Imara Jones: Hey there, it’s me Imara. Before we get to the heart of our podcast, I wanted to urge you right now to go to wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Go to wherever the search is and type in Anti-Trans Hate Machine to subscribe to season two of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, which launches on Trans Day of Visibility March 31st. You won’t wanna miss it.
[ TransLash Theme Musice ]
Hey fam, it’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, we’re almost a week away from Trans Day of Visibility on March 31st, a day where we urge trans people of all backgrounds, to be unapologetically who we are, so that the world can see us. But visibility has two sides. On one side, is the fact that positive representation can actually translate into favorable views of us and increase support for trans equality, but on the other hand the increasing Christian nationalist backlash means that visibility can be even more dangerous for us individually. Of course, recognizing that for many in our community, safety has always remained elusive. So, today we’re gonna take a look at both sides of visibility. Both the good and the bad, what’s working and what’s a little bit more treacherous. First, I’ll talk with Amy Schneider[?] about her record-breaking run on Jeopardy and the affirming visibility that came with her historic wins.
Amy Schneider: We just need to see that being trans is possible and not weird to suddenly accept that for ourselves and then we come out and we’re visible and we’re giving that same lesson to-to other people. And I could never have imagined growing up in the 80s and 90s in Ohio that a trans person would be a very popular well-beloved celebrity in any context.
Imara: Next, I’m joined by Peyton Daisy O’Conner to discuss her experience as the first openly trans member of the Asheville, North Carolina school board and the dangerous targeting that came as a result of her service.
Peyton Daisy: I knew a lot of the people involved in local politics, and I just hope someone would speak up. And that’s the point where I was like, “you know what, we do not have the protection or the insulation that I-I guess dreamed that we had and this is not something that I want my children exposed to.”
Imara: As always, we like to start with Trans Joy but no one embodies joy more than Amy Schneider. So, she’s this week’s Trans Joy as well as our first conversation. When we talk about trans visibility, one thing I think about is trans people being celebrated for their achievements and talents. One person in the public eye who comes to mind is Jeopardy champion, extraordinaire, Amy Schneider. And we stepped into the spotlight and captured the hearts of many when she competed in Jeopardy winning an impressive 40 consecutive games in a row. It’s the second longest run in the shows nearly 60-year history. Amy won $1.4 million during her winning streak which is the most any woman has ever won on the game show. She also holds the distinction of being the first trans person to make it to the Tournament of Champions, a special tournament on Jeopardy, where top players are invited to compete. She won that competitive championship last year. Since then, Amy’s been celebrating her big wins and working on other projects, she said to be a star and a new podcast slated to come out later this year called ‘Amy always wins’ appropriately named. A game show style podcast where guests will be invited to attempt to beat the Jeopardy star. Amy is also in the process of writing a book. Amy, thank you so much for joining me.
Amy: Well, thank you for having me.
Imara: One of the things that is undeniable about your win is just how much joy it spread through our community and throughout so many communities, which is why we didn’t begin this episode with Trans Joy because you are Trans Joy, um, for all of us, and I’m wondering if that’s something that you just feel. Do you feel the love and sense of exhilaration that you bring to people just for being you and-and having won on Jeopardy?
Amy: Yeah, absolutely. I had some time between when my Jeopardy episodes taped and when the first one started airing, and there was definitely some apprehension during that time being trans in public. There’s some risk involved, I guess I would say. And then, the episode started airing, I like yeah, there was some negative stuff out there. There was some hateful stuff that I-I couldn’t help seeing, but there was so much less of that than I thought, and there was so much more positive reaction that I was expecting. Jeopardy is as an older demographic and yet I was so welcomed by the Jeopardy audience and, you know, I remember like maybe a couple weeks into my episodes airing, I got a message on Twitter from somebody saying that their father or grandfather or something, this was the first time they’d ever seen them, uh, you know, gender, a trans person, appropriately, use their pronouns and all that sort of thing. And I was really blown away by that.
And then, I have kept hearing that story from so many different people ever since, uh, I didn’t expect that. I thought that just seeing one trans person, it didn’t seem to me that it should be enough to-to change people’s minds in that way. But, you know, it turns out that for a lot of people, especially older people, it’s just something that, you know, they were just raised with all these, like awful stereotypes of trans people that everyone was, and they just kind of accepted it without really thinking and they just needed to have it challenged a little bit to realize that it wasn’t true like, fear and resentment was so much more brittle than I-I thought it was. And this whole experience has made me so much more optimistic about the future for trans people at a time when things don’t look so great.
Imara: I think that, that is a really important point especially now, because one of the things that you are showing is that by being yourself and by being visible that when the stars align, you can have a really big impact on the way that millions of people think about trans people.
Imara: And you’re a person who analyses life, and analyses your life and the world around you, in addition to being extremely aware of facts in the ability to retain them, and in the time since you stopped, I’m wondering, do you have any insights as to why you think that maybe? Do you think it’s something different about the Jeopardy audience? Do you think that it is the fact that this was about an emphasis on achievement or a goal and that anyone who is able to perform at that high level gets respect? I’m just wondering, do you have any insights? Because it’s important for us to know.
Amy: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean I think a few things one is-is the Jeopardy audience that the people who watch Jeopardy are more likely to be people who are open to learning new things, right, or are open to new experience and all of that. Another aspect of it is my transness if you will was not a focus of-of all of that, that wasn’t for grounded. I just happen to be trans and that didn’t really come up and it was just, you know, a trivia show like, you know, I was just a contestant like any other. Um, and I think that’s also a tribute to the people at Jeopardy as well. That that’s something that for a long time, like the first gay people that I’ve saw presented, like non-controversially were on Jeopardy just referring to their partner and their anecdote and that being it and nothing else said about it. Given the chance to see a trans person without kind of being put into a defensive mode by being told, “this is a trans person. This is, uh, a thing that you should have an opinion about, but just having it be naturally there.” Then they could sort of take it in and realize that I’m just a person. And if I’m just a person, maybe other trans people are just a person and not like an activist and not scary.
Imara: I also wonder if it’s something to do with continuous exposure, that is to say that they saw you every day.
Imara: And they saw you every day for weeks and there’s something about that where when you’re in their living room after work, or after school, it’s the ability to be able to feel like you’re in their home and you’re constantly there for weeks on end. And that constant contact, I would also think diminishes the idea that you are in other because sure, you’re always there, you know?
Amy: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I’m always there and Ken Jennings is interacting with me just like anyone else, like, he’s sort of modeling that I’m just, you know, just a person. One of the most normal things you could do is be on Jeopardy and in America, and I think that’s a part of it too.
Imara: I’m wondering for you what the change in visibility has been like, when you went from being living with your partner and your cats in the bay. Being a software engineer to, you know, now this national and because of the nature of Jeopardy, even international figure. And so, I’m wondering what that leap for you was like, because it happened in a matter of-of months.
Amy: I mean, the thing I would say first is that it’s great. Most of the past year has just been like, almost literally a dream come true. And, you know, I want to start by saying that, because also there’s certainly been downsides to it. It’s definitely been complete like disruption in my life. My life is completely different in so many ways. I remember like, early on it was the third or fourth time I’d been recognized. Um, I was out at the grocery store and like, two different people like recognize me, “oh you were on Jeopardy,” and all this sort of thing. And I was walking out, I was like, “it’s really nice that I can just do what I’m doing anyway and make people happy,” and then, I had a realization immediately after that, that was like, “if this ever stops being nice, I can’t turn it off and I can’t pause it, like it’s out of my control.” That was kind of, uh, a sobering thought. I’m lucky in that like, I do mostly like it still, you know, I mean like, as I say to people, like people come up and tell me, I’m great all the time, like, how could, you know, what else don’t I like about that?
But, you know, it is all the time, it is when I’m getting off of a cross-country flight, it is when I’m, you know, having some personal stuff going on and I’m out in public. And I have to like put all that aside and kind of put on my public face and be like, “oh yes, thank you,” and all of that sort of thing and-and meet people where they’re at. If you’ve ever had a friend, who had a negative interaction with a celebrity, you know, they’re so eager to tell everyone about their negative interaction with the celebrity. And so, that’s something that I’m always kind of conscious of because I’m a very, like I try to be a pretty like open transparent person. That’s-that’s something that I sort of value in myself, but I had to realize that that’s fine whether it’s within your social circle but when it’s for all the world to see you really do have to make an effort to keep some things private.
And I made some missteps on that early on and-and said some things publicly that I-I realized I didn’t want people to know. I had people that were close to me finding out about things because they saw news alerts that they deserve to hear from me. It’s a strange and fascinating experience. The other thing about it is I can also see how addictive it is, you know, I can really understand now desperate has been celebrity clinging on to their fame, like I can really understand why-why that happens and why people do that. There’s this addictive thing about everybody is always interested in you and everybody wants to hear what you have to say and you’re being invited on interviews and asked to expound on your thoughts and all of that sort of thing. And it-it would be tough to let that go, if-if the time ever comes that I need to.
Imara: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the interesting things, lots of studies have been done about the impact of this type of attention on young brains in particular and it can literally rewire the brain, like how the brain works.
Amy: Yeah, I believe it. I mean, ’cause I can at times feel the like boundaries between sort of my public self and private self blurring and starting to wonder like “wait, who’s-who’s the real me?” I’ve experienced that.
Imara: Whatever you stand out as one of the most unexpected positive interactions you’ve had around your visibility where someone has recognized who you are and told you something or revealed something or said something about the impact that seeing you had on them. I’m wondering what that might be for you?
Amy: One of them is-is sort of like, I was saying before about people talking about their parents. You know, one person saying that their parents had actually stopped dead naming them because they saw me and, you know, as somebody that has been through that struggle with my mom, I know how meaningful that is and how wonderful that is. You know, I’ve also heard from multiple people including Mateo Roach, who is another Jeopardy champion that, uh, was on the show not long after me saying that I inspired them. That they don’t think they would have believed in themselves on that show if they hadn’t seen, uh, my run, uh, before it, and seeing another queer person doing so well and that was really gratifying. You know I-I think some of the other things like MJ Rodriguez from Pose[?] I did this award show and she was getting the-the main award and then somebody was like, “oh, she wants to see you.” And I was like, “what? She wants to see me?” And it was just wild. And Padma Lakshmi like tweeted about me. She is the moment, and that was, that was one of my favorite things that’s ever happened in my whole life, uh, that-that Padma knew who I was.
Imara: Those are all great moments, you know, and it just speaks to the touching nature of as you mentioned like your transparency and your honesty, and your groundedness things, the things that you value in yourself, the rest of the world sees, as well. What do you think a person like who you are now visible and having achieved things would have meant to you 15, 20 years ago, if you had seen someone as you are now?
Amy: I mean it would have meant so much and as I say there was no such thing as trans people, when I was growing up. There were maybe drag queens and you know, to the extent that trans people, trans women existed, they were jokes and they were freaks and they were scary and they were, you know, Buffalo Bob and Silence of the Lambs and all these sorts of things. So, I could never see myself as trans. I could never consider that that was who I could be because I wasn’t a freak. And so, that was just not a possibility that could exist in my mental universe. And so it just left me for decades just knowing that there was something wrong with me and having no idea what it was or how to name it, you know, that was how it felt.
You know, moving out to the Bay Area in 2009, Natasha Muse, who is a trans woman that does stand up out here seeing her and seeing her just be a person that did stand up and have a wife and kids and was a normal person, a very nice sweet, smart, funny person. That was a huge for me and that was what, you know, enabled me to still took a few years but seeing her was what enabled me to eventually come realize my own identity. It’s amazing the progress that trans people have made just in the last decade or so, but I think that that’s the reason for it. It’s this exponential snowball effect that we just need to see that being trans is possible and not weird to suddenly accept that for ourselves. And then we come out and we’re visible and we’re giving that same lesson to-to other people. And I could never have imagined growing up in the 80s and 90s in Ohio, that a trans person would be a very popular well-beloved celebrity in any context.
Imara: Especially in the show associated with the middle of middle America, you know.
Amy: Mhmm-hmm. Mhmm-hmm.
Imara: What are some of the ways that you hope to use the visibility that you have now? You told us some of the things that you’re doing. So, it’s gonna be a podcast. It’s gonna be a book, but what do you hope to be the impact of those things that you’re doing?
Amy: You know, some of that stuff is, I just want to keep getting gigs, not have to go back to a day job [inaudible] going for.
Imara: I think everyone hearing you can relate.
Amy: Yeah, but, you know, part of like the book in particular, I want to sort of complicate, you know, my image I want to show some of the like messier sides of my life and myself, because I think like a lot of trans people, I have had some messy experiences around sex and drugs and these non tv-friendly things. And I want to show that those are all compatible with being the relatable’s Jeopardy champ that you all know. And then beyond that, I’m really trying to figure out more of how to like get involved in actual like advocacy type things, you know, both. I’m on the board of Equality California now, working with, uh, Oakland kind of promote some local stuff. And last year, I testified in Ohio against some anti-trans legislation, I would like to try and continue doing that as hopeless as it often feels. I-I really want to speak out even more than I have been about just the sort of awful impact that these things are going to have because I know that so many people who kind of vaguely support these anti-trans bills like are doing so because they just don’t understand.
They have these images painted in their heads of these awful doctors doing terrible things to children that aren’t true. And I-I know that so many of the people who are supporting these bills are just doing it because they don’t understand. They’re not really doing it out of like hatred, they’re doing it out of confusion. This is all very new to them. Trans issues are confusing. I’m trans and I found it very confusing and still do at times, it’s a strange thing that some people experience this, that some people have a body that appears to be one gender and know that-that is not them. And if you haven’t experienced it, it’s very easy not to get it at all and I, that’s the main thing that I-I would love to do more of is to get more people to understand what the real trans experience is actually like to kind of immunize them a bit from the fear-mongering that’s out there.
Imara: Doing for other people or continue to do for other people. Everything that by example, you’ve done now which is to create the idea of visibility and possibility. Okay, well I wouldn’t be a good podcast host if I didn’t actually try to challenge you on a Jeopardy question, if you’re up for it.
Imara: Okay. Niccolo Machiavelli is famous for his book, The Prince, but he also wrote this book, which describes an alternate reality for a potential society?
Amy: Um, is it? Uh, this is a good one. I got to say, what is, what is the Republic?
Imara: It is. Oh my God, that’s exactly right. I thought I was gonna stop you, you know, I felt, I-I I look, look. I, the fact that I got a hesitation and-and a sigh, I’ll take that as a win, but, you know, you just proved why you were in Jeopardy and won one and a half-half million dollars.
Amy: This was actually perfect because if you actually had stopped me, I would have been, I would have felt bad but this was, this was the perfect level. Yes.
Imara: Amy, thank you so much for being game for allowing me to challenge you in a Jeopardy format, for being who you are, um, for being grounded, for being visible and for giving people hope at a dark time just by being who you are. Thank you so much.
Amy: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.
Imara: That was Amy Schneider, Jeopardy champion. I’m Imara Jones, everyday the attacks on trans kids grow louder, and more anti-trans bills keep moving through state legislatures. In this season of the Anti Trans Hate Machine, we’re going to illuminate how the right wing has fueled these bills by generating a breathtaking and wide-ranging disinformation campaign.
Male Speaker: It’s spreading like wildfire on the Internet. It’s then being discussed by families and churches.
Imara: None of this is an accident. It’s a strategy to delegitimize trans people and create a world where existence is a question. Subscribe to season two, the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, a plot against the equality, wherever you listen to podcasts. I’m now joined by Peyton Daisy O’Conner, who made headlines after announcing her resignation from the Asheville North Carolina City Board of Education this past December. She was driven off the board after a representative of the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom began targeting Peyton with transphobic harassment. She was the board’s first out trans member and likely one of the only trans people to sit on any North Carolina School Board. Outside of her time on the board, Peyton has worked in project management and operations, including as the Director of the Buncombe County Parks, and Recreation Department. There, she worked to expand LGBTQ outreach, including a formal inclusion policy for Trans kids. She’s also served on several Asheville commissions and is also a combat veteran. Peyton now works as a manager at her wife Shannon’s newly-opened Medical Practice in Marshall, North Carolina, where they both focus on centering care for marginalized people. Peyton and her wife also share a blended family with five children, two dogs and a leopard gecko. That sounds like a lot going on and a very lively household. Peyton, thank you so much for joining me.
Peyton: Absolutely, and thank you for having me, and, uh, I’ll try to table the-the leopard gecko, uh, remarks for another time then.
Imara: Feel free. Now I have one question, though, was that your idea, one of your kids?
Peyton: It was one of my kids, but, um, I am now a surrogate mother since, uh, it’s-it’s not the most entertaining pet.
Imara: Yeah, you got duped into the role. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us and for all of your service really appreciated in-in all the ways that you’ve given it. First off, what made you want to run for school board? What was it about being able to serve on a school board that attracted you?
Peyton: So, I first started to interact with Asheville City schools, because two of my younger kids had some developmental delays that caused them to perform poorly as they were making their way through Pre-K. And I was really touched by the amount of effort that Asheville City Schools put into them even prior to them formally entering the school system. And because of that school system, we had two kids that we were concerned about being able to start kindergarten on time, not only start kindergarten on time, but excel and continue through their education. So, just that focus on student success and really the opportunity to represent our community in the space really kind of excited me. It was also a good opportunity to apply some of what I’ve learned in local government and something that was volunteer-related and not work-related.
Imara: And so, when you decided to run for the school board, did you ever have any second thoughts about it, um, being a person who’s trans, running for school board?
Peyton: We didn’t necessarily have second thoughts about it. As a family, we’re very hyper aware especially a family living in the South and in the rural South. We’re very hyper aware of how trans people are treated and perceived. We are very aware that we would eventually run into problems, and at that point, we would have to have a discussion as a family about what was safest for us and the best way to respond to that. So, yeah, really no second thoughts and that conversation came a lot sooner on my time in the board than I had anticipated, but yeah, it was just something that I was really excited about doing and that we both felt was really important in terms of taking advantage of the opportunity for representation.
Imara: A part of the process in Asheville is that the school board members go through a vetting process by the city council, and many people might think, “oh, it’s Asheville, North Carolina. It is an LGBTQ liberal outpost in North Carolina and that would be a place where someone like Peyton could sail through.” And I’m wondering if that was your experience, and if you can just talk a little bit about what going through that was like for you?
Peyton: When I first applied to be on the board at like, I was in the infancy of my transition. I guess now, I’m in the toddler faces. I had just come out publicly at the end of 2020. And so, I applied for the board in March of 2021. At the time I identified as non-binary because I thought that was more palatable to people. At the time, you know, the reception was great. I was kind of seen as someone that was a little bit of a political outsider and that I had not had a lot of involvement with Asheville City Schools. So, that was really in terms of any kind of criticism that became public, and I think that was fair criticism. That was really the only negative thing that I heard. I felt like my fellow board members, the school system for the most part and everybody was very professional in their interactions, and they really worked hard to understand, you know, like issues like what’s the appropriate honorific. And coming onto the board I would say that I was pretty welcomed, that’s not always universal because I think people do perceive Asheville to be an incredibly gay friendly town. And I would agree with that assessment, but I would also say that, I don’t know that it’s an incredibly queer friendly town. And so, there was always murmurings and the occasional snide remark on social media, but for the longest time, I went remarkably unscathed particularly with the climate of North Carolina politics. I was actually very surprised that I didn’t receive more negative attention when I was first appointed to the board.
Imara: And so, to your surprise in the beginning it went surprisingly well, when for you did you have a sense that the winds were changing?’
Peyton: Throughout I would say, 2021, and the first three quarters of 2022. What I found is, the board was not only receptive but they were actually willing to take on trans issues and we pushed forward a number of agenda items where we even went to the state legislature and expressed issues with some of the anti-trans and anti LGBTQ legislation that was going through the legislature at the time. It was in October, 2022, you know, my family had, we literally drove back from a vacation from New Orleans that day and I jumped out of the car to attend the school board meeting and just completely got blindsided with the fact that there was this group that I had heard of in other political efforts that had just kind of begun to focus on Asheville City Schools and what they termed the indoctrination of the school children. From there, it just kind of ballooned very quickly into a really negative situation.
Imara: When it first started to occur, did you have a sense that Alliance Defending Freedom was behind it? Did you know who they were or did it at first appear organic, because sometimes when they do things like this, they try to make it look organic first or mostly before it becomes apparent that it’s organized, and I’m wondering how you experienced it in real time?
Peyton: So, in real time, I sat down on that board meeting and there was a piece of paper that was in front of me that an individual wishing to-to provide public comment had distributed to all the board members and I was just reading this as the meeting was starting and trying to process it. And, you know, it was basically anti-queer screed. And at the time I recognize some of the names of the locals involved in the effort but I really had no idea who the Alliance Defending Freedom was. So, I thought at first it was kind of an organic effort being pushed by one or two individuals within the community, and really didn’t even understand the magnitude of the situation, uh, when I first encountered it.
Imara: And so, when you saw the list of names, it just looked like local people that you were familiar with it seems. And if that’s correct, when did you get wind of the idea? When did it kind of occur to you that, “oh, wait, this is a national group and that this is organized,” like how did that unfold?
Peyton: I guess I have to be, uh, full disclosure about my behavior is, um, when the individual came to the meeting and read the letter and made his comments. I felt it was important because we’re not supposed to respond to comments verbally as a board that he not get to take that shot at LGBTQ youth and staff and families that were in the district. And so, I ripped a letter in half once he was done reading it. It was in the aftermath, uh, of that.
Imara: Like Nancy Pelosi.
Peyton: Yeah, it was just like, I was inspired. Um, but it was in the aftermath of that where that’s when it got really kind of nasty because at that point, there was a letter written to the chair of the board asking for me to apologize in writing and that I be reprimanded by the rest of the board for what they considered unprofessional actions throughout the course of that letter, that was sent by the local pastor that-that came. He misgendered me at-at every reference. Like and, you know, it’s the typical misgendering that you’re used to, or you’re like, “wow, why did you even need to use a pronoun or an honorific in that particular instance, I have a name.” So, he was informed by the board chair that I was responsible for my own actions, the board couldn’t compel me to apologize and that the board would not be trying to issue a reprimand. And at that point, you know, my gender was correctly asserted in the letter and then I kinda knew after talking to some other advocates and activists in the area what I was dealing with because I showed them the exchange and they were like, “yeah, the Alliance Defending Freedom is-is, you know, not small cookies. It’s a, it’s labelled a national or a hate group by the, uh, Southern Poverty Law Centre. It’s well-funded and they have a history of creating these types of interactions to inflame the base and bring attention to their issues with little regard for the divisiveness that it shows within the local community.”
Imara: Now, that’s exactly right and our podcast Anti-Trans Hate Machine, we have an entire episode, in fact the entire first episode is devoted exclusively to the Alliance Defending Freedom in the way that they work and their role in being one of the factories for anti-trans legislation in the country. So, whoever advised you that they were-were not small-bore was correct. Just to clarify, Alliance Defending Freedom, their name appeared on that letter or how did their name come up, because it sound like it was at first a local pastor. Where did ADF’s name show up for you in black and white?
Peyton: During the first comments they made, and it-it just didn’t register with me at the time. He actually introduced himself as an ambassador for the Alliance Defending Freedom, both verbally and in writing and continued to do so and in every communication from that point forward.
Imara: Yeah. And they do look for individuals just like that to go and represent, um, around the country. They’re constantly looking for local spokespeople who have some prominence. So, whoever this person is fits in to a pattern that we’ve seen in that we’ve-we’ve documented.
Peyton: I think too like one of the things that is becoming a little bit more nuanced in their approach is they’re seeking to pit like communities of color and other marginalized groups within communities against the LGBTQ community, because then what happens is privileged this people don’t know what side of that fight to jump in and they’re able to execute a very formulate plan with even less resistance than they might normally encounter.
Imara: Mm-hmm, yeah, I-I think that that’s right, and it’s a really important point which leads me to my next question. What then unfolded is the dynamic that you described, what unfolded in your case in Asheville, and how did the pressure campaign on your colleagues present itself?
Peyton: I think my colleagues on the board, I don’t think that they were moved or impacted by the individual’s remarks. What really started to become clear to me and, um, you know, I’m really thankful that I had people much smarter than myself advising me on, “this is what this looks like and this will be what happens next.” I realized that because I was sitting in the seat as a board member, I had given this individual a target that was very attractive to a lot of more conservative activist. And what I started to see happening was this was a conversation that was no longer about, you know, just me and him because he was really trying to attack me personally, but I started to realize it was playing out in front of the entire queer population of the city of the district, and it was really something that I didn’t want to see play out in front of the students and staff, because I will say that, I don’t know that the board’s response was completely adequate because the individual wasn’t censured. He was only gaggled down after the bullet had left the rifle so to speak.
And it was just gonna continue to be without really aggressive board action and opportunity for him to set up a soap box and scream transphobic things. I think the other side of that is part of their strategy is to try to be censured so that they can then create a legal challenge based on the idea of a First Amendment violation, where I want to say, you know, things and this public board is not letting me. So, because of how behind we are in the public discourse in terms of catching up and understanding that’s okay to stop hate speech, particularly as it’s aimed at the LGBTQ community. It was just gonna be an opportunity for him to either attract more attention to the matter, or we as a board we’re gonna misstep and create that legal challenge. And there was already a very similar case to what was happening with us in Asheville, in Loudoun County Virginia and they really turned that school district into just a dumpster fire with what they were doing. So, that’s the point that I realized, you know, as much as, um, I have fight ingrained in me very deeply that fighting was not the best strategy because I was just giving my opponent so to speak a venue.
Imara: This initial incident happens at the school board. How long between that first incident where the person says, “I’m Pastor X and I am the local ambassador for the Alliance Defending Freedom,” between that and when you said, “you know what, I, this isn’t gonna work. I’m gonna step down.”
Peyton: So, after the first, I call it a dust-up between the individual and myself, where I ripped up the letter. He came back and started to continually misgender me in his remarks. I at some point, during his remarks said, “you need to refrain from hate speech and bigotry while you’re speaking before the board,” and then he went off on the standard transphobic tropes of XY chromosomes, and if he tested my blood, you know, they would find it was a man kind of thing. Um, and it was the fallout after that that I realized this was gonna be an ongoing thing. So, I think the amount of time that elapsed was a meeting where we allowed public comment, and then we had a work session and it had just become a constant feature. And, yeah, it was at that point that I realized that it was just gonna keep happening, and that was the point that I decided to take a step back. We also did start to develop some pretty serious safety concerns as a family because I noticed that as the commentary was starting to develop throughout the local media channels and on social media, I was receiving a little bit more attention.
I was getting viewed on LinkedIn and other platforms by people that were definitely not trans friendly, I’ll just put it that way. And like the individual that made the comments, his church was like a block down the street from our house, and that along with what I felt like was a little bit of a timid approach, not just by the school board, but like the entire political community, because I’ve been politically involved since I came back from Afghanistan in 2007. I knew a lot of the people involved in local politics, and I just hope someone would speak up, and that’s the point where I was like, “you know what, we do not have the protection or the insulation that I-I guess dreamed that we had, and this is not something that I want my children exposed to.” The really sad part is, is like as a mom of five kids, um, my son was in those meetings when this was all going on. Thankfully, you know, he had an iPad so he was a little bit tuned out, but that was just way too close to home for my kids and another generation of children to be exposed to some of the things that really caused me to struggle, um, with my mental health.
Imara: That’s a lot and a lot to have to have unfold in real time, and make real decisions about how to respond with regards to safety and community and your kids and your own mental health. So, thank you for taking us through all of that. It sounds like as much as anything at work for you wasn’t necessarily the attacks from Alliance Defending Freedom and their deputies, but it’s actually the lack of solidarity. Kind of the lack of team that you had locally that made you feel like you were backed up and backed up in ways that you would have expected. And I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about that and what lessons you think are important because as you know, there can sometimes be, uh, reticence, fragility softness even and support for trans people amongst people who are on paper allies, kind of the rest of the progressive movement including liberals. And what for you is the experience of what it was like to not actually have other people who were essential to your safety show up for you?
Peyton: Yeah, so I mean I will definitely give props to a large majority of the local LGBTQ community. They were great. I feel like they were ready to go to bat for the situation and I was in conversation and people are like, you know what, especially the trans community, like we’ll fill the chamber up, like and I was like, “yeah, but a-at this point it’s-it’s not our fight because it’s always us versus them.” And this is where we should see allyship, you know, like it-it shouldn’t always be on us to have to defend the space, like we belong there and it wasn’t the first time I had been, I guess I would call it knocked down a peg by a lack of-of a response from the local progressive community. I had earlier in the year, worked for a congressional campaign and took a lot of hits, um, as a member of that campaign from other members of the political community, who when they couldn’t get anything on the candidate would swing at me which didn’t make much sense and provided her a little bit of cover.
But that experience collectively just really caused me to like, step back and be like, “wow, like not only did they not step in in those situations but when it was just in your face, bigotry and transphobia,” and I mean, this was just an even like, anti-gay messaging. When no one was willing to step up for that, combined with what I’d seen as a lack of traction between some of the work that we were doing on the school board to combat North Carolina’s version of the don’t say gay Bill and things like that. Like when I kept seeing us make that effort and then it fall flat when we asked either city council or the County Commissioners to take up the issue and kind of amplify that voice to the state legislature. I think it really made me realize that like, I can be there, I can do the work but until there’s that allyship it’s just me screaming into the void, and that’s not something that our community deserves to see. And the progressive community doesn’t deserve to have our voice and our presence unless they are willing to protect and defend it because I think without solidarity, it’s just tokenism.
Imara: Well, and it won’t work, right? It won’t work if it’s, if we’re totally isolated and-and facing the tidal wave and it won’t work for anyone, but I think that for me, one of the thing that stands out is that you didn’t get to that position on your own. You didn’t get to be on the school board on your own that a city council was involved in your decision. So where were the people who voted for you standing up for you? Where was your mayor? Where were, you know, the other people that you knew from local politics and had worked with and form relationships with? Where were they in all of this? And that for me is I think really fascinating about what you’re laying out for us is that sometimes we can expect people like ADF to show up and to do whatever they do. I mean, ’cause that’s what their billionaires who fund them want them to do, but it’s the fragility of the response on the people who are nominally on our side that really makes it hard to kinda stand in the breach and what you’re laying out here, which is the absence of the people who had actually helped you get there.
Peyton: I think fragility is a great term because it really boils down to people often don’t want to stand up for trans and queer people because they’re like, “if I do that, then I’m going to get hit,” you know and it might impact my political career or I’m gonna be seen as fringe. Like I can loosely support those things but I’m in the South and don’t want to piss off the base kind of is-is how I felt. And to see that people politically were more motivated by the numbers game rather than by, you know, just the ethics and morality of the situation really represented that fragility.
Imara: When you decided to resign, did you tell your wife and what did she say?
Peyton: Usually it works the other way around to be honest, she’s a very good guideposts for me. Um, but I think public communication, I had to be very careful about who I was speaking with because it could be seen as official government business and I risk exposing other people within our community to-to danger by exchanging anything written with them. So, she was the one that really did the phone work so to speak and helped me get the information in front of me that helped me understand like the-the gravity of the situation. And then, you know, I-I had a realization one day when I was just, I was sitting at home and I think I text her while she was working, I was like, “you know, there’s no way no matter what moves that I make, where this does not get worse for our family does, and get worse for members of our community.” She was extremely supportive of that position.
Imara: When you told your colleagues, when you announced your resignation, how did you feel, and what was their response?
Peyton: There was not a lot of resistance, which I-I found, you know, disappointing but my wife Shannon had asked me at one point, a very direct question ’cause she’s good at though she said, “what if you say the things that you’re saying, you send them that email and then you don’t get a response, you know, like what if they, it’s just apathy and-and no one really seems to care.” And I had to process that before I-I sent the email and I-I’m glad that she asked that question because that’s kind of how I feel about the response, but at the end of the day, that response also affirmed my decision to leave because it showed that they were not willing to take that fight on. And, you know, like I had all kinds of doubts when I was thinking about resigning and, you know, I hate to feel right or vindicated in that decision, but i-it showed me that it was the right-right response for my mental health, for my family’s well-being because again we were kind of in it alone.
Imara: When you look back now, I mean it’s not that long ago but I guess I should say looking back now, what lesson do you think is the one that you personally take away from this?
Peyton: I think the biggest one that was like, maybe one of my adulting or growing up lessons was fight the good fight but don’t necessarily become personally attached to or entrenched in the outcome because you’re only responsible for what you can do. But beyond that, I really had to learn to depersonalize the situation and not walk away with like this guilt of like I should have done more. I should have done this different. And so, it took me a while to get there because I think I did walk away with those regrets, but yeah, as I processed it more, I’ve really come to understand that part of the role of queer advocacy and activism and we can’t hold guilt. When, you know, allyship doesn’t provide protection. I think beyond that it was probably the first time in my life that I can say that I’ve learned to prioritize my mental health. And I mean, if I was giving advice to other queer folks that want to get involved in politics, I think, making sure that that’s a priority because I-I did suffer as a result of it. I feel like I’m in a much better place now but just feeling like putting yourself and your own mental health and your ability to survive is something that’s completely acceptable, and it shouldn’t be on our community. A community that already takes so many hits on the chin, to have to risk their own physical well-being, and-and mental wellness to keep swimming upstream like that. So, that was a big fundamental shift in how I kind of view things and honestly allowed me the opportunity to like, step back, step back from politics and-and rest, and kind of reprioritize things and realize that now that I don’t have that kind of latent stress of constantly being involved in politics that I have some new emotional availability for my family and I think they deserve that for a while.
Imara: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and for stepping forward and all the ways that you did and helping us understand the things that we really need in order to be successful in fighting back and standing up for our lives, and what we need to do to take care of ourselves in the middle of it all. You know, it shows that disability doesn’t come without risks and it doesn’t come without cost and that every person has to weigh all of that when deciding how much they want to step forward in all of the ways. And it’s not a story that we tell ourselves that much and it’s not something that we talk about as often as we should. And so, I just want to thank you so much for your transparency and for everything that you did for our community.
Peyton: Thank you so much.
Imara: That was former Asheville, North Carolina School Board member, Peyton Daisy O’Conner. Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now, listen, all the way through to the end of the show, for something extra. If you like what you heard, please go to Apple podcast to rate and review us. You can also listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast. Please check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @translashmedia, like us on Facebook and tell your friends. The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Klein and Aubrey Calaway. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show and our sound engineer. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you. What am I looking forward to? Well, I’m looking forward to the launch of season two of The Anti-Trans Hate Machine.
It’s been a tremendous undertaking by so many people on our team. We’ve worked on it for over 18 months and have had hundreds of hours of-of conversations, and what we’re gonna do is basically show you how the entire disinformation ecosystem that the Christian Nationalist Movement has created, essentially has driven the entire conversation about trans people. How they’ve essentially manufactured an entire conversation and use this information specifically about trans kids to help drive that. And so, I hope that you’ll listen, it’s gonna be in two parts. The first part launches on March 31st. The second part will be on June 2nd, and I’m just really proud of the work and I’m just really hoping that it will, but resonate with people and help people understand so that we can find more effective ways of pushing back against this movement.
And also not being so scared because at the core of what they’re saying are things that we fundamentally know aren’t true. So, I want you to go in sign up for Anti-Trans Hate Machine. It’s a totally different podcast y’all. So don’t complain when on March 31st you come in and you’re like, “where are the episodes?” They ain’t gonna be here. Um, they’re all gonna drop on the, um, Anti-Trans Hate Machine feed first. Then we will dribble them out and dribs and drabs over the course of 6 weeks here in this feed, but you’re not gonna want to wait that long. You might as well go there, sign up, make it easy on yourself, get them all at once and just start listening, because the information is something you’re going to be hungry for and wanna be able to tell everyone around you, what’s going on. So, go sign up for season two of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine and also just let us know what you think of the-the work and, um, if you believe that it’s useful, let us know.
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