Florida School District under Attack by Anti-LGBTQ Organization
Teaching Tolerance published an article in fall of 2019 recounting the story of how a Pasco County school’s LGBTQ-inclusive policy came under attack by a conservative group known as Liberty Counsel. While it is based on a story from the previous year, it is an important and ongoing reminder of what is at stake for the trans community.
In the fall of 2018, Jackie Jackson-Dean, a school psychologist and the LGBTQ liaison for schools in Pasco County, Florida, helped to create LGBTQ inclusive guidelines for the district. Not long after, she came under fire from Liberty Counsel, a designated hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Malevolent messages started rolling in from strangers who found her personal information.
When the “best practices guide” was first created and initiated by Jackson-Dean and a committee of educators, there was no backlash. The controversy only started after a male gym teacher at Chasco Middle School refused to supervise a boy’s locker room where a trans boy would be changing out after having been given access to it. The gym teacher, Robert Oppedisano, claimed his job was under threat, despite the principal’s assertion that he had never threatened the teacher’s position and had instead recruited other teachers on campus to supervise the locker room in his place.
Nevertheless, Oppedisano sought the help of a conservative nonprofit organization that focuses on religious liberty known as Liberty Counsel. They immediately began spreading false information to right-wing news sites about the events that had occurred. They also threatened the school with lawsuits if they did not revoke the LGBTQ-inclusive policies it had established. Liberty Counsel’s supporters attended school board meetings where they attempted to delegitimize trans students’ identities, causing students to feel threatened.
Liberty Counsel regularly uses extreme anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and often compares queer people to pedophiles. Their website has a page about the Florida schools’ LGBTQ policies that describes those policies in prejudicial terms.
The Tampa Bay Times, the local NBC affiliate, and the Washington Times also covered the story. Otherwise, the only corporate media national coverage of this story was from Fox News, which was quite slanted. Fox News aired a segment on the story on November 20, Trans Day of Remembrance, and brought in the gym teacher, Robert Oppedisano, and the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, Mat Staver, for an interview hosted by Shannon Bream. As Media Matters for American recounted in a November 2018 report, both men and the Fox host repeatedly misgendered the trans student in question and used transphobic ideology when recounting their version of the events. Bream read off a few quotes from the educators at the school only for her to ask Oppedisano and Staver for their opinions on the matter, both of whom claimed the statements of the educators were lies. She failed to report on the toxic environment that Liberty Counsel and their supporters have been breeding at the schools and the real threat the trans students now face.
Source: Corry Collins, “They Didn’t Back Down,” Teaching Tolerance, Fall 2019, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2019/they-didnt-back-down.
Student Researcher: Robyn McDowell (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)
Review Article with Credder