Transgender and gender nonconforming employees of the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) received an unwelcome surprise last Monday: a new dress code that continues Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign of anti-LGBTQ+ oppression. The Observer obtained a copy of the policy on Friday.
The opening sentences of the memorandum, titled “Texas Department of Agriculture Dress Code and Grooming Policy,” include the following language: “Employees are expected to comply with this dress code in a manner consistent with their biological gender.” Running afoul of the new rule could carry serious consequences. The memo also reads, “Violation of this agency policy includes remedies up to and including termination.” While provided without context, it is clear that the new policy is intended to single out queer and trans employees for censure.
The document, dated April 13, bears the name and seal of TDA Commissioner Sid Miller. The Department of Ag did not respond to requests for comment sent this morning, including questions about how it intends to enforce its policy.
The new restrictions replace the previous dress code dictated by the employee handbook. The original dress code did not reference “biological gender.”
The freedom to dress according to one’s gender identity is vital to the mental health and happiness of trans and nonbinary people. Clothing is an important part of the “social transition” process, which — along with other changes like using new pronouns — allows a trans person to be themselves in public.
The policy, which is primarily aimed at office workers, would force trans employees back into the closet by forbidding them from expressing their identity. But even cisgender people who wear gender neutral clothing — such as women who favor men’s formalwear — could conceivably be caught up in the new restrictions.
It’s unclear whether the decision to change the dress code originated within Miller’s office or came from higher up in the state government. We also do not know whether there are any other government offices or agencies with new dress codes. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
One TDA employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job said they were taken aback by the new restrictions.
“My eye was drawn to the lines about Western wear being encouraged,” the source said, noting that TDA employees frequently wear boots and cowboy hats. Miller infamously outfitted his office with $55,000 worth of lavish Western-themed furniture, including many taxidermied animals.
“Then, another employee alerted me and said, ‘Hey did you see the line in the first paragraph?’” the source said. “It was a shock.”
Abbott has voiced his opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and initiatives within the state government. His February 22 directive ordering Child Protective Services to investigate parents of trans kids under suspicions of child abuse sent the agency into a crisis. Nationwide, more than 400 anti-trans bills have been introduced by mostly Republican-controlled legislatures — including 49 bills in Texas — in the first four months of 2023. The Republican Party has made attacks on the rights of trans and nonbinary people a key part of its agenda.
The TDA employee expressed concerns that the dress code would be selectively enforced against people who are most visibly trans or gender nonconforming or against those who otherwise stand out within the organization. The source told us that several coworkers expressed concerns about the memo but are afraid to speak up because of potential repercussions.
The Texas Department of Agriculture’s use of the phrase “biological gender” reflects a dangerous conflation of sex and gender.
Sex and gender are distinct. Sex denotes one’s arrangement of chromosomes, reproductive anatomy, and other organs. While sex is not binary — as evinced by the existence of intersex people and variation in the biological expression of human sex characterisitcs — it is less fluid than gender, a social construct expressed and reinforced by norms, behaviors, and roles assigned to people based on their perceived sex. Transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people have a gender identity that differs from the one assigned at birth.
In other words, sex is biological, but gender isn’t.
Republicans’ approach to this subject is based on fear rather than the growing scientific consensus about transgender identity and mental health. The GOP prefers to stoke fear and misunderstanding around this vulnerable portion of the population in order to gain power and attract voters — while trans people are the scapegoat.
The TDA employee expressed fear for queer coworkers, or anyone who speaks out against the new policy. They confirmed that they have met LGBTQ+ workers throughout the department. The employee told us they were attracted to their particular division because of its diversity. “We have women, people of color in leadership, and the staff is just about as diverse as it can be.”
“We should not allow this to be normalized,” they said, expressing fear that the new directive would also rekindle the debate over public bathrooms. “It definitely feels like it threatens the safety of anyone who doesn’t conform to the binary dress code.”
Update April 24, 2:30pm: For additional context on the new Texas Department of Agriculture dress code, here is another section of the same leaked document, outlining clothing standards for men and women, and the consequences of violating the policy.
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