Peyton Daisy O’Conner resigned her seat from the Asheville City Schools board Dec. 5. “It’s really unlike me because I’m usually a ‘stand my ground and fight’ kind of person,” she said. // Photo credit Shannon O'Conner

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. 

Ronald Gates, senior pastor of Greater Works Church of God in Christ in Asheville // from church website

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.

Peyton O’Conner, an Army combat veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said she and her family are moving to Madison County. // Photo credit Shannon O’Conner

“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.

We don’t condone bullying of any sort, against anyone, in any way.”

ACS Board Chair James Carter

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 jboyle@avlwatchdog.org.

[Editor’s Note: Asheville Watchdog believes in actively involving our audience in matters of interest to the community, and that includes developing channels for meaningful discourse with, and among, our readers. By inviting your participation and engaging in a dialogue, we hope to increase public trust in our journalism and improve the diversity of voices and experiences in our news report. Our guidelines are meant to ensure that the comments stream remains a civil place for everyone to exchange ideas and information.]

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40 Comments

  1. John, you have lost me again. I thought the Asheville Watchdog and you were going to be more Walter Cronkite-like and provide the readership the facts in “and that’s the way it is” approach, not ladened with editorial opinion.

    1. It’s hard meet your “Cronkite standards” when one of the main persons in this story (Reverend Gates) does not respond to request for comment. He was offered his say, but did not respond.
      I don’t object to Boyle providing his opinion, since it is obviously that. He is known for doing so frequently. It’s unfortunate Gates did not provide his own for this article.

      1. Here’s that “two sides” mentality that is so prevalent in today’s news culture. It’s how we got the clown Trumpf. It’s not up to journalism to provide “fair and balanced” reporting when one side is dangerous and delusional, and causing harm. That’s what needs to be reported, not whether we agree on the definition of bullying or to hear the other side. I recall Trumpf mentioning when the fascists marched in Charlottesville that there were “good people on both sides.” Ah, no, sometimes there aren’t.

        1. Regardless of how you feel about the “facists” as you call them, from what I remember they had obtained a permit to demonstrate. Those who came to disturb the march did not obtain a permit, which is the normal way the liberals do and do not respect the rights of those who disagree, this resulted in the death of the young girl. If she would have stayed home, it would not have happened

    2. This is clearly labeled an “opinion” piece. I believe had it been pure reporting, the editorial comments would not have been there.

      1. Much of John Boyle’s “reporting” in the article is very good. He loses me with his sophomoric last two paragraphs:
        “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.”

      1. These are direct quotes from Asheville Watchdog’s its “About Us” link, and ”About The Watchdog” link:

        “Our mission is to inform and engage the citizens of Asheville and surrounding communities by providing fair, factual and reliable in-depth news stories about local government, institutions, issues, and people.”

        “We started Asheville Watchdog because local news is in crisis. One-fourth of America’s newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, including more than 300 in the past two years. More than 1,800 communities nationwide that had local newspapers 15 years ago now have no original reporting. Half of all newsroom jobs vanished since 2008. This means there are fewer reporters to keep watch over state and local government, to dig deep into the issues, and to hold the powerful accountable.

        At the same time, misinformation is pervasive on social media and even many mainstream news outlets, including deliberate attempts to spread false, biased, or incendiary stories. Asheville Watchdog is committed to truth, verifiable facts, transparency, science, and important context.”

        I bring this to our collective attention because, perhaps you too, took the above quotes at face value. No where in the quotes or the balance of “About Us”, does the word “OPINION” appear.

        1. Thank you for highlighting the mission of Asheville Watchdog in bringing “fair, factual and reliable in-depth news stories” to the community.

          Like other publications ranging from The New York Times to Fox News to the Asheville Citizen Times, in addition to our news reporting we also provide occasional opinion pieces — but these are always labeled prominently with OPINION to differentiate those articles from our news reporting. We offer opinion articles, as well as reader commentary like the one you’re reading now, in the desire to actively involve our audience in matters of interest to the community. By clearly differentiating our news reports from our commentary and opinion pieces, we hope to increase public trust in our journalism and improve the diversity of voices and experiences in our community publication.

          John Boyle writes an opinion column for Asheville Watchdog most Mondays. His Answer Man columns for The Watchdog are what we describe as “reported columns” on human- and community-interest topics, leaving some leeway for (often humorous) commentary. He also contributes news articles to The Watchdog, which are held to the highest standards of fact-based reporting.

          But because the OPINION rubric at the top of John’s Monday columns is apparently overlooked by some readers, from now on we’ll also preface every headline on his opinion articles with the word “Opinion.” Thanks for encouraging our devotion to trustworthy journalism.

          1. Okay Peter Lewis, message received. I will now make a good faith contribution to Asheville Watchdog believing factual journalism is still alive and well.

  2. Though this typically follows the “two sides” “fair and balanced” misguided formula now pervasive in reporting, let’s not miss the tree in the forest: They are a hate group. SPLC defines them as such. And no statement by a spokesmodel changes this.

  3. Gates mentions quite a few certifications in his leadership role. Let’s unpack that. Certifications are a dime a dozen. Non profits are a dime a dozen. Also, he doesn’t seem to to have any formal education which helps when you are healing addicts or breaking of gangs.

  4. Really sad story about bullying, but was this the most “watchdog” subject you could write about? I’m hoping for investigative journalism here.

    1. This was about a loudmouth bully holding forth in a rather vile manner so that a school board member resigned. What, you think going after a school board member acceptable now? I don’t. I find such behavior unacceptable and the person should have been escorted from the room after he got personal.

  5. There’s a classic movie about this problem called “Inherit the Wind”. It’s well worth the time to watch it in the current context. Plus ça change…

  6. “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.”

    So what exactly was/is O’Connor ‘s goal? Was O’Connor on the board to improve student academic & achievement outcomes, or there to push a social-political agenda? This is a reasonable question. One not asked by the author.

    1. Why would the reporter ask the question.. when the subject already answered it. This isn’t the “gotcha” you think it is.

  7. It’s pretty clear that Mr. Gates, like so many evangelical Christians, does not read his Bible. He listens to what other people tell him about the Bible. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on theologically here. My hope is that Ms. O’Conner was planning on leaving anyway because it would be very sad if she resigned because of this kind of ignorance.

  8. I do not like thee, Pastor Gates. The reason why, I know full well. As for whoever Dranyam is, I hope you don’t believe Fox News is really “fair and balanced.”

  9. Thanks John for this reporting. Why oh why can’t people be kinder? I wish Peyton the best and it’s Asheville’s loss.

  10. Thank you for the thoughtful reporting on this issue. It seems that every action or position taken by the extreme right is designed to create pain for someone.

  11. sounds like a non story to me. ms. oconnor was going to have to step down anyway because of move to madison county. sounds like she found a good excuse to play the victim instead and make the news. if comments from one fool supposedly made her quit, she was not cut out for the job anyway. i still feel this was a convenient excuse to play the victim, like so many do these days.

  12. Thank you John Boyle for your comments. As the parent of a trans adult, I appreciate them. Mr. Gates and Christ clearly have no relationship. Christ’s command to “Love thy neighbor” has never influenced him. He and his church are about hate not love and he follows the devil, not the teachings of Jesus Christ. Mr. Gates title of “Pastor” is entirely self appointed. He has no theological background or degree. Just hate.

  13. Free speech and hate speech are two very different things. The right wing can shout free speech all they want, but this wasn’t it. It was deliberate misgendering and bullying, perpetuated by an organization designated as a hate group. Free speech simply doesn’t apply here. Hate is not protected.

  14. You can’t choose your Gender, just like you can’t choose your skin color. O’Conner was appointed to the school board because they are Trans. All appointed members should step down as they are failing our students.

    1. Pierce: Please tell us more and include supporting documentation that make your claims credible and truthful.

  15. Thank you, John Boyle and AVL Watchdog. This article needed to be written and published. We simply cannot allow people like Gates to dictate our representation on any public forum. He, and others like him, are dangers to our society.
    We must never stop pushing back against their hate, bigotry and lies! Never stop!

  16. Ultimately the test should be whether a board member is interested in furthering education writ large — the purported role of a school board — or a particular social or political agenda. And yes the nature of that education is fair play for discussion. But gender by itself should not be the issue that determines whether a member should stay or not.

  17. John, I appreciate you and your commitment to truth telling. Thank you for bringing this sad and infuriating situation to our attention. Our community needs to know what is actually happening. Keep up the great work!

  18. Bravo John Boyle. The science of human sexuality starting with John Money at Johns Hopkins U has been quite clear for many years that human sexuality is very complex and gender identity rarely, if ever, a choice. According to this hate group, I should detest my daughter and her wife (and I guess my 2 granddaughters) who have worked tirelessly through COVID respectively delivering babies and working as an ER doc. Freedom of speech guarantees we can call out dangerous hate mongers with great feeling.

  19. “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…”

    It certainly does not seem that two minority groups have been “pitted” together here. Rather, a representative of a hate group, who happens to be a person of color, sought out and harassed a member of the school board. I do not believe he represents a wide swath of Asheville’s minority community, and the only group to which one should ascribe is hateful stance is the Alliance Defending Freedom.

    The harassment should be called out. Period.

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