In 2009, I was sifting through press releases and news items, looking for a story. In my office — really an illegal bedroom in a Newark, New Jersey, rooming house — my assistant sat nearby, reading headlines aloud to me.
“Morehouse College has a new dress code,” he said.
I shrugged. Nothing new there. For years, HBCUs had been struggling to keep the Black Ivy League moving into the modern era while trying to stay true to certain standards. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and others are among the distinguished alumni, there’s not much room for freshmen wearing sagging jeans and durags on campus.
I quickly read through the press release. It mentioned all the things I expected it to: no sunglasses worn in class, no head coverings inside buildings…
Then my eye skipped to the bottom.
I read it aloud to my assistant.
“No wearing of clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events.”
He and I stared at each other, our heads cocked to the side, eyebrows raised as far as they would go.
Why on earth would Morehouse College need to bury this rule at the end of the statement? And who were these students at Morehouse, an institution serving Black men for more than 100 years, who needed to be told not to wear clothing “usually worn by women.”
A few days later, Morehouse College’s president clarified the section of the press release regarding women’s clothes, which also included makeup and handbags. He said it was a very small segment of the population that needed to be addressed.
I called Jermaine Hall, now the editor-in-chief here at LEVEL — and then the editor in chief of Vibe. I’d worked with Jermaine for more than a decade by that point, and we’d come to trust each other’s instincts. He gave me the green light, and a week later I was on a flight to Atlanta to find those Morehouse students who had found themselves in the president’s crosshairs.
I’ve been doing investigative journalism for my entire career. I take a tiny tidbit of a story and gnaw on it like a bone until I break it apart. I found out who killed Sean “Diddy” Combs’ father after a two-year odyssey. After wondering about the woman who threw grits at Al Green, I found her children and her siblings and uncovered the true story of her life — a several-year process. I looked for young Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X, and ended up spending a year interviewing him. I’ve even been known to go in and work hard to find something as simple as a belt.
If something feels like a story, I dig in and can’t let go. Even when I probably should.
The first step was to find the students. Throughout 2010, I traveled to Atlanta multiple times and made dozens of phone calls, trying to put together the scene. How did a group of kids, some still teenagers, live their truth at a place like Morehouse? All told, it took me more than a year to find and speak with Diamond Poulin, Chanel Hudson, Brian Alston, Michael Leonard, Michael Brewer, and Kevin Webb.
Before we could get a few minutes into our interview, at a steakhouse in Atlanta, she told me she’d recently thought about killing herself. She tossed off that fact like it’s something people think about every single day.
SafeSpace, Morehouse’s advocacy group for on-campus LGBTQ students, put me in touch with a few students. Some were members of a group called The Plastics, gender-bending queer young men whom the dress code seemed to target specifically. There were also other queer students struggling with gender identity and sexuality, some of whom were in the process of transferring out of Morehouse.
While I spent time with several students, it was Chanel — then known as Philip Hudson — who stood out. And not just because Chanel is 6'5", chocolate brown, with wide and expressive eyes. Before we could get a few minutes into our interview, at a steakhouse in Atlanta, she told me she’d recently thought about killing herself. She tossed off that fact like it’s something people think about every single day.
Over dinner, Chanel was wounded and raw. Her eye contact was furtive, and she offered tidbits of her life in a rapid-fire staccato. She talked about verbal and sexual abuse in her life. She talked about briefly working as an escort. (“I did not have sex,” she snapped. “Just company.”) She talked about moving from Florida to New York alone while still a teenager. She told me about finding black-market hormones at age 12 to begin to transition. She told me about her parents, both from Jamaica. And her father is a pastor. I winced at the triple whammy of a trans teenager living in the deep South with Caribbean parents who are also religious.
I wondered if sharing her story with a national audience was a good look for Chanel. She was just barely 21 years old. But I folded up that worry and put away. My job was to deliver the story, period. And so, a few days after we met, I pushed Chanel into the spotlight, literally and figuratively.
Looking back, she never should have been a part of the story. She wasn’t in the right space to represent the LGBTQ community. She was just barely able to understand herself and her own identity.
And if I’m honest with myself, I wasn’t in the space to write about her, either.
We all have what I call Before and After years. They’re those pivotal turning points, the years with an event so momentous that it changes your life fundamentally. A marriage, a baby, a relationship, a natural disaster or catastrophe, a new job.
I have all of those. In 1990, I graduated from high school; I got sober in 2004, married in 2005. In 2007, I gave birth and got my first book deal. But 2010 is the year that truly splits my life in two.
In the very beginning of that year, my husband, then a graduate journalism student, was in Haiti when the island was rocked by a catastrophic earthquake. His hotel was completely flattened, and no survivors were reported. For 72 hours, I thought he was dead, only learning three days later that he hadn’t been at the hotel when the earthquake struck.
He was safe — but he was also set on remaining on the island to report on the aftermath. I was apoplectic. I had our 12-year-old call him and beg him to come home. That convinced him.
I stayed weepy and disconcerted for weeks, even when he was safely at home — and continued to unravel through the spring. After six years of hard-fought sobriety, I relapsed and began drinking heavily again. Months later, my husband and I separated.
As disastrous as my personal life was becoming, my career was on a different trajectory. My first novel was published that summer, as was a nonfiction book I’d written with street legend Frank Lucas.
I was running on fumes, but the year was just revving up. I signed a deal to work with a well-known producer to write his memoir — but every time I visited his Miami mansion, he had nothing to say. I sat next to him in his home theater, prodding; the deadline for the book was looming, and I couldn’t get more than mumbles from him.
My husband and I ended our separation, and when I moved back home I began trying to pick up the pieces and sort my life out. In late summer, we renewed our vows in our living room, with my college roommate, a Newark municipal judge, as the officiant.
By the fall, I was close to the edge. My heart was constantly palpitating. My brain was moving too fast. I wasn’t seeing my therapist regularly, and I only used my meds to fall asleep at night, not to center my moods. But I powered through, continuing to travel back and forth to Morehouse and collecting more than 20 hours of interviews with all the subjects of the story.
When Chanel and I sat across from each other in that restaurant that day, it was a conversation between two people, both broken and struggling. But only one of us knew that.
On the day of the photo shoot for the story, I crept onto the Morehouse College campus. With me was a photographer, Alex Martinez, and several students at the school who identified as gay, gender-fluid, nonbinary, and trans. We had no business on campus, particularly for the story I was working on.
If the president, Dr. Franklin, didn’t approve of Morehouse men dressing in feminine attire, it’s safe to assume he would have had Alex and me arrested for photographing those same students posed in front of a statue dedicated to the school’s most famous alum.
We walked past the security kiosk with our heads high, like we clearly belonged, then hauled over to the Martin Luther King Jr. statue. There was an MLK quote inscribed on its base: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We wanted the students to position themselves around the statue and get some quick group shots before we went back to Alex’s studio for solo shots of each student.
I watched him look through the camera, lift his head and look at the group, look through the camera again. He turned his head from one side to the other, frowned. We didn’t have much time, and he wasn’t getting the shot he wanted.
He pointed to Chanel. “Please,” Alex said. “You, come forward.”
Chanel’s face looked stricken.
“I want to stay back here,” she said, shrinking into the background of her classmates. She wore a top with a blousy bow and dark-washed jeans and clutched a book in one hand and a Morehouse tote in the other. Every time the photographer waved her up, she moved back a few more steps.
The photographer looked over at me, his eyes pleading: Help.
I walked over to Chanel while the rest of the students and the photographer waited. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m not dressed to be in front,” she said.
“We don’t care about how you’re dressed.”
“I’m fine back here.”
“The photographer wants a few of you in front,” I cajoled. “Doesn’t mean this will be the main photo. We just need to have a few options.”
Chanel looked at me, her face softening a bit, and she exhaled. I put my hand on her elbow and guided her to the front.
The photographer silently thanked me and got everyone in place.
Click. Click. Click.
As soon as I saw the photo, I knew the lead photo on the story would be the one with Chanel in front. And I knew she wasn’t ready for what would happen next.
Neither of us were.
On October 11, 2010, at noon, Vibe went live with the story on its website. “The Mean Girls of Morehouse,” it was called. The print version would drop a few days later on newsstands nationwide.
I found out the story had been published when a friend texted that it was trending on Twitter. I’d only joined the platform the year before, and I barely understood what that meant. Of the 10 topics trending nationwide, four concerned my story: Morehouse, Vibe, Mean Girls, Atlanta.
I went to the site to check out the story, but it had crashed, overwhelmed by traffic. My phone started to beep with rapid-fire texts and Twitter notifications.
Within an hour, my voicemail was full. I had dozens of DMs that ranged from disappointed to menacing to unhinged.
Why would you do that to Morehouse?
Oh, you didn’t get into Spelman, right?
You trying to get fucked up, you ugly bitch.
You don’t fuck with Morehouse. You can get touched.
Why the fuck would you write some ignorant shit like that?
The president of Morehouse, who had never returned my many calls while reporting the piece, issued a press release:
Dear Morehouse Community:
Next week, Vibe magazine, a hip-hop music and culture monthly, will publish in their October/November issue an article on Morehouse. I strongly disagree with the likely substance of this article and wanted to write to you directly to share my views.
The article, entitled, The Mean Girls at Morehouse purports to examine the lives of some of our gay brothers as it relates to the enforcement of our appropriate attire policy we enacted a year and a half ago. It seems clear from the headline alone that the Vibe 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.
As president of this institution, as a Morehouse graduate and as a father, I am insulted by what is to be published. Addressing our young men as girls is deeply disturbing to me, no matter what the remainder of the article may say. Morehouse has for 140 years developed men who are equipped to live and contribute to an increasingly diverse, global and complex world.
I sat down in a chair in my living room and curled up, my phone in my hand. My husband told me to turn my phone off. But I couldn’t. I felt like I needed to read every single tweet and comment. I stayed in that chair the entire weekend, barely interacting with my daughters. I just kept scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. Shaking. I ignored the messages of support, the friends and readers who were trying to reach out. I focused only on the negative tweets and retweets and DMs. Occasionally, the Vibe site would go back online and I’d get to see some of the 349 comments that had dropped in the first hour.
I knew the story would be controversial. But that level of vitriol? People were literally asking around on Twitter for my address. After years in print journalism, removed from real-time feedback, I could hear from my critics in the moment — and they were loud.
The main criticism was simple: Why? Why write a story about a handful of young kids protesting the culture of a private school they chose to attend?
I thought back to a month before. I hosted a baby shower at my home, and one of the guests was a Spelman alum. She asked what I was working on, and I told her about my latest piece. Her face fell. I was confused. This was about Morehouse, not Spelman.
She shook her head and put her hand up to her mouth.
“Aliya, you can’t talk about any HBCU. It’s just not done. Especially by an outsider.”
“I’m a journalist,” I said. “I don’t have a right to report a story?”
“Let me see it,” she said.
I gave her the rough draft, and she slipped into a corner of my living room. I watched as her eyes darted back and forth, and she mumbled as she read.
She came back to me and gave me the sheaf of papers.
“No, Aliya. People will not feel like you had a right to report this story.”
“Do you?” I asked. “You’ve read my work for years and always supported me. Do you think I had a right to report this story?”
My friend exhaled deeply.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
It wasn’t just Morehouse. It was students at all the HBCUs who wanted my head on a platter. How dare I profile students at Morehouse who were less than what the ideal should be? Many believed the topic should have been handled internally. A student who went to a PWI like Rutgers had no right to air Morehouse’s dirty laundry.
But there were other, credible reasons why the story received such heavy criticism. Like the headline. If the story had been called “Gender-Bending at Morehouse,” it wouldn’t have moved the needle. When it was time to give the story a title, we were thinking about something involving “The Plastics,” but it didn’t hit right. The Plastics on the Morehouse campus was a specific group, and the story and photo shoot involved more than The Plastics. The name of the clique was inspired by the movie Mean Girls, so it just popped into my head. “The Mean Girls of Morehouse” it was.
It’s hard for me to go back and read the piece today. But when I do, I groan at some of my journalistic missteps.
I misgendered a few of the students throughout the piece. I described one of the students as “not having a swishy bone in his body.” I described Chanel as being built like a linebacker. Damon Young, on his blog Very Smart Brothas, noted that every student I talked to was interviewed over a meal, as if describing how they ate was a shortcut to showcase their femininity — pointing forks, slurping pasta. He was right. It was lazy.
I didn’t ask the questions that we know today to ask as journalists: preferred pronouns, the avoidance of deadnames, and more. Even worse, I didn’t even know the questions I needed to ask. I was outside my comfort zone, and the result showed.
Last week, I called Chanel, who now lives in Georgia with her fiancée. We hadn’t spoken in many years. Today, her voice is assured and strong. And while she still speaks in the same rapid-fire staccato, it comes from a place of confidence, not fear. There are more than a few chuckles. She calls me out on the linebacker thing. “I was a young kid trying to be a woman!” she says. “Jeesh.”
When I was sitting in my chair dealing with the fallout in 2010, it turns out Chanel was doing the same a thousand miles away. After our interview, she had transferred to a PWI in her home state of Florida. She tried to read the story online, but the site crashed. Her own phone was inundated with calls and texts. A few days later, she and her best friend went to the local Walgreens to pick up a print copy.
“I thought we would be able to dip in and out,” Chanel says to me today. “I’d left Morehouse. I’m an anonymous student. Who would really know about Vibe?”
When she got to the store, a crowd of Black students was huddled in the magazine aisle, all looking at one copy of the magazine. One person turned the pages while they hid from the cashier, who was expecting them to make a purchase.
“I thought I could sneak past them,” Chanel says. “I said, ‘Excuse me,’ grabbed a few copies, and went to the register. My friend said, ‘They saw you. They know.’
“The next day, on campus, I saw what looked like an entire student union full of Black students. I had never seen that many Black kids on that campus, ever. It was like they knew I’d be coming out of class at a certain time and made sure they were near where I would be.”
“Are you the Mean Girl?” they asked her. “Are you the one in this article?”
I decide to share with Chanel what I’d actually been going through during the reporting of the story. “I could tell something was going on,” she said to me. “When the photo shoot wrapped, we asked you to get into a final picture with us, not for the story. Just for us. You said, ‘No. I can’t do that.’ And we kept saying, ‘Oh, come on.’ You did it. But you looked so uncomfortable. Do you remember?”
I do remember, I say.
“Also,” Chanel says, her voice just above whispering. “Do you remember me at the photo shoot? I was uncomfortable, too.”
“I remember,” I say.
In 2012, two years after the story, Chanel and I were each at a crossroads. Just 23 years old, with very little support from friends and family, Chanel was struggling with her gender identity and how she wanted to present herself.
Meanwhile, I had put together a new first year of sobriety, but I’d also been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I vacillated between suicidal and hypomanic. For months, I could barely shower, take care of my babies, or find joy in anything — and then, for months, I could write entire books in weeks while making reckless decisions, from speeding to overspending. My marriage was at risk. My parenting was at risk. My life was at risk.
Although we weren’t communicating, Chanel and I were forging similar paths, holding onto survival by the tips of our fingers. The only thing we pushed, laser-focused, were our careers.
In the beginning of 2012, my fifth book in five years was published. I barely remember writing it. Throughout the process, I sobbed daily, telling my husband I felt like I had boxing gloves on and was trying to hit the right keys on my laptop. I wrote that book one word at a time, most days through tears. Promoting it was the same. Wracked by depression, I could barely lift my head to do phone interviews and did very few in-person events.
After a decade of freelance writing, I needed a change. I needed health insurance, direct deposit every two weeks, and a set schedule for my children. I also needed to interact with people — preferably teenagers, who have an uncanny knack to keep a smile on my face. I’d left teaching in the late 1990s with no plans to return, but I did.
Teaching didn’t fit me. At all. The kids were a joy. But I chafed with leadership. In an extreme 180 degrees from my own high school days as a goody two-shoes, I was now constantly getting hauled into the principal’s office. I was often late to school. I used sick days to travel for writing assignments. I never handed in my lesson plans on time. I skipped staff meetings and in-service sessions. I looked for any reason to have my students do a writing assignment instead of the planned curriculum. I loved my kids and they loved me, but I won’t lie — they didn’t learn much about geography. The school was primarily Latinx, and the few Black students followed me around like I was the Pied Piper of Black kids. We had an unofficial student union that consisted of me telling them fun stories about my life as a journalist.
I still freelanced for publications but never mentioned that I also had a day job. If an editor thinks you’re not always available at a moment’s notice, you’ll get less work. I had to pretend.
In that same year, Chanel had a much more difficult role to play. She’d gotten into her dream field, public relations, and landed a job at a well-known firm. There was just one catch: They didn’t want her to wear feminine attire. “They thought it would be a turn-off for their major clients,” she says now. “I knew what it was: I was too tall, too heavy, and too trans for them.”
After months of toning down her look to fit into her new job, Chanel decided to walk away from trying to transition. She stopped the black-market hormones. Started calling herself by her deadname, the one her parents had given her when she was born. She wore jeans. “I even learned how to draw on a beard to be more masculine,” she says. “I was drawing on a beard. Every single morning. This is someone who had been trying to transition since puberty.”
Meanwhile, some of the other students in the “Mean Girls of Morehouse” story had been approached by the producers of Jersey Shore. The show they had in mind would be called Atlanta Skyline and would include The Plastics and the other Mean Girls. Chanel said no.
“Some of them were angry with me,” she says now. “The producers wanted all of us. I just wasn’t into the idea. I was still trying to figure my shit out. My life after that article was very different from theirs. The others were gay men who could bring their boyfriends home for the holidays and had complete support at home. They could go on reality television and act a fool and then go on to their lives in politics and education and keep it moving.”
“I only went to Morehouse because I wanted to be the traditional man my father wanted me to be. I thought I could do it. But who I am did not change based on where I went to school. Morehouse simply nurtures men—it does not create them”
At the time, Chanel didn’t feel like her story as a trans woman fit neatly into that of her friends who identified as gay men. “I knew I’d never escape whatever storyline they gave me on a show like that,” she says. Being trans is just different. And I was still figuring it out. They didn’t get it.”
Just like me and my teaching job, Chanel knew she would eventually have to molt a skin that would never fit. She returned to fully identifying as trans and began to live as her true self.
Today, Chanel travels nationwide to talk about gender identity and sexuality to high school and college students, including a few trips back to Morehouse.
“And now I see these boys on campus wearing things far more outlandish than we did,” she says, with an air of these kids today. “I’m just saying.”
It’s been a decade since that Vibe story dropped, changing both of our lives forever.
I left teaching in the summer of 2014 — resigned and never looked back. I’m a full-time journalist again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. More important, Chanel started her own PR firm around the same time.
I ask her now, on the phone, was it worth it? She chooses her words carefully.
“I’ve heard people say that just sharing my voice has made me an icon in the trans community,” she says. “But what does that mean? I’m not sure I feel that way. If I have opened the doors for someone like me to go to a place like Morehouse, then great. I guess. I’m not sure Morehouse is truly changing up their ways.”
There have been victories. Chanel tells me that a woman who transitioned while at Morehouse will graduate this spring, making her the first woman to transition while matriculated. And as Morehouse announced last year, the school will admit trans men as students beginning with the forthcoming fall semester — exactly 10 years since “The Mean Girls of Morehouse” story. In other words, if you live fully as a man, regardless of your biology, you are welcome to apply and matriculate.
But there are some mandates that keep the new changes from feeling like true progression.
For instance, if you come to Morehouse as a man and identify as a trans woman after you’ve enrolled, then you have to go. A student like Chanel, who came to Morehouse trying to live as a man and then went back to transitioning during her first semester, would still be kicked out. Which makes the new gender identity policy seem as if it’s actually moving backward.
“Things have changed, but not really. Think about Zaya Wade,” says Chanel, using an example from the opposite gender. “She’s 12 years old, and people are saying she’s too young to know what she wants. But Morehouse expects a 17- or 18-year-old to already be living as a man — name change and everything — before they can matriculate. Do you know how long it takes to make that full transition? Zaya will be ready to attend a women’s college at 18 if that’s what she chooses. But most kids are not as lucky to have such a supportive family.”
Chanel explains that the typical 18-year-old trans man is very likely still struggling with identity, and it’s unlikely that many will be living fully as a man by freshman year. Whatever “living fully” even means.
“Yes, this is all complicated,” Chanel says. “I get that. But Morehouse should be at the forefront of figuring this out.”
I ask Chanel if she would recommend Morehouse to anyone questioning their identity. “I only went to Morehouse because I wanted to be the traditional man my father wanted me to be,” she says. “I thought I could do it. But who I am did not change based on where I went to school. Morehouse simply nurtures men — it does not create them.”
I’ve now been sober for almost nine years. My mental health has been rock-solid for four. My marriage ended in 2015, and I’m lucky to have my ex as a friend, co-parent, and constant supporter. My girls, 23 and 13, are healthy and talented and all-around dope. I’m in a relationship with someone who centers me and helps me write pieces like this that get to the heart of my complexity and my desire to be wholly transparent in my writing.
Though I thought I’d never publish again, my sixth book, once again published by Simon and Schuster, will be released in 2021.
I’ve made the choice here to focus on Chanel and myself and the parallel tracks our lives found themselves on. There’s a much larger story that also needs to be told — a story about all the students I spent time with for that magazine feature.
But not all stories want to be told.
This weekend, I spoke to Brian Alston, one of The Plastics. He’s the youngest elected member of a school board in his home state of South Carolina. He claims he felt no backlash after the Mean Girls story was published; his department at Morehouse and his friends and family, he says, were 100% supportive.
I tried to talk to Michael, who did an appearance with me on NPR when the story dropped. But I didn’t hear back.
I desperately wanted to find Diamond Poulin, one of the Mean Girls I went shopping with in Atlanta all those years ago. I remember not understanding how they wanted to identify in the story. “Do you need to put down anything?” they asked. “Write that I’m a man if you have to. But it’s not accurate. There is no word for me.”
But I still haven’t tracked down Diamond’s current whereabouts.
The coda to this story, though, is pretty simple. Before and After years apply to institutions, too. Because at the very end of Morehouse’s current gender identity policy, it clearly states:
“At Morehouse, certain events require formal attire, but there is no dress code.”