was a dress code violation and he would need to wash it off. But, as his mother Katelynn Martin notes, was this about the dress code or about the desire for gender conformity?

Boys are not supposed to wear makeup (sorry, Tynan), and thus a boy wearing makeup is a threat to the established order. As discussions about gender force people to realize that gender is far more complicated than previously understood, they seem to be getting more and more uneasy. The idea that gender is not fixed and may in fact be fluid and changing seems to upset people who experience their own genders as highly stable; as though the fact that people with non-normative gender expressions and trans experiences exist negates the experiences of cis people who feel very comfortable inhabiting familiar norms.

There's no wrong or right way to do gender; gender just is, and people live it and experience it in different ways. That's totally a-okay for everyone, as long as people don't feel the need to go around telling other people how to do it.

It's kind of like being an omnivore, seeing a vegetarian at the next table, and insisting that the vegetarian is somehow infringing upon your existence. Is the problem here with the vegetarian, or with the fact that you've just been exposed to the fact that not everyone eats (lives) like you do?

Chris’ makeup was pretty mellow and toned down, so you can’t claim that a girl would have been treated in the same way; he wasn’t wearing distracting makeup that might have interrupted class. The problem here wasn’t with the makeup, but with who was wearing it.

Of course, the district is quick to defend itself with a claim that there’s “more to the story.” Forgive me if I raise a considerable eyebrow here, because, honestly, lots of districts committing discrimination against students with non-normative identities rush to explain that discrimination with comments like this. And the fact is that almost 60% of LGBQT students report feeling unsafe in their school environment in the United States, which is a huge number.

Part of that lack of safety comes from moments like this, where students are condemned for the way they perform their gender and sexuality. Because Chris didn’t perform to satisfaction, he was told he was doing something wrong, and that he needed to get back in line – to straighten out, if you’ll forgive me. What does this tell not just Chris, but LGBQT students in his school, let alone those in other regions?

I defend the right of boys as well as anyone else to wear makeup to school and anywhere else they feel like wearing it (though I don’t recommend wearing it into the OR if you’re the patient). More than that, though, I defend the right of people to express their gender identity and sexuality in a way that feels natural and comfortable for them -- and the right of people to just wear some damn makeup without all that loaded baggage behind it.

Because, honestly, while I’ve never worn makeup, it looks kinda cool. And one of the reasons I’m afraid to play with it is not just that my hand tremors would make any self-applied makeup look ghastly, but also that I’m terrified of the gendered implications behind wearing makeup. Which is a pity, because people do some really amazingly cool stuff with makeup, like these super-cool miniature scenes created on her eyelids by self-taught Swedish makeup artist Sandra Holmbom.

Katelynn is calling for tolerance training at Chris’ school, but I’d say more than that is needed. We need a comprehensive LGBQT orientation and training program for all educators and administrators across the United States to protect students and promote full inclusion of LGBQT students in educational environments. Makeup and all.