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 to 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 been 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 a place called Strip, Phillip Hudson, 21, (pictured right) 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,” says 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 a 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 makeup, 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 will be leaving 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 sunglasses and a big tote—and I bet no one will call me faggot. 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 only a 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 the 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 is 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 woman, 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. V