When I was in high school, it was common to hear kids say “that’s so gay,” usually to deride something thought as extremely corny or nerdy. Or, well, lame.
And I have to admit that I suspect that 4-H got more than its fair share of “that’s so gay”.
Honestly, I only had a passing understanding of what 4-H was while growing up. I knew that some kids went to the state fair to eat and then throw up cotton candy on carnival rides, while other kids went to the state fair because they had, like, a pig in the pig contest or something. I didn’t fit into either of those categories, which helps to explain why my 4-H knowledge base is shaky at best.
Oh, and the name 4-H “represents four personal development areas of focus for the organization: head, heart, hands, and health” (thanks, Wikipedia! Send them $3). The 4-H website has no farm animals on its front page and kind of looks like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Big Brothers Big Sisters all rolled into one. Millions of kids are involved in one way or another. Even some LGBTQ kids.
And here’s the great thing: 4-H wants to include and protect its LGBTQ youth.
The not-so-great thing, however, is that the Trump Administration does not want them to do that and, according to a detailed investigation in The Des Moines Register, the administration “pushed the national 4-H youth organization to withdraw” the LGBTQ-inclusive policy.
The most significant sticking point appears to have been letting transgender youth use the bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
It is a familiar story, one that Trump’s administration enjoys telling, and believing, even though there is no evidence to justify the right wing’s anti-trans focus.
So when 4-H in Iowa published the inclusive guidelines to its website, some people freaked the eff out.
One of those freakers was Bob Vander Plaats, president of the conservative Christian organization the Family Leader in Des Moines. According to The Register, he wanted his supporters to reject the policy’s “radical” approach. He claimed that this policy allows “a man who claims the female gender (without any medical procedure or legal verification) to sleep in the girls’ hotel rooms.”
Vander Plaats, whose photo in The Register looks like a headshot for an actor playing a B-movie role as the head of a conversion therapy summer camp for gay teens, is but a bit player in The Register’s investigation. But I’ve chosen to focus on him because comments like his get people killed. The idea that there are men out there who want to slip their hairy calves into a pair of L’eggs so that they can stride confidently into a ladies’ locker room to ogle and sexually assault women and girls is absurd. It’s also dangerous, painting an already vulnerable population as predators, which pretty much gives a blank check to those who wish to do violence against transgender people.
The vast majority of transgender people are not predators. But they are all people. Vander Plaats would like you to forget that part, and his comment about “girls’ hotel rooms” is an effort to dehumanize a group of people who, like all of us, want to live their lives in a way that makes the most sense to them.
I should note that Vander Plaats’ comments are not a surprise. The Family Leader is staunchly anti-LGBT. The first thing on their “Issues we are focused on” page is marriage, as in, “We believe marriage is a permanent, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman.” This is followed closely by sexuality, as in, “The Family Leader affirms sexual relations within the bond of marriage, and opposes distortions of sexuality or special rights to those practicing distorted sexual behavior.”
Thankfully, the LGBTQ kids of 4-H had someone in their corner: 4-H Youth Development Program leader John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas.
According to The Register, Chaisson-Cardenas wrote in an email referring to WorldNetDaily, a right-wing website that has an extreme anti-LGBTQ bias and had been covering the 4-H controversy: “I guess I am not sure why we are valuing the propaganda machine of a recognized hate group over the existing rights of LGBTQ youth?”
It’s an excellent question and one that we’ll probably never have an answer for because Chaisson-Cardenas was canned. He’s not the first and won’t be the last person pushed out by Trump for supporting transgender people. The only question is how many more will there be?
D’Anne Witkowski is a poet, writer, and comedian living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBT politics for over a decade. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.