Mother of transgender child calls for civility after Hastings school board election turns ugly

A person walks away through a set of double doors.
A student walks through a one-way entrance inside of Hastings Middle School in Hastings, Minn. A Hastings school board member who ran for reelection earlier this month says politics went too far when a parent “outed” her transgender 8-year-old on Facebook.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Over the weekend, CNN shared the story of a Hastings school board member who says her family felt forced to move after a contentious election got personal. Kelsey Waits lost her reelection bid earlier this month, after facing increasingly intense opposition around COVID-19 precautions in the district. Things went too far when, she said, a member of a parents Facebook group revealed Waits’ 8-year-old is transgender.

Waits said Facebook refused to take the post down, saying it did not violate the company’s terms and conditions.

Now, as she serves the remainder of her term as board chair, Waits is working with the St. Paul nonprofit Gender Justice to navigate the fallout and speak out to support other families with transgender children.

Waits joined MPR News host Tom Crann to share her story. You can here their conversation using the audio player above, or read the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why share your story? It brings more attention to you and your family, so why do this?

I think that's a question a lot of people have, and it's something we struggled with a lot. I will say that this parents group had brought up my child numerous times since August. We appealed to moderators, we appealed to Facebook, we appealed to decency within the community, and we were rejected every time.

Eventually, it felt like our family had a responsibility to let people know how dangerous it was to out a child and to try to help other people so that this doesn't happen to them.

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And how is your daughter doing through all this? And what do you want us to know about how this kind of thing can actually affect transgender kids?

Transgender kids are the most at-risk kids in our schools for suicide. Almost 50 percent of transgender students will attempt suicide, and that's in Minnesota and nationwide. And what research is starting to show is that by supporting these kids, you decrease their risk of suicide. You're saving their lives.

Kit is lucky — Kit has a loving, supportive family — but Kit is struggling right now. They feel betrayed. The people we were outed by were former friends of ours, who knew us before Kit transitioned. It hurts.

You told CNN that since all of this, kids have started using the wrong pronouns for Kit. How hurtful or damaging is that?

Especially if they know the correct pronouns to use and they choose not to, it's someone telling you that they don't respect your identity. Kit will try to roll with it, but I see the pain, and the pain comes out later when we're alone.

You have said you were prepared for disagreement in politics, but this has turned different. Tell us how you feel it's turned different and crossed a line.

So I'm a big fan, actually, of having multiple political parties come together and try to work through differences have a diversity of opinions. I actually used to be Republican for a long time. Where it becomes different is where it starts to be personal. This isn't about policy anymore. This is about gossip. This is about causing pain. This is about winning at all costs. It's no longer about working for what's best for the community.

And it comes at a time we're seeing hostility toward school boards across the country and other incidents, ranging from a racial slur being used against a Black student in Prior Lake to reports of kids being bullied because they support former President Trump. So as someone who's been a school district leader, and still is until the end of the year, how do you even begin to bring civility back?

I have always been really proud of our school board. We absolutely have not agreed on everything, but we've taken the time to have these discussions and listen to each other. I mean, we've voted on some very controversial things. We passed a diversity and equity policy, for example. And we spent six months negotiating this with each other until we could come to agreement.

I think that ability to have these discussions and back and forth in a respectful way, to actively listen to one another, I think we're starting to lose that. Not on our board, I just mean as a country.

Midterm elections are coming and they're bound to be contentious. What would you would say to candidates who may want to stoke the vitriol around things, whether it's masks or inclusion efforts in schools?

So I'm actually a student in public policy at the University of Minnesota, and so I read about this a lot. Unfortunately, the negative vitriol and creating anger is an incredibly effective technique.

What I would tell candidates though, is that if you want to be a leader, you need to look beyond your election. What damage does your messaging do? What damage does it do to our democracy? What damage does it do to our state, to our towns, our communities? Because we are incredibly divided right now, and your messaging needs to be about more than how to win. It needs to be about how together we can all be lifted up.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com for a list of additional resources. You can also find more resources here.