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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

After contentious meeting, New Hanover County school board reverses trans-athlete policy in split vote

LGTBQ advocates, conservative speakers, and Proud Boys at the Tuesday, February 7, 2023 New Hanover County Board of Education meeting.
Benjamin Schachtman
LGTBQ advocates, conservative speakers, and Proud Boys at the Tuesday, February 7, 2023 New Hanover County Board of Education meeting.

Last night, the New Hanover County Board of Education voted to ban transgender students from playing on middle school athletics teams based on their gender identity. The issue brought a larger-than-usual crowd to speak before the board and, at one point, brought the meeting to a halt.

The day before the meeting, the school district's sign-up system for the Call to the Audience was overwhelmed — the 30 available pre-registration spots filled up in three minutes, and 20 more people had registered before the system could be manually closed out.

At the beginning of Tuesday night's meeting, board members debated and ultimately agreed to hear all 50 speakers, plus five more who had signed up at the meeting itself, in two different sessions.

While a few speakers were there to discuss other issues — including the recent reporting by WECT that a School Resource Officer had briefly handcuffed a six-year-old child at the behest of a teacher — the majority were there to discuss one agenda item, Policy 3620. The board was considering new language that would only allow students to play middle-school sports in accordance with their birth certificate gender, effectively banning trans athletes from playing on the team of their choice, and also potentially outing them (for example, if a trans student were to suddenly stop playing immediately after the new policy was implemented).

Advocates, including Caroline Morin, executive director of the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast, called on the board to consider the ramifications of the vote — not just for the athletes involved, but for the psychological well-being of the broader community of queer students. Some conservative speakers questioned the fairness of allowing trans athletes, while others espoused more directly anti-trans opinions, in one case citing the Bible to reject the existence of gender identity as separate from 'sex at birth.'

Despite a heavier-than-normal law enforcement presence, the meeting was raucous and Chair Pete Wildeboer's pleas for calm were at times ineffective. The meeting was briefly paused as a member of the Proud Boys, a far-right neofascist group, was apparently escorted out.

In the meeting video, available below, a New Hanover County Sheriff's Office deputy can be seen speaking with one of the Proud Boys and then following him to the exit. According to an NHCSO spokesperson, "both sides" — meaning Proud Boys and LGBTQ advocates — were involved in verbal altercations, including one that continued outside of the building. NHCSO said there were no arrests or charges filed.

Lead up to the vote

The previous policy, passed in 2021, allowed those students to participate on whatever team they chose. While the district hasn't provided specifics, board member Hugh McManus said during the meeting that at least several transgender students are currently playing in accordance with their gender identity.

Several of the board's new Republican members — who ran on a slate of conservative issues — had been critics of the policy both prior to and after being elected. Incoming Vice Chair Pat Bradford introduced the issue last month as a 'procedural error,' claiming without convincing evidence that there had been issues with the 2021 vote. Board member Josie Barnhart expressed concerns that allowing trans athletes presented a fairness issue, citing in part her own experience as a coach.

Related: “Say it out loud”: NHC school board member criticizes attempt to scuttle trans-athlete policy over 'procedural error'

Board Member Melissa Mason went further, writing on her blog prior to the meeting that she had, “yet to meet a middle school age child who possesses the mental acuity or emotional maturity to determine the choice of their gender to such a degree that they can live with the consequences of that life-long decision," and again equating the district's handling of gender identity with grooming — that is, a prelude to sexual abuse. That argument seemed to resonate most directly with the two dozen or so members of the Proud Boys who attended Tuesday's meeting.

Effective date debate, vote

At the request of board member Stephanie Kraybill, the board went into a closed session for around 45 minutes prior to the vote to consult with its attorney.

While fine-tuning the language of the new policy, the issue of the effective date was raised by McManus. One of the board's two Democrats, McManus had not previously been outspoken on the trans athlete policy, but voiced concern about Bradford's suggestion that the new rule would take effect immediately. He noted that the transgender students currently playing in accordance with their gender identity would have to quit and turn in their uniforms "tomorrow."

"Is that really what we want to do?" McManus asked. "That's getting awfully low, folks. That's getting ..."

McManus didn't finish his sentence, but advocates in the crowd applauded the sentiment. Wildeboer later made a successful motion to delay the new policy to the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.

Walker and Kraybill also voiced concerns, saying that the policy change would violate Title IX law and open the school up to possible lawsuits. Walker further noted that there have been no complaints while the previous policy was in place.

Barnhart, who chairs the policy committee that oversaw potential changes to Policy 3620 voted to approve, saying she understood it was a difficult issue and arguing it wasn’t a political or religious decision. Barnhart said she didn’t want certain athletes to have an unfair advantage because of their biology — and suggested that the policy could have unintended consequences if it was allowed to remain unchanged.

In the end, the vote to rewrite the policy to only allow middle school athletes to play in accordance with their birth certificate passed 4-3, with McManus, Walker, and Kraybill dissenting.

Broadcast transcript

Ben Schachtman: Ok, Grace, this meeting had been a long time coming, and it certainly got people’s attention. So, before we get into the vote, let’s talk about the crowd – and the call to the audience.

Grace Vitaglione: Yeah, the day before the meeting, the school’s signup system got overloaded, and during the meeting board members eventually voted to allow an extra twenty people to speak. You were outside before the meeting; what was it like?

Ben: The crowd was there early – there were members of Moms for Liberty, that’s a conservative group that opposed trans kids in middle school sports, as well advocates like Caroline Morin from the LGBTQ Center, and Kelley Finch, a pastor who was there with several other faith leaders to support trans kids –

Grace: And the Proud Boys.

Ben: Yes, and about two dozen Proud Boys, that’s a far-right neofascist group that’s repeatedly shown up to events involving LGBTQ rights, as well as to public hearings on mask rules during Covid. Some I recognized from past events, some seemed to be new – and from out of town. Once we got inside, they all stood against the back wall, behind the media – they had signs and made a lot of noise but I don’t think they spoke publicly.

Grace: They didn’t, but there were plenty of speakers during the call to the audience opposing middle school trans athletes. Some were focused on fairness based on biology. Here’s Dr. John Zino, a part-time professor at UNC Wilmington.

Zino: “Certainly in most areas of life, a student's gender or biological sex should have no impact on their success outcomes. …However, it seems that there may be circumstances under which differences in biological sex could matter and could result in inequality for certain groups…I don't see how someone can rightly reject unequal treatment on the basis of skin color, and then turn around and permit unequal treatment on the basis of biological sex.”

There were also speakers who voiced concerns about safety in locker rooms. And some speakers who focused on their Biblical beliefs.

Ben: Yeah. I have talked to some LGBTQ advocates who understand concerns about safety – when it comes to elite sports. NC-Double-A. The Olympics. I think more people disagree when it comes to middle school kids. And the Biblical beliefs, well, there was one speaker who was essentially saying someone couldn’t be trans because that’s not how it is in the Bible. But it’s worth saying there were other faith leaders who disagreed…But let’s talk about the advocates.

Grace: Sure, there were lots of advocates for LGBTQ kids, but there was also a trans kid, who directly addressed board member Melissa Mason, who has been very outspoken against allowing trans athletes …

Kid: “Mrs. Mason, your campaign website states that you want your children to be kept safe and get a useful education at school. The fear you express for children is the fear I a transgender student face every single day. I asked you as an elected official, shouldn't you have the same level of worry for all students or are yours more important or better than students like me?”

Grace: Other advocates also pointed to the cruelty of the proposed timeline, which would have forced trans athletes to drop off the teams immediately – which could also out them. And several speakers noted that the change in policy could violate Title IX, that’s a federal law that protects people from gender discrimination, including trans people.

Ben: And some of those points were reiterated by board members who opposed the change, too. Also, I do want to quickly ask about the commotion that temporarily stopped the meeting – this happened after I left. According to the Sheriff’s office, this was an altercation between a Proud Boy and an LGBTQ advocate – you were there, did you see anything?

Grace: I think the simple explanation for this was it was a packed room, and so people were very close together. And from what I saw, one of the members of the Proud Boys got too close to an LGTBQ-plus advocate who was sitting very close to the Proud Boy. And they kind of escalated getting snippy with each other. And then that turned into a broader commotion between other people, surrounding audience members getting involved, yelling at each other, and then a Sheriff’s deputy kind of walked that member of the Proud Boys out – and then the audience members who had initially been involved also left.

Ben: Alright, and we have video of that in our article online, but, let’s fast forward to the vote. The board went into closed session and, when they came out, a decision came relatively quickly it looked like –

Grace: Yeah, there was really very little conversation, especially from the Republicans who wanted to ban the trans athletes, Pat Bradford and Melissa Mason. Josie Barnhart did speak, describing her safety concerns, and arguing that this wasn’t a political or religious decision.

Ben: Was there any pushback?

Grace: Democrat Hugh McManus did object specifically to the original plan to have this take place immediately, he said it was quote ‘pretty low.’ The board later agreed to have it take place at the beginning of the upcoming school year. And his fellow Democrat Stephanie Walker wanted the whole decision sent back to policy committee. Walker also raised concerns about a Title IX lawsuit. Potentially.

Ben: And Walker and McManus voted against, joined by Republican Stephanie Kraybill, who has also been critical of how the other four Republicans have gone about this. The vote passed, 4-3 — and there were a few speakers left at the end of the meeting – so they were, at that point, reacting to the vote?

Grace: Yes – most of them were advocates who were pretty disappointed. Here’s Veronica Mac-Laurin Brown, who some will remember as a school board candidate in the last election.

Veronica: I'm thinking of what it was for me as an African American, and grew up in a segregated south, where I was not even allowed to go to a library that was in 10 minutes of my house…When I sat there tonight, and I listened. Given my experiences, I felt that there was no humanity in that conversation.

Ben: Alright, well, Grace thanks for your reporting.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.
Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.