MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
"The Mean Girls of Morehouse," even before it was published earlier this month, the headline alone for this Vibe Magazine piece sparked outrage: A biting response from the president of Morehouse and a fierce debate online. It's a piece about a minority within a minority at Morehouse College, the country's only all male historically black college, that's educated some of this country's best known black male figures. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee.
And the piece, as we've said, has sparked a debate not just within the Morehouse community, but well beyond it. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Aliya King. She's the author of the Vibe feature, and L'Heureux Lewis, a professor of sociology at City University of New York and a graduate of Morehouse. They join us from our studios in New York. Also with us is one of the students profiled in the piece, Brian Alston. He's speaking to us by phone from the campus. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. ALIYA KING (Author, "The Mean Girls of Morehouse" Article): Thank you.
Professor L'HEUREUX LEWIS (Sociology, City University of New York): Thank you.
Mr. BRIAN ALSTON (Student, Morehouse College): Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Let me just read the subhead of the piece so that people get a sense of what we're talking about.
Within the openly gay community at Atlanta's Morehouse College, there's a subgroup: gender benders who rock makeup, Marc Jacobs tote bags, sky high heels and Beyonce-style hair weaves. Can a man of Morehouse be gay? Absolutely. But can he be a woman?
Aliya, what got you started on this piece?
Ms. KING: Well, what happened was I read a piece about the infamous appropriate attire policy that Morehouse enacted a little over a year ago. And I was very intrigued by it. I mean I expected them to say, we don't want our students to wear head coverings or pants that were sagging or, you know, I expected those types of things. But there was an addendum to that. They said no heels, no makeup and no dress befitting a woman. And I just thought to myself, why do they need to add that to their appropriate attire policy? Who at Morehouse College is wearing these things?
So, it took me a year to locate the people that came under this subgroup. And that's how it began.
MARTIN: Talk to me more about your intention in writing the piece, just to, what? To describe a group of students who were living a particular life, who were a particular group, you know, at Morehouse. So...
Ms. KING: Absolutely.
Ms. KING: That was exactly it. It's, you know, one thing that I think people are mistaken about in terms of the story is that it was a hard news investigative piece. It was not. It was a profile of four students who fascinated me. I was very intrigued by them. I was intrigued by their friendship and how they hold each other up and how connected they were and how close they were and how they carried themselves at a school that's, first of all, has a Christian background, that's in the Deep South and that is African-American.
MARTIN: And Brian Alston, you're one of the students featured in the piece and you're still attending Morehouse. Talk to me about the dress code policy. Did you feel it was directed at you?
Mr. ALSTON: Not necessarily directed towards the student body. I think it was directed so that the institution could uphold its brand and its image. The only problem I have with the dress code is how the dress code is enforced. I feel like the enforcement is directed towards those students that are homosexual or bisexual, or feminine, really. I wouldn't even say it's an issue of sexuality. I think it's more so dealing with those students that would be classified as feminine.
MARTIN: And some of these students are openly gay. But would you describe them as, or would they describe themselves, or would you describe yourself as transgender?
Mr. ALSTON: I wouldn't consider any of the students that were featured in the article as being transsexual or transgender. Everyone that was featured is definitely androgynous. We still classify ourselves as males even though we may have feminine characteristics that I guess foreshadow our masculine features.
MARTIN: Okay. I will mention that we did reach out to the Morehouse College administration to be part of this conversation, but they declined. But as we said, the president of Morehouse, Robert Franklin, wrote a, I would say, fairly tough letter to the alumni before the story was even published saying: It seems clear from the headline alone that Vibe's editorial team's intent is to sensationalize and distort reality for the purpose of driving readership. The title of the article speaks volumes about a perspective that is very narrow and one that is, in all likelihood, offensive to our students whether gay or straight.
So tell me Brian, did you find the piece offensive?
Mr. ALSTON: I didn't find the piece offensive. I think that the title and the tagline alone caused controversy. And those members of the Morehouse community and society in general, they can't even get past the tagline before they even read the content of the article.
MARTIN: Just to clarify for people, if they are curious where the title comes from, it's a nod to the 2004 movie "Mean Girls," and there is kind of a clique within that group called the Plastics. And some of the young men whom you interviewed in the piece called themselves the Plastics.
Ms. KING: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Okay. So that's where it comes from. She didn't just kind of make that up. Aliya do you mind - do you know about the title? Did you write the title?
Ms. KING: That was all me.
MARTIN: So do you regret the title now or are you glad?
Ms. KING: I'm on the fence. On the one hand, it made so many people not read the piece that in some ways I wish that it did have a different title. But, the journalist in me that wants people to be provocative and wants people to talk is like well, hey, it did what it was supposed to do, which is get people involved in the piece.
MARTIN: Professor Lewis, describe for people who aren't aware of kind of the place that Morehouse College has in the world of HBC's and the world of the academy, and as an institution of importance to the black community.
Prof. LEWIS: Yeah. Morehouse is probably one of the most well-known and celebrated historically black colleges. It is a private institution. It is an institution that is the sole one responsible for the development of leaders of males of African descent.
What that means is that there is a huge brand. There's a saying that says you can always tell a Morehouse man but you can't tell him much, right? The idea is that a Morehouse man is confident, he's in control and engaged in his community and is a leader. So, for many people when they saw the headline associated with the Vibe article, they questioned how does this relates to the Morehouse brand. But I think as both Aliya and Brian suggested, when you read the article you actually see how this can be a deeper contribution to the Morehouse brand and the Morehouse legacy.
MARTIN: Why do you say that?
Prof. LEWIS: Well, I think that it is very easy to suggest that Morehouse is producing the best leaders among black men. But we also have to remember that the category of black male is not homogenous. We don't all think the same, we don't all dress the same, we don't all want to say or talk the same. Morehouse has a chance to embrace the full spectrum of people who identify as male and of African descent, and see if they can develop a strong character amongst these brothers so that they can lead in whichever community it be.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a recent Vibe Magazine article called "The Mean Girls of Morehouse" that profiles a group of current and former students at Morehouse who are androgynous, or gender bending, however you wish to describe it.
With us is Aliya King, the author of the piece, Brian Alston, one of the students profiled in the piece, and Morehouse alumnus and professor L'Heureux Lewis.
There is a student - a gay student at Morehouse who is quoted in the piece saying, in some ways it's okay to be gay but not that gay. Or it's okay to be queer but not that queer.
So Brian do you want tell us what that means? Do you think that that's true?
Mr. ALSTON: I think the issue on Morehouse's campus is not about being gay or being heterosexual, it's the whole idea of femininity. The campus has a problem with femininity. If a guy is gay but he's seen as masculine it's okay. But when - you cross the boundaries when you become feminine or you are perceived as feminine.
MARTIN: Professor Lewis I was going to ask you, or maybe Aliya you might want to respond to this, we're talking about four students out of 3,000.
Ms. KING: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: The president and the people who were critical of the piece say that you kind of are picking this small group within the group and portraying the institution in a certain light according to this very small group. But I could ask it the other way: Do you think that this is much ado about a small group?
Ms. KING: Actually I don't and I've gotten that a lot, where they say, you know, it was only four students, two of whom are not even at the school anymore. But the point is, as a journalist, if there was one person on campus was a gender-bending androgynous man I would've profiled that one person, that's how interested I was in the topic. So I don't think that argument really holds.
MARTIN: What about you Professor Lewis, what do you think?
Prof. LEWIS: I think that Ms. King's speech does a very good job of profiling a small population but every brother at Morehouse is meaningful. And for those who say it's a small population, it's not meaningful, if it wasn't meaningful the administration would not have said last year our dress code policy is targeting for students. The college was actually the one who placed the emphasis on these young brothers and now when Ms. King does a story that profiles them, talks about their experience people try to suggest as if it is not representative, as if it's not meaningful, when I think it's quite the opposite.
MARTIN: But do you think that every - that this institution has to be all things to all black men, Professor Lewis?
Prof. LEWIS: I don't know if it can be all things to all black men. But if you are the only institution that is dedicated to the development of black men it behooves you to look and see where black men are and help move them to the next level.
The reality is that the Morehouse man that was produced in the 20th century may not be the model of Morehouse man that we need to produce in the 21st. When we look at the things that black men are struggling with on Morehouse's campus and off, we realize that the institution must update itself. It's seen a decline in graduation rates. It's seen issues of violence, both inter-student violence and shooting, issues of gay bashing and we realize that the institution has to take a serious look at what black men are dealing with and make sure that it's preparing us to deal with the social realities and produce something different.
MARTIN: Brian, what do you hope will come from this piece?
Mr. ALSTON: I hope this article will bring attention to the issues around homosexuality and sexuality in general, to make not only Morehouse but the world more aware of the issues that surround these two topics, to realize that there are going to be gender benders on your campus, there are going to be future renaissance men with a social conscience that you produce because of this article.
MARTIN: Brian Alston is a senior sociology major at Morehouse College. He's one of the students profiled in the Vibe magazine feature, "The Mean Girls of Morehouse." He joined us from Atlanta. Aliya King is the author of the piece. She joined us from our bureau in New York, along with L'Heureux Lewis, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York and a Morehouse alum.
And if you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.
Thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. KING: Thank you.
Mr. ALSTON: Thank you.
Prof. LEWIS: Thank you.
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