BECKER, Minn. — More than 100 protesters at the high school here Monday chanted messages supporting the LGBTQ community and turned their backs on school board presenters who shared the "other side" of recent conversations on equity.
The school board invited the Child Protection League to speak at a special meeting following outrage from some community members when OutFront Minnesota — an organization supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights — presented at an August meeting.
The Child Protection League describes itself as an organization committed to protecting children from exploitation and indoctrination. Barb Anderson helped form the group, along with the Parents Action League, which was designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay rhetoric and involvement in the Anoka-Hennepin School District when it saw a rash of suicides and a lawsuit claiming the district didn't respond to harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.
GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, also lists Anderson on an anti-LGBT watchlist for saying LGBTQ antibullying efforts are the "pied piper of perversion" and affirm sexual disorders.
Anderson was not at Monday's meeting but Child Protection League Board Chair Julie Quist spoke about children's books she said violated the beliefs and norms of the community by accepting different gender identities. Quist previously served as district director for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. Also speaking were former Becker board members Betsy Armstrong and Chris Klippen.
Armstrong spoke for about 50 minutes and was interrupted several times by protesters — mostly Becker students — questioning her statements or chanting "gay rights are human rights."
She spoke mostly about what she called the "worrisome" increase in the number of transgender youth in the last decade and cited possible reasons as anxiety, autism or sexual trauma exacerbated by peer and social media influences — something Armstrong called a "social contagion."
Armstrong also referenced a Bible quote that says God created two sexes — male and female — and said people who follow religious teachings are constitutionally protected and their opinions ought to be given equal consideration.
"Use of a new name and preferred pronouns should be [optional] for those interacting" with LGBTQ people, Armstrong said.
Joe Rand, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension and a part-time Becker district employee, said members of the school's Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) have been advocating for LGBTQ rights for more than a year with little progress. Last April, students walked out of school after a spate of bullying and physical confrontations between students based on race or sexual orientation.
Heather Abrahamson, GSA adviser and social studies teacher, said she asked district leaders last summer for more staff training on LGBTQ issues and equity. The OutFront Minnesota presentation was supposed to be an opportunity to train staff; instead it became a community event with the board, Abrahamson said.
"What we're having trouble helping people understand is that there aren't two sides. This is a protected class of people by law and there aren't two sides to human rights," Rand said.
District administrators declined to comment on the Child Protection League's visit but Board Chair Mark Swanson read a statement before Monday's meeting acknowledging concern over the speakers.
"As a school board, we recognize that we are learners, just like the students we serve. Therefore, a critical part of our jobs as board members is to listen and engage," he said. "We see that it is essential for us as individual board members and as a collective to engage with a variety of perspectives and voices to ensure a complete picture."
Public comment was not allowed at the special meeting, but Swanson told attendees they could sign up to speak at the next regular meeting in April.
After the presentation, Rand told students, "That was all garbage. You are all valid."
Becker High School senior Austyn Clemen said they feel burned out from advocating for the LGBT community — and even speaking about their own mental health struggles in front of the board — but seeing no change. Clemen said a handful of students have repeatedly e-mailed board members to share concerns but haven't heard back.
"It's just really hard to even process the kinds of discrimination that we're going through and the ways in which the school board and administration aren't listening to us," Clemen said.
Junior Erin Deering said allowing the anti-gay group to present to the board as a legitimate organization sharing facts was inappropriate.
"It feels very careless and reckless coming from the school board members," Deering said.