Diamond Martin Poulin, 20, teetering in strappy sandals with three-inch heels, steps into an eclectic clothing boutique in Little Five Points, a quaint cluster of shops and restaurants two and a half miles outside of downtown Atlanta. “Ooooh,” squeals Diamond. “What about this?” Holding up a white floor-skimming skirt with an eyelet hem, he swoons. The proprietor of the store looks up at Diamond, does a double-take, and immediately picks up the cordless phone at the register. “There’s a man in here with heels on!” she whispers loudly into the phone. Diamond raises his eyebrows and continues browsing the racks. He shrugs when asked if the comment bothers him. “Isn’t it true?” he says, chuckling. “There is a man in here with heels on.”
Nibbling on sushi later that day, Diamond explains why he left after one year at Morehouse. A bastion for producing leaders in politics, community service and medicine, Morehouse College has long been viewed as the ultimate HBCU for young Black men, who are conferred with the mystique of being “Men of Morehouse.” Established in 1867 in Augusta, Georgia, as the Augusta Institute, the school counts such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson, Jr.; financier Reginald E. Davis; School Daze writer/director Spike Lee; the late Keith “Guru” Elam of Gang Starr; and the late Def Jam exec Shakir Stewart among its graduates.
That pedigree is what brought Diamond to Morehouse, but he says the school’s social conservatism drove him out. In October of last year, the Morehouse College administration announced a new “appropriate attire policy.” The dress code stated that students, referred to as “Renaissance Men,” were not allowed to wear caps, do-rags, sunglasses or sagging pants on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events. But what raised most eyebrows was the rule about women’s clothing: no wearing of dresses, tops, tunics, purses or pumps.
The new dress code resulted in a flurry of media coverage, prompting Dr. William Bynum, Jr., vice president for Student Services, to release a statement to several news outlets: “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men.” During a recent visit to the campus, the poet Saul Williams wore a skirt in solidarity.
“Morehouse wasn’t ready for me,” says Diamond, who has the word “unbreakable” tattooed on his collarbone and the acronym C.R.E.A.M (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” coined by rap group Wu Tang Clan) wrapped around his right wrist. “I’m about freedom of expression. I’m about being whomever you truly are inside. I came to Morehouse because of all the historical leaders that attended and impacted the world so heavily. You know, I really wanted to follow in their footsteps. I don’t think Morehouse believes that someone like me—someone who wears heels and dresses—can uphold that reputation. But they’re wrong.”
“We respect the identity and choices of all young men at Morehouse,” Dr. Bynum said via email. “However, the Morehouse leadership development model sets a certain standard of how we expect young men to dress, and this attire does not fit within the model. Our proper attire policy expresses that standard.”
Diamond now attends American InterContinental University, majoring in fashion marketing and design. “I want to, like, teach at Parsons. Or you know, maybe even in London—who knows?”
Although it has never been officially confirmed, it’s not too far off the mark to believe that those “five students” at whom the appropriate attire policy was directed included Diamond and his crew, the Plastics. The group is loosely made up of seven or eight former and current Morehouse students, some of whom share a modest townhouse in Atlanta. Their name is a nod to the A-list crowd depicted in the 2004 movie Mean Girls.
The Plastics all assume that the recent appropriate attire policy was aimed directly at their personal freedom of expression, which sometimes includes foundation, cross-dressing, and even taking female hormones.
“I’ve always been into clothes, shoes, hair and everything,” says Diamond, who was born and raised in Providence, R.I. He says there’s a good chance he’ll transition into a woman at some point. “My mother says I always played dress-up in her clothes, my grandmother’s clothes. I’d even get my brother to do it sometimes. That’s just always been me—pushing the envelope of what I’m supposed to be as a man.”
So does Diamond really consider herself a man? At the question, he groans. “Yes, I refer to myself as a man, you know, to relieve any confusion. Sometimes people don’t understand the whole androgyny thing. There’s always the question: Well, what are you? Yes, I’m a man. I like women’s clothes. And yeah, I’m gay. But I don’t want that to define me. How come people can’t just see me as a person?”
But some of the other men of Morehouse definitely don’t see Diamond that way. Early in his first—and last—year, Diamond had a run-in that signaled the beginning of the end of his time at the esteemed institution.
“I was in the cafe and I had on this cropped hooded sweatshirt. So my stomach was out,” he recalls. I had on a nice pair of jeans and some sandals. And this boy, a football player, said something that sounded like ‘fa**ot.’ Before I could even stop my myself, I threw my plate of food at him. That’s not even my style. I’m more of a middle-finger kind of person. We ended up yelling at each other for a few minutes, but nothing really came out of it. He could have hit me, but he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. I was already hurt and embarrassed.”
While Diamond insists he’s happier at AIU his tone and demeanor suggest that he wishes he’d had the opportunity to prove his worth at Morehouse. “I wanted to go to an HBCU,” he says, dipping shrimp tempura into soy sauce. “I wanted the whole African-American experience. I thought it would be a beautiful thing.”
After leaving Morehouse, Diamond would return occasionally to see friends at the school and use the computer lab. Earlier this year, after the new dress code was enacted, he was asked to leave by school security officers. “I had my Nicki Minaj-style Chinese bangs,” says Diamond, a defiant twinkle in his eyes. “I showed them my ID from AIU. I didn’t go to the school, so the dress code should not have applied to me. But they wanted me off campus anyway.”
Kevin Rome, Ph.D., Morehouse class of 1989, is the former vice president of Student Services for the College. He says that people like Diamond are a small minority of the students at the College, and shouldn’t make up such a large percentage of the press the school has received about the appropriate attire policy. “There are nearly 3,000 students at Morehouse, and maybe three that [the ban on women’s attire] applies to. We’re giving such a large influence on a minute population. It’s not representative of the school.”
This is not the first time Morehouse has had to deal with controversy surrounding its gay community. In November 2002, Morehouse student Gergory Love suffered a fractured skull after being beaten with a baseball bat in a dormintory bathroom shower. A fellow student, Aaron Price, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and served seven for assault and battery. The attack was reportedly prompted by what was thought to be a sexual advance from Love. Diamond believes he’s a trendsetter. While the population may be small now, he sees the gender benders as a growing group. And as for the future gender benders at Morehouse, Diamond is hopeful. “Even though I’m gone, the Plastics are still represented at Morehouse,” says Diamond. “And I think as time goes on, the administration will have to accept the different types of men enrolled. They need to look to the future. It didn’t work out for me, but I put in the work for people like me to come to Morehouse.”
Over brunch, Brian Alston, 21, and Michael Leonard, 19, nibble on biscuits, as they discuss the appropriate attire policy at Morehouse Collage. “This is not a purse. It’s a tote,” sniffs Michael, a junior majoring in business marketing, holding up his Marc Jacobs bag. Both he and Brian, a senior majoring in sociology, describe themselves as androgynous. And both toe the line when it comes to the newly installed rules. Today, they’re rocking foundation, tweezed eyebrows, flawless manicures and glossy lips. Michael, a tall, lanky man with flawless skin, is wearing skintight denim cutoffs and an oxford shirt unbuttoned to the chest. He peppers his speech with expressions like “turn it,” as in it out. Brian, a slight brown skinned figure in skinny jeans, goes by the nickname Bri. “I don’t see why a man of Morehouse can’t wear makeup,” says Michael, his forkful of grits perched in the air. “And I don’t see why a man of Morehouse can’t wear pumps and a purse.” Michael takes a bite of food, pauses, and smiles. His teeth are super straight and blindingly white. “And I don’t know why a Morehouse man can’t become a woman.”
Michael—who lives with Diamond and his boyfriend, Eric—and Brian, who has an off-campus apartment, are two of the current students at Morehouse who proudly call themselves members of the Plastics. “When I first got here, the androgynous kids were called the Glams,” Brian explains. “And then one day we were all sitting together on Brown Street and some straight guys walked by and called us the Plastics. Straight boys are the ones who gave us the name.”
While the two admit that the relationship between the Plastics and the straight community is fraught with issues, they say the rest of the gay community can be downright hostile. “The gays hate us,” says Brian plainly.
“It’s because we have a certain aura,” says Michael. “We don’t care what people think about us when it comes to how we dress and carry ourselves. Some people are uncomfortable with it.”
Rome agrees with Michael. “The Morehouse man is defined by his contributions to society,” says Rome. “Not the way he dresses or how he identifies. I honestly don’t think we should allow differences to have an impact on what we give to the world. I have a 5-year-old son, and I want him to go a college where he would feel welcomed and feel like he mattered—no matter who or what he was.” Rome, now the vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at North Carolina Central University, says that if he’d be employed by Morehouse at the time of the vote for the appropriate attire policy, he would have voted against it.
Sipping martinis and eating chicken wings at the place called Strip, Phillip Hudson, 21, doesn’t hold back his feelings about what it means to be different at Morehouse. Although he is not considered a member of the Plastics, they were the first group to befriend him on campus, and they remain close. “We have to deal with a serious double standard,” says Phillip, his booming voice turning heads as he states his piece. “The dress code also says no sagging pants, but they don’t enforce that,” he snaps. “It says no head rags, and they don’t enforce that either.” [“We attempt to enforce all elements of the policy in an equitable manner,” Dr. Bynum said via e-mail.]
Phillip tosses his full-bodied curly mane across his shoulders. While Rome insists that Morehouse needs to focus on equality for all in the gay community, Phillip believes that this attitude doesn’t apply to gender benders like the Plastics. “I’ve had professors tell me, ‘Pull that hair back into a ponytail,’ when I walk into class,” say Phillip, rolling his eyes. “But there’s niggas in class with hats on. What is that?”
Built like an NFL linebacker, the 6’4″ freshman politely turned down the Morehouse head football coach’s invite for a tryout soon after he arrived on campus. Phillip—who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—came to Morehouse in hopes of pleasing his father, a minister from Jamaica who he says is staunchly homophobic. “I’ve always wanted to be a man’s man,” says Phillip, with a sigh. “I wanted to be masculine. I thought by coming here to Morehouse I could be the masculine man my father wanted me to be. The first day I got to campus, I was boy. I had my little dreads pulled back, jeans and all that. Trying to be this masculine boy, real cool and real quiet.”
It took exactly one day on campus for Phillip to see that this plan was not going to work. “The first time I walked from my dorm to student services, someone yelled out ‘faggot’ and a crew of boys started laughing at me.” Phillip throws his hands up dramatically. “That was it. I was going to have to be me. There was no hiding that I was not masculine. That I was not a boy. I went back to taking my female hormones and rocking my hair.”
Phillip tells terrifying stories of being beaten “like a man” throughout childhood for his feminine demeanor. And he says that as a preteen he was raped after being slipped a Mickey in his drink.
Leaving home immediately after high school, he moved to New York City, where he found a roommate in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Craigslist. For a while, he was on the streets, and he says he worked for an escort service for a few months. “Not sex,” he insists. “Just dating.”
Phillip admits that he’s felt suicidal over the things he’s experienced in his life, both past and present. “Two weeks ago, I bought a bottle of Everclear and thought about driving on Route 75 until I found a cliff to go over. But I thought about Michael and Bri and Diamond and how much we depend on each other, and I couldn’t do that.”
Still, the differences between his own life and that of his fellow Plastics is glaring. “When Michael and Brian go home to their parents, they are who they are. They bring their boyfriends home for visits. Me? I go home and have to remember to not wear any make-up, take out my hair, put on a do-rag, take off the nail polish and be a boy. It’s what makes it hard to focus on school here.”
After two years at Morehouse, Phillip left this summer to attend the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I just can’t deal with it anymore,” he says with a heavy sigh. “I’m transferring to a school with over 20,000 students, compared to Morehouse, which just has a few thousand. No one will be thinking about me. I’ll be able to walk into a room—a big man with big hair and big sunglassess and a big tote—and I bet no one will call me a fa**ot. They’ll stare. But I’m used to that. I’ll wear my Ugg boots and my skinny jeans and T-shirts and focus on class.”
Of course the Plastics are the only part of Morehouse’s openly gay community. What about those men who don’t wear heels and makeup?
Gathered in a two-bedroom, off-campus apartment are several members of Safe Space, an organization dedicated to supporting the gay community at Morehouse, whether or not they flout the appropriate attire policy.
Michael J. Brewer, 24, is a 2009 graduate of Morehouse who currently works in the office of Georgia State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan. The former president of Safe Space, he still serves in an advisory capacity. There’s not a swishy bone in Brewer’s body. If he doesn’t tell you he’s gay, you wouldn’t know. In his off-campus apartment, he’s joined by Kevin Webb and Daniel Edwards, the current co-presidents of Safe Space. “In any culture, there will be divisions,” explains Brewer, choosing his words with care as he describes attitudes toward the Plastics. “Yes, there is some dissonance against the more eccentric, ostentatious and flamboyant members of the gay community.”
Kevin chimes in. “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,” he says. “There’s a homophobia even within the gay community—which is something we have to deal with if Morehouse is going to progress.”
Brewer insists that Morehouse’s future hinges on its ability to deal with students like the Plastics and finding a place for them. “My hope is that Morehouse can step into the space of the most progressive colleges in the nation. Morehouse can be a beacon of light. Morehouse can find a place for the LGBT community. Even the ones transitioning to the opposite gender,” says Brewer. “If a student comes to Morehouse as a man and plans to transition to a women, yes, there should still be a space for that student. It may sound radical. But that’s what Morehouse has always stood for—radical change in the face of injustice.”
But Brian “Bri” Alston has his doubts about whether Morehouse will ever achieve that level of enlightenment. “We know our lives aren’t really reflective of the Morehouse gay Black experience,” says Brian. “And Morehouse has enough issues dealing with just the gay community. They don’t know what to do with us.”
Brewer thinks there’s a chance. “There’s a motto at Morehouse,” he says “It says above her son’s head Morehouse holds a crown which she challenges her students to grow tall enough to wear. As long as a person is holding to that ideal, it shouldn’t matter how they identify.” It remains to be seen whether that coronation might one day include a tiara.