Culture war comes to Asheville school board

Craig White and Ronald Gates
HEAD TO HEAD: Craig White, left, works for the Campaign for Southern Equality. Ronald Gates is a pastor of Asheville’s Greater Works Church of God in Christ. Screen capture courtesy of ACS

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.”

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11 thoughts on “Culture war comes to Asheville school board

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    wow, interesting stuff brewing ! So is Craig White working hard to push consolidation for equity, inclusion and diversity in ACS/BCS ? SPLC is the biggest HATE group of all !

  2. ThinkingPerson

    Please know that it’s not only Christians and right-wing people who don’t want to see propaganda and sexualization of children in education. There are many many of us who are lifelong leftists, who believe fervently in the rights of everyone, who are very suspect of the half-truths behind Critical Race Theory. We love trans people but no one has the right to force someone else to see them as they wish to be seen. Biology is real. We refuse to gaslight ourselves by calling a man a woman. We are against this agenda in schools. Truth is real. The tides are turning, and people refuse to go along with this anymore.

    • HendoHendo

      Very grateful that you are in the vast minority here. Please just stop with the “we love trans people, but…” BUT nothing. At least be honest with yourself about your unwillingness to accept folks for who and how they are.

      Thank you, Mr. White, for shining a light on the ADF and what their motives are here. They love to disguise themselves as “concerned parents” which is a total fraud and folks should know about it. Aint no time for hate in the 828!

      • ThinkingPerson

        Agreed, no time for hate. What if we could disagree about biology, and not be hated? Imagine. Imagine different persectives, without insults or hate. And no, we are in the vast majority. Just go look at a youtube video on the topic, where people are commenting anonymously, and notice what truths come to the fore when people aren’t being abused like on social media. You’ll see that people being forced to believe something, is not popular, and the vast majority of people on the planet, especially indigenous people, know perfectly well that if you want eggs, you need a hen. That’s not hate, it’s reality. I accept people as they are– not as they would like to be.

    • Richard B.

      We need more Thinking Persons.
      Our children, – and parents, – need more.
      Well stated.
      Thank you.

    • TrueProgressive

      There’s nothing “liberal” about you. Identify some of the half-truths behind CRT. Slavery, racism, bigotry? Gender nonacceptance? Those exist and need to be part of the educational system and discussions.

      • ThinkingPerson

        Agreed, those exist. What we don’t agree on is how it’s being taught and what’s the real agenda behind it.

    • kevin Lewis

      What are the half truths about critical race theory and where is it taught?

    • Dana yermish

      Unless you walk in their shoes you have no knowledge of the pain, bullying and feelings. Why would anyone choose to live such a hard life? Try a bit of compassion and empathy, educating yourself.

  3. ohiogurl

    Politicians are turning our schools into a culture war hellscape. Public school teachers are doing their best to catch kids up after the lost learning during the pandemic. They are working nights and weekends developing curricula, grading papers, attending meetings, and the like for a salary that won’t pay the rent in Asheville. In return for that, they are demonized–accused of being groomers, pedophiles, indoctrinators, and demagogues. Teachers in North Carolina public schools are not teaching critical race theory or sexualizing children–except in the eyes of politicians and extremists who don’t really believe in public schools. A preschool special needs teacher in Wake County resigned after a parent complained about flash cards depicting different kinds of families on her bulletin board and members of the NC General Assembly made her a target. It is no wonder that there were 4000 teacher vacancies in NC at the start of the school year. Politicians like these schemes because they cost them nothing. It’s easy to solve a manufactured problem. (I am not a teacher–I am a parent who believes that experts should make decisions about the education made available to ALL kids.) Parents can make their values clear at home.

    • ThinkingPerson

      Yes, so if kids are behind thanks to the deplorable shutdowns, best to leave values to families and stick to the crucial curriculum, math, science, etc. No one is blaming the teachers. It’s the curriculum in question here. There is no reason for a fourth grader to learn about sex, sexual orientation, etc. It’s not relevant to them. Families can teach values, different kinds of families, etc.

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