loving and affirming our transgender neighbors

My heart has been pained lately.

I live in North Carolina. I’ve tried to stay quiet because I have dearly loved friends who support HB2 and dearly loved friends who have been hurt by it. I have some who think HB 142 is too much, some who think it’s too little, and some who have given no thought to it at all. (If you’re one of those, saying “What’s HB 142?” I think this take is helpful and accurate.) I love the opportunities I have to speak into multiple settings and spheres within the church about what it looks like to love families like ours, those affected by mental illness, childhood trauma, and adoption or foster care. I’ve wrestled with God and with wise friends about wanting to stay silent so I don’t get disinvited from places and tables where I used to be welcome.

But I can’t be silent anymore.

(I know my privilege was the only reason that I could be silent in the first place. That was wrong, and I am sorry.)

So what changed? I met a boy.

No, this isn’t a love story. I met a young boy who was identified at birth as a girl. This vibrant beautiful boy offered the reminder I needed. When we talk about transgender identity, we are not discussing an issue. We’re discussing people. When we get to know people instead of just talking about them as one dimensional, that’s where empathy is born, whether we share much or little in common.

Empathy alone didn’t define my views here, but it provided perspective and a solid starting place. Now, take it or leave it, here are my thoughts on gender differences, on HB2/142, on potential bathroom assaults, on changing rooms and school locker rooms, and on why all this matters. I’m not trying to persuade anyone here. I’m merely sharing what's been on my mind for quite some time. (Like my last hot button post, this one is a long one, so take a seat, grab a cup of your preferred beverage, and let’s have at it!)

On God’s word, creation, and gender differences

I became curious about gender diversity long before I met that sweet boy, though, whose identity I’m protecting by not sharing any details. I have an MAEd in special education and a few kids with disabilities, so people often reach out to me with special needs adoption questions. When you get known for that, people ask anything. I was assumed to know a basics of any category of special need. Because I’m a people pleaser and because I’m a research nerd, I’d search for answers or resources if I had none.

Then, from prospective adoptive parents considering China’s programs, I started getting questions about an area with which I had zero experience: ambiguous genitalia. I began researching, starting with medical journals. I sought first person experiences, but I didn’t find as many as I hoped. I wasn’t naïve to the realities of gender diversity, but I never had to think of it much before then, just like most people don’t think about wheelchair accessibility like our family does because of our youngest child.

After I shared the research I found with these families, I kept learning. I hungered for more information, realizing how ignorant I had been. I listened and read and watched debates, soaking it all in. I asked myself, “what if this were my child? my best friend? my neighbor?”

And then I realized my life was full of people who I assumed fit the gender binary just because I do. When I brought up this topic I was researching in a nonjudgmental way, because I didn’t know what I thought yet then, stories flowed out of people I thought I had known about their loved ones who were transgender. One friend shared with me her intersex condition, a part of her life that I never would have guessed. Each story told me that I knew non-binary people, but they just hadn’t trusted me before and I hadn’t been seeing them.

In the course of that research, here’s what I learned – from God’s word and creation – when it comes to transgender identity. I believe God created each of us and makes no mistakes.  Impersonally from medical journals and personally from friends who live outside of the binary, I know God knits some of his image bearers in their mothers’ wombs with biological gender ambiguity via a range of intersex conditions. Sometimes this shows up in genetic expression (like XXY or monosomy X instead of XX or XY chromosomal presentation), other times hormonal levels from birth are different than usual so that a person with XX sex chromosomes presents as a boy or vice versa, and still other times babies are born with genitalia that doesn’t fit our binary definitions.

(Side note: Those with certain chromosomal abnormalities, as in Klinefelter and Turner syndromes, aren’t always grouped as intersex because those with the latter are always classified as female and the former male. Regardless of whether we group them in the intersex category or not, though, I think these conditions are relevant to this discussion because chromosomal gender is part of the conversation. Arguments against transgender identity often include insistence that chromosomal gender can only fit in two categories, and that’s simply not true.)

Furthermore, some children’s bodies are surgically altered without clarity, with lasting pain for some, and prior to an age of consent. Thankfully, now that medical professionals know better, they are making better recommendations, but this is still a problem. If we want to talk about child abuse in this gender identity debate, focusing on this issue would be more logical than on mythical bathroom horrors.

Takeaway: In God’s creation, we see multiple evidences of non-binary gender presentations apart from our usual biological, chromosomal, or anatomical definitions. In other words, the argument “but God made us male and female” isn’t a universal truth.

In the Bible, we don’t see the word intersex but we do hear about natural-born eunuchs. Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, men who had been born with genital differences, or men who chose celibacy. In Matthew 19, in the context of talking about marriage and divorce, Jesus says,

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

When it comes to eunuchs who were made eunuchs by others or by congenital physical differences, we find a gem of a verse we don’t quote much in church, Deuteronomy 23:1:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

Seems like eunuchs were kept out of churches in the Old Testament, huh? Not exactly. In Isaiah 56,

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;

and do not let the eunuch say,

    “I am just a dry tree.”

For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

    who choose the things that please me

    and hold fast my covenant,

I will give, in my house and within my walls,

    a monument and a name

    better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

    that shall not be cut off.

In this passage, eunuchs are more than welcome. God bestows upon them an everlasting name that shall not be severed from them. This affirmation is echoed in two distinct places in the New Testament. First, Galatians 3:28

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Then God doubles down on this affirmation with Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, found in Acts 8:26-40. First, the Lord directs Philip down a wilderness road with no reason first. Along the way, he comes across a chariot in which an Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah, and the Spirit prompts Philip to join him. There, beginning a few chapters before the Isaiah passage I quoted above, Philip proceeded to share the good news of Christ with this man. And then verse 36, my favorite in the whole passage,

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

There the eunuch, belonging to a group once barred from the assembly of the Lord, was baptized by Philip. Once the baptism was complete, Philip’s work was done. God had sent him down that wilderness road for this divine appointment, not to seek out those already welcome but to instead meet with a marginalized man so that they might become brothers in Christ.

Takeaway: In God’s word, we see indication that his people discriminated against those outside of the male/female gender binary, but God through the prophet Isaiah made clear that this was not right. Then much later God orchestrated an encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch so that the man with the gender difference could become a child of God.

(I'm sure some of you are thinking, "but what about Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:2 that speak of God creating us male and female?" That's totally true. God did create Adam and Eve male and female. That doesn't mean every human he created fits that binary. "And what about when Jesus talks about people being created male and female in Mark 10?" Again, that's true. But he's talking about a husband and a wife in that context. In all three of these passages, the gender binary is descriptive rather than prescriptive. "And how about Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:14-15?" First, crossdressing and transgender identity aren't the same thing. The first is dressing up like another gender; the latter is being another gender. But second and more importantly, those passages are about behavior not identity, and they're entrenched in cultural norms rather than presented as absolutes. As such, none of these usually used verses work to classify transgender identity as sinful or wrong. 

Given these biblical and biological realities, I can’t adhere to a belief that says God only creates us all as male or female. I don’t buy the rationale presenting the rarity of intersex conditions to mean we can ignore that diversity in God’s creation. In rhetoric and persuasion classes, we teach that disproving an always statement only requires one exception; in this case, it’s more than that, as intersex conditions – if you include chromosomal abnormalities – are present in approximately 1 in 100 births. We’re not simply talking about one exception. Using the CDC figure that roughly 4 million babies are born in our country each year, that means about 40,000 babies were born with gender-related differences in chromosomes or anatomy last year.

In other words, these conditions are rare but not so rare that they’re irrelevant to the conversation. For example, intersex conditions and atypical sex chromosomal presentation are nearly seven times more common than Down syndrome (which occurs in 1 in 691 births in the US). For obvious reasons – including stigma – those affected by intersex conditions don’t talk about them as openly as those affected by Down syndrome do, but these realities aren’t as rare as most discussions make them out to be.

I talked about this recently with that friend who I didn’t know was intersex until a few years ago. I asked her why she thought they were left out of the conversation so often.

“People talk about intersex conditions like we’re unicorns,” my friend quipped. “I’m real. But I’m not going to out myself to prove that because the discussions on this topic are ugly. I can’t go there, not yet.”

On top of bodily and biological differences, what about the brain? Professionally and personally, I know a great deal about the diversity in neurological expressions of identity. In my own family, for example, we see that with autism and childhood trauma. (And, lest you frame either as wholly negative, I see benefits to each. In other words, I reject an ableist mentality that says neurodiversity in disability can’t create amazingly positive outcomes outside of the realm of typical.) We know our brains aren’t all the same. Why can’t we also leave room for the brain-based gender expression of some of our friends to differ from their traditional biological or anatomical presentation at birth?

In summary, I don’t see sound biblical, scientific, or rational logic that can justify telling any trans or intersex person that they’re wrong. I see others who share my faith confidently standing against transgender identity, and I won’t join them. I see individuals who don’t fit our binary gender definitions being marginalized without any sound justification, and I’ll stand on the margins with them in love.

On HB2/HB142

So now let’s come back to HB2. That law stripped localities from the ability to provide more anti-discrimination protections than offered by the state, but it’s mostly known as the bathroom bill. It stated that people using public bathrooms had to use the facility matching the gender stated on their birth certifications. Our then governor – Pat McCrory – said it was no big deal because trans people could just have that document changed. Either he was mistaken or intentionally lying, because it’s not that simple. Across the full range of gender difference – from intersex conditions to transgender identity – birth certificates don’t always match the person’s expressed gender. Simply changing the birth certificate isn’t an option for everyone, though, as NC law only permits such a change if sex reassignment surgery has been completed.

Gender identity isn’t based in anatomy, though. Consider, for example, how you know you’re a boy or a girl. When I asked my own children that question, they – ages 5 to 10 – each spoke first about how they felt and not what they see in their underwear or what combination of chromosomes appear in their 23rd pair. That’s exactly how my transgender friends describe their identity, based in the brain and not the rest of their body. As such, surgery – while chosen by some – isn’t necessary. When I was in middle school, my mom endured health issues leading to a hysterectomy and hormone supplementation. It would be an understatement to say that process was hard on her body. Likewise, even those who would prefer a surgical approach might choose not to do so, preferring to accept their present bodies rather than enduring the procedures involved to change them. Furthermore, the hormones and procedures involved can be costly, so economic reasons often influence the decision not to pursue medical interventions. Finally, for youth who identify as transgender or experience gender dysphoria, medical interventions might not be appropriate developmentally.

Under HB2, many of our neighbors who identify as a different gender than indicated on their birth certificates can’t use the bathroom matching their identity. They have to decide to abide by this law and face the social repercussions for doing so (for example, when a transgender man – living in full appearance as a man but whose birth certificate still says female – enters the women’s bathroom, do you expect him to be welcome there?) or break the law and use the bathrooms they’ve been using all along. And if they break the law? This measure has no means for enforcement or policing.   

This bill was introduced, passed, and signed in less than a day, spending $42,000 in taxpayer money on the unnecessary special session. The extraordinarily short time span from introduction to signing meant that few voices spoke into the issues present in the bill. That led to some changes being made in June, but the reality is that everything about HB2 was rushed and reactionary. The Charlotte ordinance was, even as it was passed, expected to be overturned by the state, but no immediate danger required the cost and haste of HB2.

(And most of the negative information shared about what happened in Charlotte proved to be inaccurate once I dug into the bill itself. Here’s a bit of background. When the narrative presented fits the story a little too easily, then it’s helpful to look into it all more deeply.)

This week, news outlets are reporting about the HB2 repeal. You might assume I’m happy about that, given my HB2 concerns. I’m not. This “repeal” – called HB 142 – was similarly hasty, offers no new protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and bans municipalities from creating their own protections until after the next presidential election. Can our trans neighbors use the bathroom of their choosing under HB 142? No one can answer that. It’s murky. We’re back to maybe, maybe not, which is the realm in which we existed before. Given the egregious power grabs by our GOP majority general assembly here in North Carolina, I expect to see less dignity extended from here on, so this seems like the high point under the current legislators.

Looking at HB142, I can’t imagine that businesses who pulled out of the state will be coming back. People might not like decisions like those made thus far by the NCAA, but the precedent is there. They refused to hold pre-selected championship games in South Carolina for 15 years because of the Confederate flag flying over their statehouse. They lifted that ban in 2015 after the state changed course. I hope it doesn’t take 15 years for our state to change, but I have no problem with the NCAA making decisions based on the perceived impact of HB2 and now HB142 on the fans and players drawn to their sites.

On concerns about bathroom assaults

What about the risk of bathroom assaults by those who aren’t transgender, though, and who enter the opposite gender bathroom? First, the population at risk in public bathrooms are transgender men and women. According to a paper out of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 70% of transgender people report being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. If you search for bathroom assaults involving transgender individuals, you’ll find they’re the victims, not the perpetrators.

Second, when people offer stories of bathroom assaults against women and children, read them carefully. More often than not, the incidents occur in the absence of any transgender-friendly legislation and without any attempt by the offender to be considered transgender. No one in this debate is denying that bathrooms should be safe places. But pointing at laws allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice in certain locations and then pointing to unrelated bathroom incidents (often in other locations where no such laws exist) doesn’t make for a sound argument. That doesn’t even show correlation, much less causation.

Third, if we’re concerned about men entering the bathroom to assault women and girls, then shouldn’t we be concerned about those men assaulting boys in their own bathrooms? The crimes that are real are definitely worth preventing. But as I said on Kristen Howerton’s blog, “Let’s hold accountable those who commit crimes when and if they commit them, instead of asking trans people to sacrifice bathroom safety to pay for crimes that non-trans people might possibly commit someday.

Here’s the reality: Only 10% of child sex assaults are committed by strangers. Meanwhile, 30% are family members and 60% are otherwise known to the child, including neighbors, childcare providers, or church volunteers. So boycotting Target doesn’t add up to me, which is why I wrote the piece quoted above – albeit anonymously because I wasn’t public about my rapes at that time – back in May. I shop at Target without pause. I live with PTSD from sexual assault, yet I’m comfortable using Target’s bathroom and letting my kids do so. Boycotting the store just doesn’t add up to me.

On changing rooms and school locker rooms

What about changing rooms in gyms or school locker rooms? I don’t understand the lack of common sense in most of our rhetoric about this. Why create false dichotomies? Are we really so lacking in creativity that we can only imagine two possibilities: either that every child, regardless of gender identity, needs to change in the locker room matching their biological sex or anatomy or that accommodating gender identity has to involve the exposure of opposite sex genitalia to all kids? Why can’t we figure out a third way?

I agree that I don’t want my girls to see a penis in their middle school locker rooms, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a transgender girl to be accommodated so she doesn’t have to use the boys’ locker room. (Same goes in reverse for not wanting my boys seeing vaginas but still wanting transgender boys to have a safe place among boys.) The transgender kids I know don’t want to be exposed to their classmates either, so I think this is much ado about nothing. I’ve observed situations in which transgender kids are accommodated in dignifying ways while the needs of other students are considered too. Sure, creativity is sometimes needed – especially in facilities that don’t offer much privacy in the first place – but our Creator made us in his image, which means we can be creative too. It’s not impossible, y’all.

And sometimes new facilities will be needed. I see this as a win/win. It’s a win for transgender students to preserve their privacy and allow for their full inclusion in school settings. The pushback here is often that the population served is so statistically small that their needs don’t warrant sweeping changes. But? My daughter Zoe uses a wheelchair, along with 2.2 million other people in the US. In a country of 320 million, wheelchair users account for only 0.68% of our population. In the school aged population, the percentage is even smaller. Yet we still deem her and others in her situation as worthy of the accommodations necessary to use public facilities. Back before laws were passed in favor of such accommodations, some argued that they were too hard and too much for such a small group. We’ve made progress with those attitudes, thankfully, and that gives me hope that we can make progress here too. If she can be accommodated in public restrooms, why can't trans people?

(Also, if you heard the hyperbole about the gender unicorn being used in student instruction and the rule that teachers in Charlotte can’t refer to boys and girls, you might want to fact check that. When I did, I found several sources – like this one – offering a more balanced perspective.)

On why this matters

Why does this issue even matter? Because transgender people are people. I’m a person. My husband is a person. My children are people. All of us are valued in God’s eyes, even when the world – or the church – fails to show the same.

I’ve heard detractors say all these bathroom laws are much ado about nothing, because nothing was stopping anyone from using whichever bathroom they chose before. My answer to that each time was, “do you have any transgender friends?” Because I do, and those relationships have taught me that they weren’t welcome to use any bathroom before. They each share stories of real experienced rejection or even violence in attempting to simply use the restroom. These laws weren’t birthed out of a desire to drive forth an agenda rather than solve a real dilemma.

Here’s the reality: People who don’t fit traditional gender norms face discrimination. If you haven’t seen it or experienced it yourself, that doesn’t make any of it less real. But an accommodating culture can make a difference. Among transgender youth, a recent study in Canada showed that rates of suicide consideration or attempts were significantly reduced by social inclusion, protection from bullying and violence, and parental supports.

If I've lost some of my conservative evangelical friends and readers and speaking opportunities by sharing these thoughts, so be it. I can’t stay quiet. This is worth leveraging my privilege and allowing it to take a hit for the sake of those being marginalized. I’ll put my ministry reputation on the line to say this:

You, wherever you fall on the gender spectrum, are loved and worthy and enough. I am so sorry I haven’t said that this clearly before. I am saying it now, and I won’t stop. You are not less than anyone else. You, just as you are, are beautiful and precious.

(Please be clear: I deserve no applause for any of this. None. My stance is human decency. I don’t get a trophy for treating people like people instead of issues. That should be the norm.)

I expect some people to disagree with parts or all of what I’m sharing here, and that’s okay. Like I said in that last post that found me kicked out of some churches and friendships and conferences and roles I cherished, we can all disagree without being disagreeable. I’m sure of it. Many people chose not to last time, but many did and I’m better for having heard their voices.

If you agree with me, I love you. If you don’t agree with me, I love you. If you share this post, I love you. If you write a post about how wrong I am, I love you. If I have to block you for being nasty in your comments, I still can love you. If you write me the sort of threatening messages I usually get after posts like these, I will keep on loving you while I report you to the authorities.

So why is it so hard for us to say “I love you” without adding “but…” to our transgender neighbors?  

shooting arrows

"Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth."
(Psalm 127:4)

These arrows - one for each child - were sketched by my artist friend Melissa and adapted by my tattoo artist D-May. One thing I've always loved about the comparison of children to arrows is that we are meant to be raising them to shoot out into the world, not just coddle them close. I don't know where they'll each land, if they land at all, but I'm so full of hope when I see the amazing people they already are.

Speaking of hope, I ran into a mom friend at the elementary school this morning. She hadn't seen me in a while, and - with the piercings and haircut and tattoos and darker lipstick - she almost didn't recognize me. "I love all of it," she said, "but what is this?" I gave an answer that was partly true, but I've been thinking about it more. I didn't tell the full story, the one of hope and of shooting into the world myself.

Here's what I would say if she asked again: "This is me. I've stopped trying to fit where I was never meant to fit." 

I'm not angry or bitter about the places or views that I've outgrown (or, more likely, that I've finally admitted were never my size and shape in the first place), and I'm thankful some dear friends find rest and joy and hope in the spaces where I never did. You're probably trying to read into this and guess what I'm talking about... politics? church? theology? my family? The answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes (though the family piece has nothing to do with my now family. That change has been a matter of revoking permission for abusive behavior from many members of my family of origin. This is not about Lee and the kids, never about Lee and the kids. I have never felt like I fit anywhere as well as I do with my loves). 

The reality is that my outside self is starting to match my inside self. Just like I reclaimed Christmas, I'm reclaiming myself. For those of you who've known me for a while, I know some of these changes may feel disorienting to you. I recognize that, but I'm not sorry for it. I'm still the Shannon you know and love; I'm just not holding back or trying to please everyone else but me and my God. 

Now that I think about it, this past year or so has been a launching of my own arrow. I'm not sure I've landed yet, and I'm okay with that. Maybe we aren't really meant to land, as we never complete the process of growing and changing and developing and learning and becoming all who we were created to be.

I know this, though: For the first time in my entire life, I love me. I've always shown care to others while hating myself in secret. Some of that self-loathing was the internalizing of others' harmful words into my own inner voice, some of it came from living in a culture that regularly devalues women, and some of it came from my own sense of never feeling like I was enough

Maybe you feel that way too. Maybe it's time to stop holding back your arrow and instead fly in faith into the unknown of all that God has in store for you when you're no longer worshiping the idol of who you think you're supposed to be.

Maybe this is your day to fly.

be loved, beloved, and be love

Hate seems really loud in the world lately, doesn't it?

I want to give up some days. I want to say enough already. I want to curl up and close my eyes to it all.

I need to turn my face toward the light, toward the sun, toward the love. 

my prayer:

that all might be loved,

rest in the truth that we are each beloved,

and in turn be compelled to be love

so that all might be loved

and keep the cycle going...

It's one way I sum up For God so loved... and we love because he first loved us and do everything in love and but the greatest of these is love

In short, I'm naive and hopeful and full of just enough faith to believe love can truly change the world.

(And I'm not saying this in response to anything political lately, nor are the pictures below a reaction to that noise. I do find the timing to be, well, timely, but I have had this planned and scheduled for a while.)

Be loved,

IMG_7359.JPG

beloved,

and then go and be love

For me, believing I am loved and beloved is a daily challenge, so there's another twist in this. Those black words? They're in my husband's handwriting. God first showed me how loved and beloved I am through this imperfectly perfect man who has loved me well for 16 years. 

And, yes, it hurt, and it's swollen. But it's less pain than any of my piercings, honestly. To me, body art is a beautiful form of art, and any good art has a price. Some people are willing and able to pay up, and others aren't, and that's totally fine. For me, this price was genuinely worth paying.

(And some of you know that I was considering dermal piercings to mark Taiwan, Uganda, and USA on the map, signifying where our kids were born, but I've nixed that idea because I love love love the look without that.)

Last year when I got my enough tattoo, I chose to make it small so that I could hide it under a band-aid at times. That was what suited me then. But now I'm much more comfortable in my skin, with my art, in myself, no matter what others might think of this decision or others. I know who God has made me to be, and my purpose is so much more than to please those in the cheap seats or all the critics.

And so is yours.

So, friends, go and 

be loved,

beloved,

and be love.

Amen.

Senator Burr, sir, please bid good day to Betsy DeVos

Senator Burr, sir, my name is Shannon Dingle, and you represent me. I live in Raleigh, NC. You represent my husband and six children, who you'll see pictured throughout this post. You also represent the hundreds of other North Carolina residents who voiced their opinion on your recent (and now deleted) Facebook post expressing support for Betsy DeVos's nomination to the position of Secretary of Education.

I'm a former public school teacher. Before I stood before my first class of students, I knew plenty regarding the significant debate about growth vs. proficiency. (Actually, I gave a speech to my high school's National Honor Society about the issues there, after our school was given a low grade by the state despite serving many students who arrived with below-grade proficiency in all subjects.) I've only seen that conversation grow louder since then. This is Education 101. Or maybe it's better described as a prerequisite for a 101 class. But Betsy DeVos clearly didn't know even the Cliff's Notes version of that central issue, based on her confusion during the nomination hearing. This shows she wasn't even willing to listen to or read a basic briefing on the issues related to the position she's seeking.

I have a Master's in Education, specializing in autism and learninig disabilities. Even before I took a single class, though, I knew about the federal law IDEA that guarantees a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. It's a cornerstone piece of legislation. My students were able to be in public schools because of this necessary law. Betsy DeVos didn't know what IDEA was, didn't know it was a federal law, and admitted herself that she didn't understand basic questions about it during her hearing. 

I'm the mother to six children in NC public schools. I keep hearing - from several folks in DC, including President Trump and Mrs. DeVos - that public schools don't work, that they're irreparably broken. Could you sit across from the fine teachers and administrators in our state and criticize their work to their faces? Because that's what you're saying when you buy into this rhetoric. I'm the product of public schools in Florida and North Carolina, and my husband is the product of the same in New Jersey, Ohio, and North Carolina. You'll be receiving a letter from my 10-year-old daughter in 4th grade soon, because she wants you to know how excellent her public school experiences have been in your state. Maybe we should send a copy to Mrs. DeVos as well.      

Two of our children have disabilities, one receives ESL services, and another is served via the gifted and talented program. When leaders like Mrs. DeVos talk about school funding, they begin at the premise that every state and district has an average price per pupil spending. This is true, and the figure is used to compare student costs across different contexts. In reality, though, these averages are just that: averages. Some kids cost less to education while others cost more, sometimes significantly more. For example:

  • Two of our children receive no extra services at school; their cost of education is much lower than average.
  • Meanwhile, one of our children is served through gifted and talented programming and another through ESL and intervention programs. Those students require - per federal law - educational specialists in each area, which requires additional funds from the district for their education. That cost is distributed across all the students served by that program in their school, but it still increases their actual price per student expenditure.
  • And then we get to our daughter in a Title 1 preschool where she receives special education services. Beyond the Title 1 funding, she gets speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy at school, each 1-2 times a week. On top of that, her support needs require a one-on-one aide to allow her to access the education she deserves, per federal law. In other words, her actual price per pupil cost includes Title 1 funding, parts of the salaries for three different therapists, and the entire salary for a teacher's assistant whose job is to be her aide. Obviously, this means her education costs significantly more than her siblings or most other students in the school or district.

During her truncated hearing in which questions were limited, Betsy DeVos shared that she had no experience as a public school student, parent, or educator. None of her answers or body of work before now have shown that she understands the funding structures for traditional public schools. 

Vouchers are harmful for vulnerable students. Most voucher proponents, like DeVos, act as if the cost per pupil spending in our district applies to all of my children equally, as if we can say the price per pupil in our district is exactly what it costs to educate Jocelyn, Patience, Philip, Robbie, Patricia, and Zoe Dingle. That's clearly not true, given what I shared above.

What is reality, though, is that vulnerable students lose educational services when funding is diverted to private schools, the majority of which are religious in nature. These schools aren't required to accept several of my children. Funds used to educate my children and other children in need of exceptional services leave the school while my children aren't able to go elsewhere. The education of the children demonstrating highest need suffers in this set-up. Mrs. DeVos's definition of school choice means only some students get a choice while others don't. All of her educational efforts have been toward for-profit privatization rather than student-serving public service.

(What about charter schools? Well, it's worth noting that the DeVoses only shifted to charter schools after they invested $5.8 million in a failed attempt to implement a state-wide voucher system in Michigan, which concerns me about allowing her to have any control over federal education funds. After that failure, then the charter attempts led by Mrs. DeVos in Detroit were even worse. The only other district to intensely invest in charter schools - New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina - has largely excelled, so I'm not saying that charters are always bad, even on a large scale. I've observed both success and failure in them. In the interests of full disclosure, I served as a special education consultant in the planning stages for New Orleans's charter program. Choosing a leader from that program or another program with similar successes wouldn't have raised eyebrows for me, because students are being served well, for the most part, there. But it makes no sense whatsoever to choose such a failed voucher and charter school leader as Mrs. DeVos to implement plans for either at the federal level.)   

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My husband and I attended public universities in North Carolina. Lee graduated with a BS in civil engineering from NC State in 2004. I graduated with a BA in Communication Studies at UNC in 2003 and a MAEd in Special Education from ECU in 2009. We both benefited greatly from our college and graduate school educations in the public system in our state. Hearing Mrs. DeVos share her lack of experience with public post-secondary schooling concerned me during the hearings.

I have student debt. I was an out of state student at Carolina. As I'm sure you know, the costs are much higher in that situation. I chose to graduate in three years from UNC because tuition increases were making it financially difficult, but I still left with student loans. I am down to about $5000 in loans and will be paying that off soon. Most graduates in our state carry much high loan amounts than I do. When questioned during confirmation hearings, Mrs. DeVos admitted she had no experience with student debt, even among close friends. I don't see how she can impact needed changes there with so few qualifications and so little experience. 

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I am the survivor of rape and sexual assault. Like a substantial minority of women, I know what it's like to have my body claimed by another in tragic ways. I know what it's like to have someone painfully enter my body without my permission. I know what it's like to bleed and bruise and cry and have nightmares because body parts that should be sacred were violated in criminal and cruel ways. If you've been following the news over the past several years, you know that sexual assaults on college campuses are a serious problem. Many universities have failed in their handling of such crimes. When Mrs. DeVos declined to say if she would enforce Title IX provisions regarding campus sexual assaults, I wanted to throw up. I don't ever want other women to experience what I did, but if they do, I want every support to be in place to help them afterward.   

I've personally experienced gun violence. No, not from a grizzly bear, like Mrs. DeVos suggested. I won't go into specifics, but I remember that terror. I know that guns in the hands of good guys aren't always used for good purposes. Furthermore, even here in my county, armed safety officers in our schools can make schools less safe. And I know as a teacher I was already bearing more tasks and responsibilities than I signed on for, so being in a workplace with guns or carrying one myself? No, thank you. (Also, I was sexually harassed and threatened by an administrator in my first school, so arming any of them would have made me quit, even though I loved teaching and our school was already understaffed.) Betsy DeVos's answer to the question about guns in schools was ignorant at best; in the past four years, we've had 210 documented attacks by those with guns in schools and zero by grizzly bears. Furthermore, wildlife experts say bear spray is a better safeguard against such hypothetical and improbable attacks than guns would be. 

I could share more concerns, but I think this should be more than enough to give you pause. I'd like to remind you that you represent the families of the 1.46 million public school students in North Carolina, including 169,000 (12.6%) served special education and 97,000+ (6.5%) served by ESL. I'd also like to remind you that federal funding for teachers in the form of grants and loan forgiveness is important, which should interest you because any bit helps in a state that ranks 41st in teacher pay like North Carolina does. You represent those teachers too. You also represent the 55% of college graduates in our state who have student loan debt. 

You'll be up for election again in 2022. If you choose not to represent me and my family, I'll campaign in every way I can for whoever runs against you. If no one else steps up, I will run against you, because all families - especially those who are most vulnerable - need to have a voice in DC. So far this term, it seems like you're speaking for your big donor DeVos instead of your constituents. (Given that she has donated more than $40,000 to you over the past four years, if you can't vote against her, please recuse yourself because of the conflict of interest this creates for you.)

Please, Senator Burr, sir, do the right thing and oppose the nomination of DeVos as Secretary of Education. Some of my children and I would love to meet with you in person, either here in North Carolina or there in DC, to share these concerns and our heart with you directly. I apologize that I can't offer thousands of dollars, but I think my voice and your conscience is worth a lot more than her donations.

I would leave my contact information here for you to follow up, but just check with your office for that. I call almost every day, and I will continue to do so in hopes that you'll begin representing constituents like me.

what two girls can do when no one tells them that they can't

I have six amazing children, but today I'm going to tell you a needed story about just two of them. I say "needed" because the news is hard right now. It's easy to live in a rage-y place right now, especially if you share my political bent and views about how Christians should be responding to it all. 

We all need to see the good news too.

We all need to be reminded of what our aspirations of a better world can look like.

We all need to know that our fights are worth fighting because sometimes beauty emerges out of the struggle.

Jocelyn in 9. Zoe is 5. Both are badasses, and both would be horrified that I just used a "bad word" to describe them. (Meanwhile, one of their brothers would be asking why I am calling them bad donkeys. Thank you, literal understandings via autism!) They're rockstars. They're amazing. They are creative and determined and bold and beautiful. 

When Jocelyn was little and our only child, I realized the best word to describe her is "very." No matter what she is or does, this child lives on the extremes. (She's a lot like her mama in that way.)

Before Zoe joined our family, we'd get messages from time to time from the director of the adoption program there in Taiwan. In most, she'd write something like, "the nannies want to make sure you know that she is very strong-willed." I said good. In our house, I don't know if we'd know what to do with any other kind of kid. 

Now Jocelyn's "very" comes out in some radiant ways. She loves to read, and by that I mean everything and anything and all the time. She's learning to play piano, and she's practically obsessed with practicing. And she has learned about her siblings' disabilities and medical conditions, and she often tries to figure out how she can help them, if she can.

Now Zoe's "strong will" comes out in some defiantly gorgeous ways. She has defied almost every negative expectation we had been told about her. She won't talk? No one told her that, and she's become a chatterbox. She won't be able to keep up cognitively with her peers? Her peers are working to keep up with her, actually. She might not be able to express emotions or interact with others? Um, that's laughable to anyone who knows her now. She will be "horribly devastating" to our family, as one specialist said prior to the adoption? NOPE. She is defiant in all the ways that we could have ever hoped, defying any less-than expectation that so many unknowingly harbor toward kids with disabilities. 

All the fourth graders at their school participate in the Invention Convention. They come up with ideas of something they can make to solve a problem. They make it. And then they make poster boards to show it off, and parents and teachers weave their way through the library to ooh and ahh over their work. 

Today is the Invention Convention. Today these two girls are coming together to show something amazing. To prepare for the project, Jocelyn and Zoe talked about things that Zoe couldn't do like her classmates. Neither of them were comfortable with those limitations. Both of them saw the hopeful word "yet." Not Zoe can't do that. Zoe can't do that yet.

They came up with turning pages of a board book independently and getting her binder out of her bag and into the bin like all of her classmates. Then they got to work. They tried different things. Ultimately, a Harris Teeter bad rigged to the side of her chair, a cord tied to the top ring of her binder, and bump-on stickers at the corner of board book pages worked to turn "can't do that yet" to "I can do it! I can do it! Look!" (That last statement are the exact words of Zoe.)

But I don't think words can suffice here. Take a look at the beautiful brave of two girls who dared to dream beyond present limitations. 

This, my friends, if what two girls can do when no one tells them that they can't.

(Please forgive any typos here. I'm off to the Invention Convention, so I don't have time for silly things like proofreading today.)