The bold rainbow stripes of the gay pride flag and the pastel pinks, whites and blues of the transgender pride flag brightened the T-shirts and signs of a crowd of about 30 advocates for transgender rights at a demonstration outside the county’s Government Services Building before a School Board meeting Feb. 18.
Some of the youthful demonstrators’ faces were adorned with heart-shaped gay pride and trans pride stickers. They sang — among other tunes, “We Are Family,” the Sister Sledge song that has become a gay community anthem —and held up signs: “You are welcome here” and “Don’t give up.”
Across from them, near the building’s entrance, about a dozen people with Bibles and with pamphlets condemning homosexuality and transgender identity chanted slogans, at one point through a bullhorn.
"With the exclusion of gender identity as protected, the School Board is complicit in any discrimination or harassment that occurs to those students, because your silence speaks volumes."
— ABBEY COOKE
Charlene Cothran, the group’s organizer and a local pastor, said transgender identity is dangerous and associated with heightened suicide rates, and that by supporting one transgender student, the district would be increasing the likelihood that more students would identify as transgender.
“I want children to know that being gay is not the same as being black or Jewish,” she said. “Homosexuals can change.” Cothran said that she had previously identified as a lesbian.
The opposing sides have formed over recent weeks in comments offered during School Board meetings.
Randy Bertrand, the father of a local transgender teen who is transitioning from female to male, has spoken during the board meetings’ public comment periods to press the district to add gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in the district’s anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies. Bertrand helped organize the pro-trans rally.
Cothran has repeatedly opposed him, urging the School Board during public comment not to add protections for transgender students. As she did so, she repeatedly referred to Bertrand’s transgender son — who identifies as a boy — by female pronouns, called the teen a girl, called him confused and mentally ill and insisted that he would change his mind about being transgender.
Holding a sign in the pro-LGBT gathering was Cynthia Hairston, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Palm Coast Counseling. Her sign read, “Supporting students’ rights to be free to be who they are.”
Hairston has counseled transgender people who are transitioning from one gender to another. When transgender people transition, Hairston said, “My experience has been that folks are profoundly happy” afterward.
“The road to happiness is being true to who you are at your core,” she said. “As a Christian, my Bible tells me not to judge others lest I be judged. I take the word of God very seriously.”
"I urge you not to add gender identity to the School Board policy. This is not going to protect transgender students — if there is such a thing, and I don’t believe there is such a thing as transgender students. ... It’s going to create more transgender-thinking students."
— CHARLENE COTHRAN
The two sides sang and chanted outside for about an hour before filing into the building for the 6 p.m. board meeting — where, combined with residents who were there for other topics, they packed the chambers.
More than a dozen people, including district students, spoke in favor of protections for trans students. A handful of people spoke against.
Flagler Palm Coast High School student Alexander Helman said he was “appalled and saddened” over the issue.
“There’s a problem regarding the issue of transgender tolerance at school,” he said. “Only religious reasons have been cited as reasons as for why these students should be discriminated against.”
He then read a statement he said was from a clinical social worker who works with transgender patients and had written that trans people’s high rates of suicide attempts are primarily the result of social stigma and rejection, and that the greatest protective favor is an affirming environment.
Robin Lacey, a local parent, said that unfair treatment of any student concerned her.
“We entrust our precious children to you to educate, support and keep safe — all of them, absolutely regardless of heir gender identity,” she said. “That should be clear in the policy.”
Cothran told the board that adding gender identity to the school district policy “is not going to protect transgender students — if there is such a thing, and I don’t believe there is such a thing as transgender students. No boy has ever turned into a girl. No girl has ever turned into a boy. ... It’s not going to protect the transgender students, it’s going to create more transgender-thinking students.”
She added, “A child can’t even make up their mind what color socks to put on with the right color pants, and they’re diagnosing themselves?”
When she was a 13-year-old, she said, she thought she wanted to be a boy.
“And thankfully, yes, I met Jesus Christ,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to say that in the public square. That’s part of the reason why our schools are suffering, our communities are suffering, from not being able to say that there is an absolute truth.”
One man, Mark Nelson, said he is in ministry in Volusia County, said he had lived as a gay man and had experienced gender dysphoria before being diagnosed with AIDS in 2008.
“Organs failing, on my death bed, I cried out to Jesus,” he said. “In an instant my life changed. I no longer had same-sex attraction. I no longer had gender dysphoria.” He’s now been married to a woman for 12 years, he said. “Change is possible, but it takes a radical encounter with the cross and Jesus Christ crucified. There’s no other way around it.”
Abbey Cooke, a local teacher, said the transgender advocates were not asking for special treatment. All the district needs to do to protect them, she said, is add “comma, gender identity” to its existing policy.
“We just want to make sure that all students are actually protected,” she said. “With the exclusion of gender identity as protected, the School Board is complicit in any discrimination or harassment that occurs to those students, because your silence speaks volumes.”
She quoted from someone she did not name, but identified as a mental health proponent in the school system. “She states, ‘Imagine being denied your personhood by the very people who are meant to be safe, unbiased, and tasked with your welfare, for up to eight hours or more of your day. ... It is not just a denial of a name or pronoun, it is a denial of your entire existence, and it is more damaging than you can possibly know.’”