Hillsborough School Board delays gender expression vote, citing fears of combative meeting

Photo illustration: Gay, lesbian and transgender activists at a demonstration in 2009. [David Greedy | Getty Images]
Photo illustration: Gay, lesbian and transgender activists at a demonstration in 2009. [David Greedy | Getty Images]
Published June 28, 2016

TAMPA — Faced with the prospect of religious leaders lining up again to blast them on transgender rights, Hillsborough County School Board members have taken the discussion off the table.

A policy revision that would add the phrase "gender expression" to a list of protections against harassment and bullying will not be considered, as originally planned, at today's 3 p.m. board meeting.

In the meantime, the district is taking steps to educate school leaders in matters affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

"Our focus is on our students," said T.G. Taylor, chief community relations officer. "Our No. 1 priority is preparing them for life, and establishing procedures that will enable all students to get an education in a safe and fair environment."

The phrase "gender expression" was suggested in January by board member Cindy Stuart, who wanted to strengthen existing policies that ban discrimination based on race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation. The existing policy also mentions gender identity, which is related to, but not the same as, gender expression.

Gender identity is a person's "innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither — how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves," according to Gender Spectrum, a California-based nonprofit that consults and offers training on gender issues.

Gender expression, according to the group, "refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice and other forms of presentation."

In a letter last week to superintendent Jeff Eakins, Stuart said she had wanted the board to make "a very public show of support for a group of students who often have no support."

Citing statistics from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, Stuart wrote, "Seventy-five percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school and often have lower grade point averages" because harassment interferes with their studies.

"Nine out of 10 transgender students report being verbally harassed, and more than half report being physically assaulted because of their status. The most upsetting statistic is that 42 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide."

The board discussed the policy at a workshop in April. Not long afterward, the Obama administration issued a directive that public schools must accommodate transgender students' preference in restrooms.

The district responded with assurances that it will continue to respect all students as it works to comply with the federal instructions. "We are ensuring that we are in line with existing laws and directives," Taylor said.

But, as the date of the policy vote approached, opposition mounted.

Terry Kemple, a conservative Christian activist who twice ran unsuccessfully for the School Board, led a group of pastors who blasted the revised policy at the June 14 board meeting and vowed to retaliate politically against anyone who voted for it.

Stuart said she wanted to postpone the discussion, in part, because area families are mourning the loss of 49 lives in the June 12 shootings at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

"Forcing members of the community to endure what promises to be a contentious public hearing about a deeply important matter seems unfair and certainly not timely," she wrote in her letter to Eakins. "We need calm. These kids deserve to have this policy considered at a time and place where they will not be subject to further abuse."

Stuart was also concerned that one of the board members would be away on vacation. "I want to give all the board members an opportunity to say yea or nay on this," she said Monday.

It's unclear when the subject will be revisited, if ever. Stuart said it's not likely to happen before November, when at least two new board members will be sworn in.

It's not clear how the board would have voted today.

Kemple said that he was prepared to have 1,000 supporters present and that the pastors who spoke on June 14 represented more than 20,000 potential voters.

"It's an election year," said Jennifer Morley, Greater Tampa chairwoman of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been at odds with the district this year over its relationships with Christian organizations. "I think they're silencing the conversation, and that's a problem."

At the same time, Morley said the law and public opinion are rapidly changing where gay and transgender rights are concerned, and the district's actions are what matter most. "They're going to protect all students, whether they have it in policy or not," she said.

Of the seven board members, two — Stuart, who represents north Hillsborough, and Susan Valdes, whose district spans the northwest and Town 'N Country — are running for re-election. Stuart faces Alicia Toler; Valdes is being challenged by Bill Person.

Like Morley, Kemple had mixed feelings about the reversal. It showed his campaign was effective, he said. But he is aware the change was largely symbolic, and district staffers — absent direction from the board — are moving to satisfy the Obama directive.

His supporters will not back down, he said. "We want to make sure that a biological, anatomical boy who thinks he's a girl, no matter how long he has thought that, cannot go into the girls' shower," he said. "We want gender identity removed from the policy. We want sexual orientation removed."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.