BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – A transgender student, in tears, described the beatings and harassment he faced from classmates at Fannin County High School. But that didn't stop a crowd of hundreds from cheering on other speakers who called LGBT people "perverts" and "pedophiles" that threaten the safety of students.
The emotional testimony came Thursday as Fannin County in North Georgia became the latest flashpoint in the debate over LGBT equality. More than 300 people filled the high school cafeteria, with hundreds more watching in a nearby gym, to speak out during the Fannin County Board of Education meeting. Residents were outraged over rumors that the school system was going to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity rather than their gender at birth.
Scores of parents rallied on Monday to decry the idea. On Thursday, they met at First Baptist Church in Blue Ridge and then marched to the high school to air their grievances. The school system moved the meeting from its offices to the school cafeteria to accommodate the overflowing crowd. Scores of sheriff's deputies and Blue Ridge police officers were on hand.
Some 50 people spoke during a public comment session that lasted nearly three hours. They included local pastors, parents, school system employees, students and a handful of LGBT residents who offered support for students like Xavier Eaton. The 2012 graduate of Fannin High described the torment he experienced as a transgender student at the school.
"I was beaten up more than once. I never said anything. There was no one there who understood what I was going through. I did it alone," Eaton (top photo) said. "Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean you can't accept it or coexist."
"I am not here to get an uproar or clapping and hurrays. I am here to let every student know that if you are transgender and you are scared, I am here. I will be there for you. I may be transgender, but I am also a Christian. And my God tells me that everyone's life matters. Everyone's," he added.
'Perverts is what they are'
Despite Eaton's emotional comments, the crowd – and all but a handful of the speakers – were overwhelmingly hostile to transgender students. Religion played a heavy part as most speakers prefaced their comments with "I am a Christian" before launching into anti-LGBT tirades, threatening to pull their children out of the school system and working for the ouster of the current five-member school board.
Anthony Walden (second photo), a parent, said allowing transgender students to use the restroom of their choice is part of a "socialist, liberal, godless ideology" that is threatening public education and has forced the teaching of evolution, the removal of Christian prayer, and the introduction of "the homosexual agenda." He also said mental health educators are pushing to decriminalize "adult child sex" and he compared LGBT people to pedophiles.
"Just as they say homosexual and transgendered have no choice, they say minor attracted individuals – they call them MAI – are genetically wired to want to have sex with children. Afterward, this will be OK," Walden said. "Will the board hire MAI or pedophiles to teach our children?"
"Parents are forced to send their kids into a system that minimizes their faith. When a homosexual or transgender child asks another child do you believe in my lifestyle, can the child that is Christian say that it is wrong according to their faith and not end up going to the office," Walden added.
Walden is a Fannin County Sheriff's Deputy and resource officer at the county's middle school. He ginned up the controversy in recent weeks and led concerned parents during a meeting on Sunday at Powerhouse Grill and again on Monday. On Thursday, he warned that it's time for Christians to "say enough."
"We say safety is the number one concern for our schools. If we accept this, will our kids be safer? Will it promote a more vibrant educational environment? There is now way this can be true. It's a delusion," Walden said.
"A man who thinks he is a woman fits this definition clearly," he added. "It is past time to say enough."
Allowing transgender students to choose their restrooms and locker rooms will lead to the invasion of privacy of other students and sexual assaults, he said.
"Perverts is what they are – in with our daughters and wives in these restrooms across our cities and our nations," Walden added.
"We have come to the point in America that every immorality is acceptable and every moral conviction is now bigotry," he said.
'What would Jesus do?'
Austin Bryson (third photo), a 2014 graduate of Fannin High, questioned how Walden could serve all students as a sheriff's deputy and school resource officer while castigating LGBT ones.
"You say that you place your job not first but say your beliefs should come first," Bryson said as he was interrupted by applause from the audience. "That makes me very wary how he would handle and do his job."
Matthew McDaniel, a pastor at First Baptist Church, criticized allowing transgender students to select their bathroom as "a moral violation of God's word" and urged school board members to turn to faith to find a biblical resolution.
"Ask the question what would Jesus have me do in this situation," McDaniel said. "We need to stand on God's truth in this perverse situation."
Several speakers said they support all of the nearly 3,200 students in the county school system, before then explaining that they "oppose this transgender policy."
"Before you label me as a bigot, I don't care about that. I am here for the kids. I am not against anybody. I am here for the kids," Darin Ledford said. "We can't expose our children to this type of environment."
Many of the speakers boiled the issue down to "men in women's bathrooms," a parroting of rhetoric from anti-LGBT conservative groups that used it to defeat an equal rights ordinance in Houston last November and to unsuccessfully oppose a similar measure passed in Charlotte earlier this year. Those LGBT protections were quickly overturned by North Carolina lawmakers with the passage of House Bill 2, which has embroiled the state in controversy and lawsuits. It bans cities from passing ordinances that allow transgender people from using the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
Ken Fletcher, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, told the crowd that transgender students face a higher risk of suicide and that they should lead them back to their birth gender.
"I just want to let you know that with this situation you are facing in Fannin County, the culture is not helping. What the media and Hollywood is throwing at our kids, we are going to see more people with gender dysphoria and gender confusion in the years to come," Fletcher said. "That's why we want to help them so they don't lead a life of heartbreak."
Fletcher's group fights LGBT equality efforts across the country with lawsuits and lobbying. It helped challenge the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in court and is suing the City of Atlanta in federal court over the firing of former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. He was fired in January 2015 over his anti-gay, misogynist and anti-Semitic book.
Pickup trucks, fish and offensive comparisons
The public comments on Thursday were peppered with clumsy – and offensive – comparisons attempting to equate gender identity to truck bumpers, fish and the legal drinking age.
Quinn Leach (fourth photo), a 16-year-old student at the high school, said the he often feels 21 and questioned if he could pick his age like transgender students select their gender so he could legally drink.
"Because you feel different, do you really need to use an opposite sex bathroom," Leach said. "I feel like I am 21 but I am 16. Because I feel 21, can I drink now? If you feel different about yourself, this should not be a big deal. Our society now is crashing. Our generation is going to destroy this country."
John Acuff, a 1998 Fannin High graduate, dismissed transgender people as just "having a feeling" and compared them to his pickup truck.
"I drive a Ford pickup. If I take the bumper off of it and I take the hood off of it and I put a Chevrolet bumper and Chevrolet hood on it, is it a Chevrolet? No it is not," Acuff said.
Corey Parks said transgender people violate the laws of nature.
"Some fish change their gender. 'Jurassic Park' told us dinosaurs can too. But we know by natural law that humans cannot. Just because you put on a different dress or slacks and comb your hair out does not make you a man or woman," Parks said.
"Health class in school teaches us the reproductive organs of a man and woman. Now we're supposed to let our kids figure that out in the bathroom? That is not right," he added.
LGBT residents stand up, speak out
But not all of the nearly 50 speakers offered their spin on Christian values, offensive stereotypes and transphobia. A handful of LGBT-friendly and gay residents also spoke out.
Dixie Carter, a clinical social worker who lives in Fannin County, expressed support for transgender students and their families.
"My primary purpose is to express support for the transgender youth and families in Fannin County and to let them know there are people in this county that care about you and accept you as who you are," Carter said. "So let us resist the fear-based messages and seek to understand each other and treat each other with kindness and compassion as we go forth."
Sandy Lane urged the crowd to do a better job of listening to people who support LGBT students.
"We don't want to hear what anyone else has to say. We can get to the solution if we talk with each other and learn from each other. I would like to see us get to the point that parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children could speak to the parents of straight children. There are solutions to these problems and schools are finding them all over the country," Lane said.
Connie Galloway, a lesbian and lifelong Fannin County resident, thanked the board members for adhering to federal law, which dictates that transgender students are to be protected from discrimination.
"The laws are put in place to protect all children and I thank you for following the law," Galloway said.
Joyce Pruett (fifth photo), who described herself as a lesbian Christian raised by a Southern Baptist minister, questioned the faith of speakers who made disparaging remarks and cherry-picked specific Bible verses to support their arguments while ignoring others.
"I didn't hear anything Christ like come out of your mouth. What you meant to say is that you want to pray for this board to do what I want them to do. They have to follow the law folks," Pruett said.
Pruett picked apart the arguments of many speakers who dismissed the issue as "boys going into the girls restroom."
"That is not what is happening. The fact is that when it comes to transgenders, you could have had a whole line of them come up here and you wouldn't have known it. When a transgender female to male walks into a boy's bathroom, he walks in looking like a boy. Please educate yourselves and remember these are babies we are talking about," she added.
Pruett also offered this quip about the irony of the obese speakers who quoted Scripture to justify their transphobia while ignoring what the Bible says about gluttony: "You cast the first stone before you pick up that pork chop."
'There has been no action taken'
The controversy over transgender students in Fannin County boiled over after apparently simmering for weeks. But the board has taken no steps to warrant the public thrashing organized by Walden, the sheriff's deputy and school resource officer. School board attorney Lynn Doss issued a forceful defense on Thursday and dismissed the public anger as a result of misinformation.
"We all want what is best for all of our children regardless of their sexual orientation," Doss said. "As we stand here tonight, I have heard people say don't vote on this and you've had secret meetings."
But the board is not considering a proposal to create unisex bathrooms in the school district, she said. If they were, the proposal would be published on the school system's website and discussed by the board during public meetings.
"Right now, there is nothing for this board to vote on," Doss said. "There has been no action taken by this board and there will be no action taken by this board without your knowledge."
What the board did do is publicly explain its approach to transgender students and what actions they must take under federal law. If they don't follow those guidelines, Doss said, the district could face the loss of nearly $3.5 million in federal funds, an investigation and fines. Several speakers urged the school board to give up the federal funding and reject the transgender protections.
"No amount of money can make this OK," Walden said. "There are some things more valuable that we can't surrender at any cost. You cannot serve God and money."
On Friday, the Obama administration issued a sweeping directive to public school districts across the country mandating that they allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. The measure is not law but school districts that don't follow it could face lawsuits or the loss of federal funds. The guidelines also call for schools to provide access to all programs to transgender students, refer to them by their chosen names and pronouns, put in place safeguards to keep their gender identity private and respond to reports of harassment.
Doss said that current federal guidelines also prevent the district from providing a unisex bathroom for transgender students.
"If you identify differently than the sex with which you were born, you have options. But the federal government said you can't apply logic because that is discrimination against somebody. We are being told that is not good enough," Doss said. "Having accommodating bathrooms, which makes sense to a lot of us, the federal government has said no."
House Speaker David Ralston calls for action
Doss urged the crowd to contact their elected officials to lobby them to take action on the issue. And that's already happening. People in the school cafeteria received a packet of information – the board meeting agenda, a 9-point explanation of how the board approaches transgender students, a list of contact information for elected officials, and a letter from state House Speaker David Ralston.
Ralston, the powerful Republican leader whose district includes Blue Ridge, urged U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue to take action.
"Using the power of the purse strings to being about such change is, in my opinion, a vast overreach of federal authority and one that must not go unchallenged. I recognize that there are no easy answers. But decisions on issues such as this should be left to the locally-elected school boards and should be free of threats and coercion of the federal government," Ralston said in the letter.
Ralston is running for re-election and faces a conservative opponent. His letter may be a hint that state lawmakers will take up the issue when they return to the State Capitol in January. A leading anti-gay lawmaker threatened as much on Monday.
Editor's note: The comments of Anthony Walden in the story above have been clarified and amplified. Watch his full comments during the board meeting: