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New School Year, More Anti-LGBT Issues

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Fresno school board president Brooke Ashjian
Fresno school board president Brooke Ashjian  

The new school year is just underway, and already, several school districts across the state find themselves immersed in anti-LGBT controversies.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the Central Valley, where turmoil continues to surround the Fresno Unified School District's anti-LGBT board president. Among other developments, a gay Fresno pastor and several other clergymen are asking the school board to take action against Brooke Ashjian, who recently compared his critics to the murderers responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The strife started with an August Fresno Bee article that quoted Ashjian dismissively talking about LGBT curriculum.

"My biggest fear in teaching this - which we're going to do it because it's the law - but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it's a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way. ... It's so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies," he said, according to the paper.

Many have called on Ashjian to resign since he made the comments, which were an apparent reference to laws such as the California Healthy Students Act, an LGBT-inclusive sex education measure that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2015.

In a statement he read at the August 23 school board meeting, Ashjian said, "1.5 million Armenians were murdered because they dared to disagree with the powers [that] be. The intolerance shown by the Ottomans toward my people was insufferable. These leaders of the LGBT movement are much like them."

He added that his critics are guilty of "pure fascism," and that he won't resign.

"I will not be silenced by bullies ...," said Ashjian, who hasn't responded to the Bay Area Reporter's interview requests.

In an August 28 letter, the Reverend Bill Knezovich, the gay pastor of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Fresno, and 12 other faith leaders called Ashjian's genocide remarks "reprehensible" and asked the school board to remove or at least censure Ashjian at its September 13 meeting.

"It is clear from his remarks that he has nothing but contempt for the LGBTQ community - especially the most vulnerable, some who happen to be LGBTQ children," said the clergymen, who added that some of their faith community members are LGBTQ Armenians.

"We as faith leaders demand that at the MINIMUM the board publicly censure Mr. Ashjian and PREFERABLY remove him from the presidency of the board. Your inactions or actions will either condone his comments, sending a chilling message to the students of the district that it is OK to hate or they will affirm the diversity and beauty of all our children regardless of their ancestry or sexual orientation," stated Knezovich and the others.

Tonya Stokes, 45, has a 15-year-old transgender son who goes to a Fresno Unified school, and she said the Healthy Students Act "will help save lives."

Despite living in such an LGBT-friendly household, the coming out process was so difficult for her son that he had to be hospitalized, she said.

Ashjian should "absolutely" resign or be removed from office, said Stokes, who added that the board president has also reportedly made derogatory comments about other minorities.

"I don't think someone with so many prejudices that are openly stated and then again defended" is the "right person to have making choices for our children," she said.

Fresno Unified School District Superintended Bob Nelson "is unable to comment further" on the controversy surrounding Ashjian, said district spokeswoman Jessica Peres Baird, but after Ashjian's initial comments to the Bee, Nelson stated, "Fresno Unified firmly believes that students and staff perform best in an environment where tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness are practiced and valued."

In a recent news conference, Nelson outlined several steps to ensuring LGBT students' safety, including supporting gay-straight alliances in schools and cultural competency training, and exploring resurrecting a hotline people could call for help.

Since Ashjian is an elected official, it would take a recall to remove him if he doesn't step down.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said in response to emailed questions that 10 registered voters in Ashjian's electoral district would need to file a Notice of Intent to Recall, and Ashjian would have seven days to respond.

After that, a petition could be started. Ashjian's opponents would need to submit signatures from 20 percent of the approximately 35,700 registered voters in Ashjian's district - or about 7,100 people - to be valid. If that threshold were met, "then the county elections official would certify the petition to the school board," said Orth. "Typically the school board calls the election." The process usually takes about four to six months, she said, and "the school board is responsible to pay for all election costs related to this effort."

Other School Controversies

Problems have been reported in other districts as well. In a recent email blast, the Stonewall Democrats of Greater Sacramento said that Natomas Unified School District board trustee Micah Grant was objecting "to teachers calling trans youth by their preferred pronouns" and intended "to speak against the approval of the district's non-discrimination policy for this reason."

At the board's August 23 meeting, Grant, who declined an interview request, proved the Stonewall club right.

He said that the policy was a "new area of law," and, "We want to prevent harassment, but we want to prevent harassment of everyone," including people who may object because of their religious beliefs.

Another board member responded, "The law is clear. ... We should recognize people as who they are."

There was also controversy in Rocklin, which is near Sacramento. According to the conservative California Family Council's Greg Burt, a student in kindergarten "announced his new gender identity to his class in a way that confused and scared some of his classmates."

Staff at the school - Rocklin Academy Gateway - didn't respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, Equality California, the statewide LGBT lobbying group, issued a statement applauding school officials for their support of the kindergarten student following the reading of a book geared toward that age group by trans teen and reality TV star Jazz Jennings.

"We commend the teacher in question, Rocklin Academy, and Rocklin Unified School District officials for working to make sure all students are safe, supported, and have a welcoming place to learn," EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur said in the news release. "It's not just the right thing to do; it's what state law requires."

Zbur accused right-wing opponents of "manufacturing" a controversy and spreading "misinformation about the school and about transgender people in general."


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