The contrast told a story.
They’d gathered just past the entrance to the Government Services Building this evening, some 50 people of all ages, all sexes, all colors, many of them face-painted in rainbows, many of them wearing rainbow hearts, or just hearts, one of them wearing a rainbow-colored “Pronouns matter” t-shirt, another wearing a “Love is Love” shirt, some of them holding up welcoming signs–specifically, “You are welcome here”–or standing in front of signs–“your life matters,” “Don’t give up,” the latter for those thinking of suicide. They broke out in song (“We Are Family”), they danced, they cheered, they applauded in cadences, blew bubbles, took selfies and played videos, smiling at just about anyone who approached the group. If you stood there long enough, you were likely to be approached by a tiny little boy out of nowhere who’d hand you a life-saving card with a phone number and six words in six colors: “You are stronger than you seem.”
A few steps away, under the vault-like covered entrance to the GSB, 14 people had gathered–not of too many sexes: just men and women, if militantly so, distinctly older as a group than the other one and just as enthusiastic, if more somberly so down to the more monochromatic clothes they wore, the words booming out of their signs and mouths punctuated with warnings of “hell,” “Satan,” “lies,” “hate” (as in a question about “why homosexuals hate the truth”), judgments, pointed fingers, threats of damnation and fierce applause every time Jesus’ name was mentioned. Unlike the other group, some in the smaller group had come in from out of town, suggesting that a little recruiting from afar had been necessary to thicken up the ranks. The participants in that gathering spoke out of a megaphone, their voices quite loud though they ridiculed the other group when some of its children briefly tried to drown out the megaphone messages with squeals.
For the whole hour that the twin demonstrations stretched before the 6 p.m. meeting of the Flagler County School Board inside the GSB, where the gender issue was on the agenda (by omission: a proposed policy does not spell out LGBTQ protections), several people from the more rainbow-colored group, especially students, walked across the way to engage with the more dour group. Both sides gladly, at times happily if spiritedly, spoke with each other. But traffic was all one way. Members of the smaller group never went over to the larger one.
Members of the Christian contingent, led by Charlene Cothran, gladly spoke their opinions, lacing them with an insistence that what they spoke of was science–the science of what they see as exclusively binary genders. “You cannot provide me with scientific evidence, I don’t care where you go, to show me that a man can change into a woman,” Nathaniel Wilcox, a member of Cothran’s board (from Miami) said. “A person is not what they are based on what they think.”
“Our feelings cannot change our gender,” Cothran said, warming up for her latest appearance before the school board, when she revealed: “When I was 13 I thought I wanted to be a boy.” (In previous meetings she had revealed to have been a lesbian, but no longer was.) She urged the board not to add gender identity to the new proposed policy. “No boy has ever turned into a girl, no girl has ever turned into a boy,” she said, accenting her second “ever” with prosecutorial emphasis. She was upset with the notion of children “self-diagnosing” their identity. “A child can’t even make up his mind to put on with the right color socks to go with a pair of pants, and they’re diagnosing themselves?”
On the other hand, “there are 2 year olds that know they’re not in the right body,” said Cheryl Massaro, the former director of the Flagler County Youth Center and now a candidate for the school board, as she walked into the parking lot between the two demonstrations. “They haven’t been opinionated by anybody.”
“I feel like it’s a human right,” an 11th grade student who gave her name as Rileigh said. She spoke as she stood a few feet from Cothran, whom she’d approached moments earlier for a discussion, only to be “gaslighted.” Cothran proposed to her to play a silly game, as if she were a much younger child than her years, or her discussion points, suggested. “What they’re doing is discriminating,” Rileigh went on. “They’re hating on those and saying that we’re not born gay–is all 15 years of me being stuck in the closet, fearing that I’m going to get harassed and being teased by my family, and thank God that I came out to a wonderful family. To say that my entire sexuality is a lie? And although I don’t know much of the lady that is speaking,” she said of Cothran, who accuses people like Rileigh of lying to themselves, “I don’t understand why she would say such hateful things. If a religion preaches such love and openness, why would she say such hateful things to us and our community?”
Organizers from both sides–Randall Bertrand for the LGBTQ group, Cothran, the local head of an organization she calls “the evidence ministry,” for the “stop lying” group–had mobilized their supporters ahead of this evening’s school board meeting. Nothing got out of hand, no messages were overtly fired from one side to the other. There wasn’t even a police presence, as there would be moments later in the board meeting, which filled to capacity with the various advocates and representatives of a few other groups who had items before the board: the room was filled to capacity.
But neither school board members nor the superintendent showed themselves for the entire hour of the demonstrations, though as 6 o’clock neared they were a few dozen steps away, in the board chamber, preparing for their meeting with snacks, drinks and chatter. Had it been teachers demonstrating, or community members participating in a more conventional civil rights gathering, officials would have been jostling over each other to be in camera view. Jason Wheeler, the district spokesman, at one point ran out for an on-camera interview then walked briskly back in. That was it as far as a district apparition.
“Both sides behaved,” Bertrand said of the demonstrators. “When you look at the actual demographic cross section versus our opposition voice, it’s definitely a much younger demographic over here, so when you kind of look at it that way, I had people who showed up I hadn’t even talked to, friends of friends, it’s what happens when word of mouth gets out.”
Gender Pronouns Can Be Tricky on Campus. Harvard Is Making Them Stick. https://t.co/8UHKPSrokK
— FlaglerLive.com (@FlaglerLive) February 19, 2020
It was Bertrand’s son’s experience as a transgender student who’d felt disrespected by his chorus teacher at Matanzas High School that led to the debate and discussions on the issue over the past four months. (Abbey Cooke, a teacher, noted this evening that mis-indentifying a transgender person is a form of bullying.) It was growing community awareness and sympathy for the student that led to Cothran’s more incendiary appearances before the board, in almost solo dissent. The school board has yet to respond in policy. Its current proposal is cookie-cut from a state policy model, with no heed to local input.
This evening during the two demonstrations outside the building Bertrand walked over to Cothran, and the two spoke. “I just told her how much I respected her, because I respect anybody that wants to challenge my opinion, and it challenges me to be better in voicing it, it challenges me to be correct in my statements, it challenges me to do my research, so I respect that and I appreciate that, but I definitely don’t agree. And I don’t like the fact that she attacks my family whenever she gets the chance, calling my son a confused girl. But that’s how she plays it. I won’t play it, I’ll be respectful, I’ll let her know that I respect her.”
The bulk of the board meeting, which stretched well past 9 p.m., featured many of the people who’d demonstrated on both sides of the issue, though you could count Cothran’s acolytes on one hand. You would not have enough hands to count advocates for a more explicit school board policy protecting what Cooke summed up as one comma and two words that should be inserted in the wording of the current proposal: “gender identity.”
What seemed like a majority of the advocates who spoke were students, at least one of them in middle school, several of them transgender, some of them describing still-overtly discriminatory conditions, such as Matanzas High School’s positioning of two bathrooms for transgender students at a far distance from the students’ classes—a tactic reminiscent of the era of separate-but-equal accommodations, when the separate was always disproportionate to the equal. (Matanzas’s principal , Jeff Reaves, is a candidate for superintendent.) “The school board is complicit to any discrimination that happens to these students,” Cooke had said.
“I’m Alexander. That is who I am. I am not my dead name,” one student said, referring to his previous gender. “I am doing what I can do to be a man, and when I hear people say my dead name,” he said, as some faculty members–namely, substitute teachers who don’t quite know better yet– “it brings down my day.” Yet he said he still faces what feels like discrimination: “I have to make a walk of shame as I call it to the locker room,” he said, “having to walk somewhere where I shouldn’t be.” He added: “I’m not supposed to be in the girls’ locker room, and it feels wrong.”
Inside as outside, tempers were kept in check, statements to the board presented passionately, the occasional note of anger more eloquent than strident.
Board Chairman Janet McDonald acknowledged the civility of the evening’s discussion, and said the policy in question was still in debate, and could consider more input from the public. She then quoted Gregg Braden, a spiritualist, to illustrate a point about civility: “We are not accidents of evolution, we never were, and there’s science to prove it now. Darwin didn’t have that information available,” McDonald said. But aside from the Matanzas student board member briefly addressing the issue in what seemed like an endorsement of procedural rule making over actual changes in policy, the other board members kept the same 10-foot-tall distance from the policy proposal as they had from the demonstrators earlier.
The meeting ended at 9:40 p.m.