ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The first openly trans member of the school board in Asheville, North Carolina announced her resignation this week after persistent attacks from an anti-LGBTQ group.
Asheville City Board of Education member Peyton O’Conner made the announcement Monday after an anti-LGBTQ group made several appearances at meetings during public comment periods, repeatedly misgendering O’Conner, who is a transgender woman, and spreading homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.
O’Conner is the board’s first out trans member, and likely one of the only trans people to sit on a North Carolina school board, said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, to the best of his knowledge.
The Arizona-based group, Alliance Defending Freedom, which was identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016, was represented at school board meetings by local pastor Ronald Gates, who identified himself as an “ambassador” of the organization. Gates began speaking at ACS board meetings in October.
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On its website, the Alliance identifies itself as a “legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family.”
O’Conner said Dec. 5 she made the decision to resign following a “dust up” at the Nov. 16 board meeting.
Her Dec. 5 resignation was effective immediately. O’Conner was appointed to the board in March 2021. Her term was intended to last until 2024.
She noted at the meeting, and in a Facebook post made shortly after she announced her resignation, that this was part of a long-established playbook by the organization.
After making continued attacks, Gates will wait until he is censured, she said, and use it as leverage to create a lawsuit, and turn the district into “a circus.” She added, “this isn’t a guess, the ADF makes no attempt to hide its tactics.”
“In light of that, I’ve decided to step down, so that fight can hopefully be taken elsewhere. I didn’t come by that decision lightly,” she said at the Dec. 5 meeting.
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The strategy O’Conner noted was also mentioned by Craig White, supportive schools director with the Campaign for Southern Equality, who said the group was involved in several anti-LGBTQ court cases.
The lawsuits include recent action in Albemarle County, Virginia, after the alliance sued the school system in December 2021 on behalf of a group of parents who alleged the board’s anti-racism policy discriminates against students and creates a culture of hostility, according to reporting from The Daily Progress.
“Locally, everybody loses, and the ADF moves on to the next school district,” White said. “I believe there is no place for the ADF in Asheville.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘The dust up’ that led to Peyton O’Conner’s resignation
The “dust up” that led to O’Conner’s resignation happened at a Nov. 16 meeting, when Gates called out O’Conner for ripping up a letter given to board, which asked that parents, school board members and local clergy be informed if teachers plan to allow “indoctrination teaching” in the school system.
During Gates’ public comments, he repeatedly misgendered O’Conner. He was told not to “do that” by Chair James Carter and said this wasn’t the purpose of the public comment period.
O’Conner spoke up and asked Gates to “refrain from bigotry and hate speech,” telling him, “that is not my gender.”
Gates doubled down.
“We should be focusing on reading, writing, (arithmetic) and history, true history, instead of sexual immorality or indoctrination or CRT,” Gates said. “…The individual that took time to rip up that information is not known, as you reflect it, as ‘Miss.’ I will say ‘Mr.’ if the blood was drawn XY, which is a male.”
At this, interim Superintendent Jim Causby can be heard repeating, “No” in the background. After Gates left the podium, audio of the meeting cut out and a police officer could be seen ushering Gates and his supporters out of frame.
‘Something needs to change’
In an interview after her resignation with the Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network, O’Conner said situations like this only make things more difficult for LGBTQ youths in the school system.
“Queer youth are already swimming upstream, in a lot of ways. Just, basically, seeing adults debate their validity, I don’t think is a good look. It’s definitely not something that I think fosters an inclusive school system,” O’Conner said.
“They’re already seeing so much rhetoric on a national level, that I just really hated to see that brought to Asheville.”
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In her time on the board, O’Conner said this was the first very visible anti-LGBTQ campaign being pushed directly at them, though it’s not a new narrative in many area school districts across the country.
“The biggest thing is that the students, staff and families need to see really positive examples of allyship. And it’s clear that the queer community alone isn’t going to be able to take on all this, we do need allyship that is assertive and aggressive, and willing to push back on some of this messaging,” O’Conner said.
“This is a pretty common incident, but given the totality of things … I think it should be informative that something needs to change.”
O’Conner said this was the “nail in the coffin” for her family, in a lot of ways, and they will “take a step back” from politics. She said they intend to “simplify” and move to Madison County.
According to spokesperson Dillon Huffman, Asheville City Council will appoint someone to fill O’Conner’s seat, since she was originally appointed by council.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. firstname.lastname@example.org