‘We are not a threat, we’re just people’
South Carolina’s governor censored an essay by a trans teenager. Here’s what he has to say.
At the start of 7th grade, Leo Lipson emailed his teachers letting them know about a change in his pronouns.
Several years later, writing about his experience growing up transgender in New York, Leo had this to say:
When I asked my teachers for help, they told me I needed to teach my classmates about gender. I thought, “Aren’t you supposed to be the teacher?” I guess they saw gender as my thing, something they couldn’t explain.
Leo’s essay, “I Am Leo,” ran in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Scholastic’s Choices magazine, a classroom publication for grades 7-12. It was a fine personal essay that broke down a complicated subject in simple terms.
As far as I can tell, Leo’s article didn’t make many waves until Sept. 9, 2022, when a substitute physical education teacher at a public middle school on James Island, South Carolina, handed out copies of the article to a class (it might have been the entire magazine issue; I’m not certain based on local news reports). The teacher also handed out a worksheet of questions testing students’ basic comprehension. It was an ungraded assignment.
Eleven days later, the assignment earned an official rebuke and press release from the Republican governor of South Carolina.
“I call on [Charleston County School District]’s Board of Trustees to take action immediately to prohibit these types of instructional materials from being distributed or utilized in the classroom without parents’ knowledge and consent,” Gov. Henry McMaster wrote in an open letter to the school board chair on Sept. 20.
Here we had the highest elected official in South Carolina nitpicking a single assignment handed out by a substitute gym teacher. The governor demanded censorship, and he got it: Leaning on South Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ+ sex education policies, a school district spokesperson said in a prepared statement, “District staff regrets that this matter occurred, and leaders are working to ensure all staff is reminded of parents’ opportunity to opt their children out prior to sensitive materials being shared with students.”
The mere existence of people like Leo is forbidden knowledge in the eyes of the state. After reading Leo’s excellent essay, which the governor helpfully attached to his press release, I found Leo online and asked for his take on the whole episode. I was apparently the first person to have asked. He is now 19 years old and in college, and he graciously agreed to give his perspective on the news.
Here’s what Leo wrote:
When I was in junior high, the same age these kids were when they were assigned my article that was soon banned, I was just starting to figure out that I was trans. I was scared, uncomfortable, confused, and certain I was alone in what I was experiencing. Even in the forward-thinking city I lived in, I was convinced I was wrong, broken, and that there was no place for me in this world. This was all because I and the people around me lacked the proper resources we needed to learn about what being trans meant. Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence.
When I wrote “I am Leo,” it was in hopes that no kid would ever have to feel what I and so many other kids feel at that point in their life. I hoped it would educate kids on what it means to be trans, and show them that transness is just an identity, not something to be feared.
When I heard the article was banned, I felt scared. Not just scared for the trans kids being denied education about their identities and being made to feel even more alienated, but also for the kids who will grow up ignorant about an entire group of people who have been here forever, and who are not going anywhere. Hiding the existence of trans people will not protect your kids like you think it will, because we are not a threat to them. All it will do is make them uneducated on an entire identity with a rich history that exists all around us. By denying students the resources they need to learn about gender and sex education, both things that can affect everyone, every day, Gov. Henry McMaster is choosing to promote ignorance (in a school, which is supposed to do the exact opposite, no less).
Whether you like it or not, trans folks are everywhere, have been here forever, and will continue to exist whether you censor us or not. We are not a threat, we’re just people, and we are not going anywhere.
Gov. McMaster is up for re-election in November and has decided to ramp up his fixation on trans people this year. He is making the same political calculation as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, inciting a sex panic in the belief that he’ll activate more members of his base than of his opposition. I’m not a pollster; I don’t know how the electoral math works out. I do know what effect his cynical move is already having on my trans friends and neighbors.
The South Carolina Republican Party in general is going all-in on trans-bashing as a campaign tactic. Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-SC), up for re-election in November, has taken a page from the Chaya Raichick playbook, claiming her Democratic challenger, Dr. Annie Andrews, is “Too Woke for the Lowcountry” because she is a medical doctor who supports gender-affirming care. Mace recently released an online attack ad based on some highly misleading reporting about the Medical University of South Carolina in FITSNews, a conservative gossip blog in which she formerly served as a business partner.1
Elsewhere in the state party ranks, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) recently introduced the Parental Rights Over The Education and Care of Their (PROTECT) Kids Act, which would deny federal funding for schools that allow students to change their pronouns.
I joined some morally reprehensible Facebook groups last year to keep tabs on my state’s anti-mask / anti-vaccine movement. While these groups initially formed to organize a resistance against public-health measures in public schools, the members have since found common cause with conservatives who are panicking about “critical race theory” and the existence of trans people.
“Parental rights,” a buzzword from the school privatization world, has become a rallying cry for the anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-CRT, and anti-trans tendencies within the party. The rights of trans youth and trans-affirming parents are excluded.
The people in groups like Parental Rights South Carolina and United Parents of South Carolina have been grumbling about Leo’s article since well before it reached the local press. The furor apparently started with one or more parents at the middle school who demanded a meeting with the principal. I’ve tried to put together a timeline of events.
Sept. 9: The substitute teacher hands out the assignment.
Sept. 14: South Carolina-based right-wing activist Corey Allen (a.k.a. Corey Whittington) writes about the assignment in The Overton Report, his online news commentary outlet. He writes on Facebook: “Contact your legislators. Your state representatives and state senators. Contact Governor Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson if you are so inclined. But whatever you do, do NOT allow this to fall by the wayside.” He calls for the health/PE teacher, the one who left the assignment with the sub, to be fired. He also encourages parents to contact the (it must be said, all-white) South Carolina Freedom Caucus with their concerns.
Sept. 15: Ed Kelley, a conservative candidate for Charleston County School Board, posts about the assignment on Facebook: “The normalization of extreme ideas is being pushed in Charleston County schools to YOUR CHILDREN! - As parents we need stand [sic] up to protect the innocence of our children.” In the ensuing comment thread, he boasts about his connections with Attorney General Wilson and Ellen Weaver, the current Republican candidate for state education superintendent.
Sept. 16: Right-wing Instagram celebrity Robby Starbuck posts about the assignment on Instagram. He claims (falsely) that the article encourages children to go into online chat rooms with child predators and “groomers,” echoing an age-old smear campaign against LGBTQ+ people.
Sept. 19: Starbuck posts about the story again on Instagram.
Sept. 20: Gov. Henry McMaster issues his statement.
In the Facebook and Telegram groups where conservatives organize, it can be difficult to tell when the tail is wagging the dog. Republican Party operatives stay on message and disseminate calls to action via these groups, but other group members are working to drum up pressure campaigns that influence our highest-ranking politicians’ rhetoric and policymaking.
To take one example, on a Facebook post where Corey Allen sounded the alarm about Leo’s Scholastic essay, we have a school board candidate and two parents steering the conversation elsewhere, spreading some version of the nonsensical Litter Boxes in Schools canard in Dorchester and Lexington County schools:
Spend enough time in the weeds of right-wing message boards and it becomes apparent that there is no unifying leader or organizing principle. Like a QAnon “chan” board, an anti-mask group is a mood board for increasingly baroque fantasies. It’s a game, and the way to win is to reach for the most extreme position and hold it.
If McMaster ultimately got his talking points via an Overton Report screed or a Moms for Liberty fever dream, it wouldn’t be the first time. Around this time last year, McMaster wrote an open letter to the Charleston County School Board complaining about the district’s enforcement of a “mandatory mask mandate” shortly after Overton circulated a deceptively edited video of anti-maskers clashing with a school resource officer.
From top to bottom in our state’s Republican party, the attacks on trans people are consistent, persistent, and immune to logical counterargument. Our leaders are playing a hateful game that ends in terror for trans youth and their families.
I uploaded Gov. McMaster’s letter, with Leo’s essay attached, to DocumentCloud. It’s a solid essay and I recommend reading it.
The self-portrait at the top of today’s issue is by Claude Cahun, a French surrealist and anti-Nazi resistance worker who flouted gender norms in her work.
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