By some measures, I guess you could say the bully won.
After all, the transgender school board member, Peyton Daisy O’Conner, did step down, and the “ambassador” for the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom, local Pastor Ronald Gates, may feel like he can claim victory.
But really, nobody won. Mostly, tolerance and acceptance — and probably the teachings of Jesus Christ — lost out, and that’s a pretty crappy message to send our school kids.
O’Conner, 40, identifies as a transgender woman and was appointed to the Asheville City Schools board in March 2021. But she resigned Dec. 5 after Gates appeared at a school board meeting and chided her about her gender, referring to her as “Mister.”
For background, Gates — senior pastor at Asheville’s Greater Works Church of God in Christ — had appeared at the board’s Oct. 10 meeting, submitting a document encouraging the board not to allow certain topics in the curriculum, mostly teaching about gender identity in ways the right wing feels is inappropriate.
Gates identified himself as an ambassador for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative nonprofit based in Arizona that the Southern Poverty Law Center defines as a hate group. On its website, the SPLC notes the Alliance Defending Freedom was founded by about 30 leaders of the Christian Right and is:
“… a legal advocacy and training group that has supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia; and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society.”
In his remarks at the November school board meeting, Gates first spoke about poor academic testing results from public school students. But then he went off the rails in an effort to chastise O’Conner for previously tearing up the documents Gates had submitted in October.
“We should be focusing on reading, writing, (mathematics) and history — true history — instead of sexual immorality or indoctrination or CRT,” Gates said, referring to critical race theory, an academic theory that is not taught in America’s public primary or secondary schools.
“As I shared, the submittal of the information, it was submitted before the board, respectfully, and the individual that took time to rip up that information is not known, as you reflect it, as ‘Miss,’” Gates said, referring to O’Conner. “I will say ‘Mister.’ If the blood was drawn XY, which is a male.”
I reached out to Gates last week for further comment but didn’t hear back.
What is the ADF?
The ADF bills itself as “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights.”
But the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn’t bestow the “hate group” tag lightly. It cites various ADF leaders in their own words. Here’s a taste:
“The only surprise is the rapidity with which this degradation of our human dignity has occurred. It has occurred, with raging effect, and within twelve months, on the heels of government mandated recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ — an oxymoronic institution if ever there was one. And, for its radical adherents, this has led to a deification of deviant sexual practices. It has further resulted in the inevitable and aggressive persecution of devout Christians who refuse to bow to the false god of sexual license.” — ADF-affiliated attorney Charles LiMandri, from 2015
“The endgame of the homosexual legal agenda is unfettered sexual liberty and the silencing of all dissent.” — ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, 2014.
And this nugget, about schools, from then-senior ADF Legal Counsel Piero Tozzi, in 2012:
“[C]ontrol of the educational system is central to those who want to advance the homosexual agenda. By its very nature, homosexual acts are incapable of bearing fruit — indeed, strictly speaking, they are not sexual, as they are incapable of being generative or procreative. Thus there is the need to desensitize and corrupt young minds, both to undermine resistance to the agenda and for recruitment among those that are at an emotionally vulnerable stage of development.”
As Pastor Gates is a man of the cloth, in response I’ll use language that should resonate: Sweet Jesus.
I reached out to the ADF, and asked if Gates is affiliated with the organization and what their stance is on transgender school board members and the Asheville incident. They issued this statement:
“Pastor Gates’ freedom to express his views free from government censorship is protected under the First Amendment. While ADF had no role in this particular situation, we affirm that free speech is for all Americans.”
Why O’Conner Quit
O’Conner, who I should mention is an Army combat veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, including dangerous and deadly duty removing roadside bombs, said she felt Gates and the ADF were angling to sidetrack more meetings, creating turmoil at board meetings that would distract from the real work to be done. She says this has happened in other communities, and when “ambassadors” get shut down, lawsuits can ensue.
O’Conner, who with her wife, Shannon, is raising a blended family of five children, did not want her life to be the focal point of board meetings, so she resigned.
“It’s really unlike me because I’m usually a ‘stand my ground and fight’ kind of person,” O’Conner said. “On this one in particular I talked to the Campaign for Southern Equality, my wife, and really researched some of the stuff Alliance Defending Freedom has done in the past, and it seems like we as a school board were going to be caught in this awkward position week after week of me getting attacked and (them) basically daring the school board to take any action about those attacks.”
O’Conner contends the Alliance Defending Freedom particularly angles for First Amendment, free speech fights in court.
“So any attempt to ban him, control his speech, anything like that was really going to become the trigger for their next move,” she said.
With a lot of turnover in superintendents and other staff, Asheville City Schools has been through serious turmoil already in recent years. O’Conner didn’t want to add to it.
“It just really did not seem like something Asheville City Schools needed to be focused on in terms of being a site for that kind of national spectacle, especially when we’re growing through so much change and we have an opportunity for so much positive growth within the board,” O’Conner said.
O’Conner is moving to Madison County with her family. Her wife, Shannon, a nurse practitioner, is opening a practice in Marshall. Peyton O’Conner, who formerly worked in planning and as the Parks & Recreation director for Buncombe County, will help manage the practice.
ACS Board Chair James Carter said while O’Conner would have had to resign from the board after moving out of county, he wanted her to stay on the board as long as possible because she was “a wonderful addition to the board” and “brought a different perspective.”
“I didn’t want to lose Peyton on the board, either,” Carter said. “I did ask her to consider not resigning.”
Carter said he didn’t agree with the October letter that Gates submitted to the board, the one O’Conner ripped up. Carter also said Asheville City Schools doesn’t teach CRT or the “gender unicorn” theory Gates brought up.
For the record, ACS follows the state of North Carolina curriculum guidelines, Carter said.
In the November meeting, when Gates was pushing the gender issue and calling O’Conner “Mister,” Carter said he tried to shut it down with the gavel.
“When he kept on with the misgendering, I guess you could say that is a form of bullying to continue to press that the way he did,” Carter said. “And we don’t condone bullying of any sort, against anyone, in any way. That was the main reason I gaveled him down and asked him to refrain, and he just kept doing it.”
Watching the video, it struck me too as thinly veiled bullying, at best. I asked O’Conner if she felt bullied.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” O’Conner said. “And I hate to see that they roped local people into that fight. And I think they do it in such a way to intentionally not only bully but divide communities.”
Gates is African American, and O’Conner said that adds another element to the discord.
“The part that really struck me the most for a city that struggles as much with diversity as Asheville does, pitting two minority groups (against each other) is really kind of a disgusting play, and it really saddened me to see that,” O’Conner said. “Because I don’t think that’s actually the state of the local discourse, but it really creates a charged spectacle where there’s really no winners.”
Essentially, you could end up with the LGBTQ community pitted against the African American community, O’Conner said, and that can force people “who aren’t part of either of those communities to the sidelines.”
“And everybody doesn’t really know how to address the situation, because we are still going through a racial reckoning in the United States,” she said. “I think people are very timid about calling out behaviors because they don’t want to get sucked into the fight or called a bigot themselves.”
“Sharp Uptick in Homophobia and Transphobia”
O’Conner, 40, grew up in the Riceville area of Buncombe County, in an evangelical household.
“I actually grew up in religion, and kind of found myself on the other side of it because of issues like this,” O’Conner said. “That and Afghanistan will really warp your mind.”
All of this is clearly serious stuff, and that’s especially true for LGBTQ youth. As the Trevor Project notes, LGBTQ youth “are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.” The project estimates that “more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (ages 13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.”
O’Conner has been down that road herself, and said she has struggled with thoughts of suicide.
“I spent a lot of my life trying to fix it or get away from it, or doing things that were hyper-masculine, like my time in the Army,” said O’Conner, who spent nine years in the military. “It (got) to this point where I could not run from it anymore.”
While O’Conner said she’s been largely “unscathed” by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric during her time on the board, she has noticed a less tolerant mood emerging in the country.
“Two years ago I would’ve found this man’s actions unfathomable, which is honestly one of the reasons that I came out,” O’Conner said. “I think over the last two years, we’ve really seen a sharp uptick in homophobia and transphobia.”
In short, she doesn’t want to give Gates or other ADF “ambassadors” a “platform” to spread their philosophy.
Did Jesus Preach Intolerance?
I find sad irony in the behavior of people like Gates, who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. As far as I know, Jesus never addressed homosexuality
The Westar Institute, a member-supported nonprofit organization, notes, “None of the four gospels mentions the subject (of homosexuality).”
“This means that, so far as we know, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, and we simply have no way of determining what his attitude toward it might have been,” Westar states.
Jesus did encourage us to treat others as we would like to be treated, to love one another, to be kind, to help each other, to treat the least among us with compassion.
But let’s not dwell on hypocrisy — or start thinking Peyton O’Conner is defeated.
“It doesn’t really change my commitment to the students or the people or any of that — I’m still going to be doing the work in other capacities,” O’Conner said. “I think it’s just a way of making sure I don’t grant him the platform and allow him to create the focus of my work and what I want to do.”
While O’Conner was likely to leave the board anyway, because of the move to Madison County, I found this whole episode just saddened me. Sure, it’s infuriating, too, because of the intolerance we’re still seeing on open display in 2022, but it mostly just leaves me feeling discouraged about our progress as a country, as human beings.
O’Conner put it well.
“One of things as he was commenting that kept crossing my mind is, ‘What does this man want people to do about being gay or transgender?” O’Conner said. “Because he seems dead set against it.”
I suspect folks like Gates truly believe people choose to be gay or transgender. But every gay or transgender person I’ve ever talked with knew from early on they were different, and that they were born that way.
You know, that God created them that way. And we know God doesn’t make mistakes.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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