How about we stop targeting LGBT kids for religious bullying?

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I work as a crisis counselor for a non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBT youth. I started as a volunteer in 2017, then part-time at the beginning of 2018, and now full time. Between that experience, a couple years teaching middle school, and a difficult high school experience of my own, I’ve learned a great deal about bullying, and about how bullies operate. It appears that the St. Mary’s County Commissioners don’t have quite the same familiarity. Their comments about LGBT people and their actions toward any LGBT-inclusive events in the county have, inadvertently I hope, encouraged bullying of the most vulnerable members of our community.

The first incident was when the Lexington Park Library attempted to provide inclusive and medically accurate sex ed for teens. This event required parental permission, so it was already available only to teenagers with parental permission. It would have been very simple and very easy for people who objected to it to simply not send their children. Instead, they whipped up a controversy based largely on the presenter’s sexual orientation, and bullied the library into cancelling the event.

At the library board of trustees meeting, one opponent of the class went so far as to sprinkle holy water on the speakers, one of whom was an LGBT teen. Implying that there’s something evil or unholy about LGBT people is nothing new, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less traumatic for the teenager being singled out for harassment.

At that point the Southern Maryland Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) rented meeting rooms at the library to host the event privately. Library meeting rooms are open to any business, individual, or non-profit group, regardless of their content. Church groups are more than welcome to use the space to provide religiously based sex ed, and one group did just that.

But this still wasn’t enough. Protests continued, to the extent that a police presence was required for the safety of the teenagers in attendance. Volunteers had to put paper over the windows as protesters tried to observe what teens had been promised was a safe space for their questions about sex.

One of these religious bullies, 56-year-old Katherine Crank, attempted to harass those teenagers and violate their privacy by lying about her age to get into the teens only portion of the event.

I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize how inappropriate this was. Sex is an embarrassing subject for many people, teens and adults alike. At the same time, young people deserve accurate information about sex to be able to make informed decisions both now and as adults. (Incidentally, teens who receive accurate sex education tend to delay having sex, as opposed to those who receive “abstinence only” education, so teaching teens about sex is not about encouraging them to actually have sex at younger ages.)

In a perfect world, every teenager would feel comfortable asking any possible question they might have about sex to a parent, a school nurse, or a health teacher. But the reality is that a lot of teens are mortified by the idea of asking their parents a sex question (and a lot of parents are equally mortified by the questions). So young people get questionable information from random friends, siblings, or the Internet. So, a sex ed class taught by a traveling presenter is a perfect opportunity to ask those embarrassing questions, with no parents present, and get an accurate answer.

Kathleen Crank, an adult who opposed the event, felt that she had the right to violate the privacy of those young people by listening in on the questions they couldn’t bring themselves to ask their parents. She was arrested, but charges were dropped. To my knowledge, there were also no charges against the people peeking in the windows.

For the Drag Queen Story Hour, the bullying escalated, partly spurred by Commissioner Todd Morgan’s inaccurate and inflammatory comment that these events were “targeting the kids for sexuality.” There was no sexual content in the Drag Queen Story Hour, but because being anything other than straight is so heavily stigmatized, Commissioner Morgan was able to imply that children were being groomed or targeted for something sexual merely by being in the presence of a drag performer wearing make-up. Gay, bi, and trans kids hear this kind of language and it affects them. Their straight classmates also hear it, and they know they’ve been given the green light to bully those kids whose very existence is deemed inappropriate.

Ashley Morgan, who disrupted the story hour, heard the message loud and clear. After being told the event hadn’t started yet, he ran into the room to scream at children about “lies being told by men in dresses.” A number of the children were crying. Morgan was the only bully to actually be convicted, and he served ten days in jail for trespassing.

While the Commissioners at least paid lip service to denouncing Morgan’s behavior, they rewarded it heavily when they removed over $2400 from the library’s budget to pay for the police oversight that Morgan and protesters like him necessitated.

Bullies enjoy displays of power over people weaker and more vulnerable than them. Screaming at a room of pre-school and early elementary kids who had showed up to hear a story is the act of a bully.

The absolute worst response to a bully is to give them power, but the St. Mary’s County Commissioners handed Morgan, Crank, and others like them, a heckler’s veto. If they want to prevent organizations from having equal access to library space, all they have to do is create a big enough uproar. Attempting to lie their way into an event wasn’t enough, but terrorizing children seemed to do the trick. Imagine how much more control they’ll have over private events if next time they decide to punch a speaker or throw something other than holy water.

The fact that this heckler’s veto encourages religious bullies to target children should be enough on its own. But more than that, it’s illegal, and it’s setting the county or the library up for a costly lawsuit. PFLAG and American Atheists have sent a letter to the county commissioners asking them to return the money to the library and notifying them that they will seek a legal remedy if they do not. The Maryland Attorney General has also informed Delegate Crosby, via a public letter, that the Commissioners’ actions are “Constitutionally problematic.”

The county government cannot silence speech simply because it’s controversial, even the justification is to prevent illegal behavior by opponents of the speech. The term “heckler’s veto” was coined by Harry Kalven, a University of Chicago law professor, and it refers to any time the government gives a private citizen the ability to unilaterally silence speech by objecting to it. By essentially fining the library for holding an LGBT-friendly event, the County Commissioners have given the anti-gay bullies a powerful heckler’s veto.

One thing that the Commissioners don’t seem to understand about bullies is that they’re constantly pushing to see what they can get away with. Give them your lunch money, and they’ll see if they can get your phone or your backpack too. Give them power to prevent the library from holding LGBT-friendly events, or from even allowing independent organizations to rent space for them, and what’s the next step? Stop the secular humanists from holding any events in public spaces? Protest if PFLAG holds a barbecue in a park? Verify that everyone reserving library meeting space is a straight, cis Christian? That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but taking money from the library because someone saw fit to harass children for attending an event he didn’t agree with is also monumentally ridiculous.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt claimed, incorrectly, that “We don’t see this kind of things coming out of Charles and Calvert.” On the contrary, I can name LGBT-friendly events held at public spaces in both Charles and Calvert County that I personally have attended within the last year or two. Libraries in Charles County routinely celebrate Pride Month with no issue. If Calvert and Charles are able to allow these events without incident, perhaps the problem isn’t the events, but the protesters who insist on their right to cancel any event they don’t like, even if they have to break the law to do so.

The taxpayers who paid for those rooms when they were built and continue to pay for them to be heated, cooled, cleaned and maintained deserve fair and equal access to them. Any individual or group, regardless of their sexuality, gender, or political or religious affiliation, should be able to rent library space, without the library being forced to weigh the choice between a lawsuit if they discriminate illegally and another financial penalty from the commissioners if they refuse to discriminate. And any non-profit group should have access to free meeting space, as per the library’s policy, regardless of how popular or unpopular they are with the county’s religious bigots.

LGBT people are full and equal citizens, and we deserve all the same rights as our straight neighbors. LGBT kids are already at an increased risk of bullying, mental health issues, and suicide. They deserve to be supported and fully accepted for who they are. They deserve something as simple and innocent as being able to go to an inclusive event, have fun, and be accepted, without being screamed at by bullies. Their straight, cisgender classmates deserve the same. Moreover, their straight, cis peers need to see their LGBT classmates treated equally. They need to see bullying shut down when it occurs, both so they can feel safe and accepted and so they understand that it’s not acceptable behavior.

The St. Mary’s County Commissioners have the opportunity to do the right thing by returning the money to the library. If they feel the Sheriff’s Office needs a special budget to respond to potentially controversial events, they can allocate money for that purpose. Pulling the money from the library is short-sighted. Will the county also pull money from the Parks & Recreation budget if a protest, rally, or LGBT-inclusive picnic is deemed “controversial?” County government should not ask the library to choose between illegally discriminating based on the content of speech and cancelling every Girl Scout, Toastmaster’s, or HOA meeting currently scheduled and letting the meeting rooms sit empty. They should not make LGBT people the scapegoat, when the real issue is religious intolerance and bullying.

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