Although the Buncombe County Board of Education has played host in recent years to battles over cultural issues, including critical race theory and sexuality education, such conversations have largely been absent from Asheville’s school district. That changed during recent meetings of the Asheville City Board of Education.
The school board’s agenda for its Nov. 16 meeting contained nothing on those topics, but two people speaking during public comment revealed brewing tensions. Craig White, the supportive schools director for the Asheville-based nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality, said an out-of-state conservative activist group was working to foment division in the district around LGBTQ issues.
White claimed that the Arizona-based nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as a hate group in 2016, disrupts school boards around the country and had now come to Asheville. (According to the ADF’s website, the organization is “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights and God’s design for marriage and family.”)
“The activist branch of the ADF works behind the scenes, but I have seen their efforts in Wake County, Orange County and Loudoun County, Virginia,” White said. “Their pattern is to send in two or more organizers to provide anti-LGBTQ talking points and strategies to the local faith community, targeting the local school board, knowing that the LGBTQ+ community will be drawn into the conflict. Locally, everybody loses, and the ADF moves on.”
Following White was Ronald Gates, pastor of Asheville’s Greater Works Church of God in Christ, who identified himself as a “local ambassador” for the ADF. Gates began his comments by asserting that school board member Peyton O’Conner “disrespectfully, unprofessionally ripped up” a document that Gates had shared with the board during the Oct. 10 school board meeting. Gates proceeded to misgender O’Conner, who is a transgender woman, several times while speaking.
“We should be focusing on reading, writing, [arithmetic] and history, true history, instead of sexual immorality or indoctrination or CRT,” Gates said Nov. 16. “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.”
“Mr. Gates, I will ask that you refrain from bigotry and hate speech. That is not my gender,” O’Conner responded, moments before board Chair James Carter asked Gates to cease his comments.
Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, O’Conner confirmed that she did rip up a letter provided by Gates after he’d finished speaking Oct. 10. She shared a photo of the document, which asked that parents, school board members and local clergy be informed if teachers plan to allow “indoctrination” through “gender-person/unicorn sex education targeting K-3rd grade” or gender-affirming therapy for trans students.
O’Conner said that, as a trans woman married to a woman, she found Gates’ comments to be “nothing short of bigotry and hate speech, particularly given that they invalidated not only myself but the entire LGBTQIA+ community within Asheville City Schools. … I felt that it was important that LGBTQIA+ constituents did not watch Mr. Gates’ acts of structural violence simply pass without reaction or response.”
Gates’ letter said that at least 80 churches and associations are collaborating with the AFD and that he was one of two ambassadors for the organization. It did not clarify how many of those organizations and people were based in Asheville; Gates did not return an Xpress request for comment.
White, meanwhile, told Xpress after the meeting that he was unsure of the extent of ADF’s local presence in Asheville or what other faith leaders may be working with the organization. However, he maintained that the AFD’s aim is to “sow discord in communities” around issues involving LGBTQ youth.
“My intention [Nov. 16] was to help the school board and community understand who this far-right extremist group is and remind my own neighbors that we are able to work through our local issues here locally,” White explains. “We don’t need outsider groups like ADF forcing an extreme conservative ideology around LGBTQ students and inclusion here.”