Lake County School Board Member Questions 14-Year-Old Student’s Sexual Orientation

A 2012 message from federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The Lake County School Board should listen.

A member of Florida’s Lake County School Board questioned the sexual orientation of a fourteen-year-old student in his district in an email sent last Friday.

The Board member’s disturbing comment came in a written exchange with musician, blogger and LGBT-youth advocate Katy Bourne, who had sent an open letter to two members of the Lake County School Board criticizing their efforts to restrict the right of middle school students to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs). I thank Ms. Bourne for bringing the comment to my attention.

As other posts on LGBT Youth Allies have discussed at length (see below), the Lake County School Board has thwarted eighth-grader Bayli Silberstein’s attempt to form a gay-straight alliance at a middle school in the district. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has been advocating on Bayli’s behalf.

A Disgraceful Comment

In an email to Ms. Bourne, the Lake County School Board member refers to Bayli as a “little girl,” and claims that the ACLU is “exploit[ing]” her. (Why am I not disclosing the Board member’s name?) He continues:

I believe the ACLU look[s] for opportunities to collect legal fees. In this case they have exploited this young girl. She states she is bi sexual. How does a 13 year old (now 14) know that? I understand gay, lesbian or transgendered, but bi, sorry can not rationalize how she knows.

Ms. Bourne had not, needless to say, asked for the School Board member’s opinion on Bayli’s sexual orientation. And even if someone had asked for his opinion, he is in no position to give it.

It is utterly disgraceful and unprofessional for a school official to make comments questioning a student’s sexual orientation.

Bayli Silberstein holding sign for school board
Bayli Silberstein holds up a sign for members of the Lake County School Board

(Incidentally, by commenting on the issue, I am not outing Bayli, who is openly bisexual. She has also, through her attorney, given me permission to comment publicly on the School Board member’s remarks.)

Perhaps the School Board member thinks it is fine to send emails to members of the public questioning Bayli’s sexual orientation because she is openly bisexual and a vocal advocate for LGBT youth. But it is not fine. It is terrible. And it’s worth emphasizing that youth of any sexual orientation or gender identity can advocate for LGBT youth, as Bayli has so courageously done.

Nobody needs this School Board member to ponder, question, or “rationalize” the fact that Bayli is bisexual.

Contrary to what the Board member suggests, moreover, it is hardly unusual for a person to be aware of his or her sexual orientation by the age of thirteen or fourteen. Many if not most people—including most heterosexuals—know their sexual orientation by that age. (Related link: Too Young To Be Straight?)

A Sad, Narrow Initiative

A few other comments made by this School Board member to Ms. Bourne, while not as disturbing as the comment above, also deserve brief mention.

The Board member claims that the district’s policy discussion regarding extracurricular clubs is about “more than [the] GSA.” He also chides Ms. Bourne for focusing on the rights of LGBT youth and their allies, telling her that she is pursuing a “narrow ‘gay initiative,'” which he finds “sad.”

The Board member’s claims here are consistent with the implausible claim of another Board member that the GSA has had only “minimal influence” on Board discussions regarding extracurricular policy.

The GSA might not strictly be the only club of interest, but the Board members really need to stop pretending that the GSA and LGBT issues aren’t of special concern to them. It’s transparently obvious that they are.

For starters, we have the unsolicited comment about Bayli’s sexual orientation, discussed above. In the emails to Ms. Bourne, moreover, the School Board member at least twice states that he does not think a GSA is “age appropriate” for a middle school. (I addressed this baseless objection to middle-school GSAs in one of my posts last week.) He also acknowledges that he lobbied the state legislature to restrict the rights of middle school students to form extracurricular clubs only after the GSA issue came before the Board. He says he does not oppose GSAs at the high-school level, but that of course has not helped Bayli.

In short, Lake County School Board members are fooling no one when they claim that this debate isn’t about the GSA. For more on this issue, see my post from this morning.

The School Board member’s email to Ms. Bourne also asks her, “Why are you and others try[ing] to push this [GSA] on 11-13 year old children?” Ms. Bourne rightly responds that nobody is pushing GSAs on students. These are student-initiated and student-led clubs. Nobody is forced to join. Ms. Bourne, Bayli, the ACLU, and other LGBT-equality advocates (like me!) would leave the decision of whether to join a GSA in the hands of the student. It is the School Board that is trying to take that decision out of young people’s hands.

The Board needs to abandon that sad, narrow initiative.

I thank Ms. Bourne, Bayli, the ACLU, and other equality-advocates for their passionate defense of LGBT youth and their allies. Let’s hope that one day very soon, the Lake County School Board will begin to stand up for all of the youth in its district.


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Update: Ms. Bourne’s latest post is here.

More related links (updated 2/13/14):

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Additional information:

Why not disclose the Board member’s name?

The Board member’s name and the content of his emails are a matter of public record, since he sent them from his publicly funded school-district address. He even included a statement in his emails to Ms. Bourne that “written communications to or from Lake School District employees are considered public records.” Ms. Bourne has disclosed his name on her blog, as she has every right to do.

Nevertheless, I’ve decided against disclosing his name in this post, largely because I prefer the focus to be on the School Board as a government entity and the School Board member as a public official, and not on the School Board member as an individual. This is also consistent with the approach I took in a post earlier today, in which I commented on emails I received from a different Lake County School Board member without disclosing the member’s identity.

I fully recognize that the identity of one or both of these School Board members is already and/or may become available from other sources, and I’m absolutely fine with that, but I’ve still chosen not to put School Board members’ names in this post.

Members of the Lake County School Board may have sent additional emails to other members of the public who wrote to them; if Board members used their Lake County School District email accounts, as they did with me and Ms. Bourne, all of those emails are public records that should be directly available from the Lake County School Board.

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