Six Words, Two Commas: LGBTQ Activists Bring the Fight to a Suburban School Board

Stacy Bailey (right) has accused Mansfield ISD of suspending her as a result of her sexual orientation.
courtesy Stacy Bailey
Stacy Bailey (right) has accused Mansfield ISD of suspending her as a result of her sexual orientation.
In 2017, art teacher Stacy Bailey spent the first day of class introducing herself to her students at Charlotte Anderson Elementary School in Arlington. She flipped through a slideshow of pictures of her family, which included a photo of Bailey and her fiancée making fish faces while dressed as Finding Nemo characters for Halloween.

A parent complained, alleging Bailey — whose fiancée is now her wife — of pushing a “homosexual agenda.” The school district investigated, learned that Bailey had also told her students that two male artists they studied were partners, and suspended her.

According to Mansfield Independent School District, which encompasses 46 schools serving students in Fort Worth and six other nearby cities, Bailey’s comments were not “age-appropriate” and her protests had resulted in a “disruption of the campus educational environment.” Bailey had worked in the district for a decade and had been voted Teacher of the Year twice. She sued the district, sparking national outrage and coverage in The New York Times.

Texas is one of 26 states where discrimination based on sexual orientation is not prohibited by law. Still, many larger cities and districts in the state have adopted explicit LGBTQ protections in their anti-discrimination policies. But most other city governments and school districts in the DFW suburbs have not. In the wake of Bailey’s firing, a group of LGBTQ activists decided to try to change that in Mansfield.

The group, spearheaded by a local church, set out to convince the district to add six words — “sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression” — to its anti-discrimination policy. It would stop the torrent of negative press and square the district’s own policies with their claims of protecting all students and employees from discrimination.

“We thought, if we just tell them this, it’ll go to the policy review committee and they'll come back with changes,” said the Rev. Katie Hays, pastor at Galileo Church in Fort Worth.

“And that is not what happened.”

Instead, the issue has polarized the community and pulled city leaders into a battle they seem reluctant to fight. Bailey’s lawsuit is ongoing — a federal judge recently issued an order siding with her claims of discrimination — but the district has remained silent over whether it plans to change its policies, leading activists to fear that their efforts will come to nothing.

Troubling History

For Hays, the fight is personal. She started Galileo in 2013 in Mansfield, renting space from a Seventh-day Adventist Church. The relationship didn’t last long. Galileo is a “quirky church for spiritual refugees,” according to its website, and explicitly LGBTQ-friendly. The church has a “Big Gay Float” in the city’s yearly St. Patrick’s Day Parade. During the lead-up to the marriage equality Supreme Court case, Hays traveled around the country officiating marriages.

When Galileo’s landlords found out, they weren’t happy. “They told us, now that they understood what kind of church we were, they weren’t going to renew the lease,” Hays said.

After losing its lease, Galileo moved into a historic theater downtown and was evicted again. It relocated a final time to a converted barn off Interstate 20 just south of Fort Worth. The church had grown, and its Sunday services now attracted more than 100 worshipers. Kids from the church were members of Mansfield’s first Gay-Straight Alliance. Some of the adults had children in Bailey’s classes. They were mad.

Mansfield’s school district has a disturbing history of opposition to equal rights. In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education, it still ran separate schools for black and white kids. After a federal court issued a desegregation order, 300 people gathered in front of Mansfield High School to prevent three black students from enrolling. They burned effigies. The governor sent the Texas Rangers, not to protect the students but to assist the white protesters.

The three students were ultimately sent to an all-black Fort Worth school instead. When the district finally desegregated nearly a decade later, it was the final district in Texas to do so.

In early 2018, Hays held a meeting to discuss the controversy brewing around Bailey. A dozen people attended. “When your school district tries to fire you for being gay, we're going to show up,” said Nathan Shores, an early member of the group. She, Hays and other activists decided not to fight on behalf of Bailey — her lawsuit was ongoing and Hays didn’t want to meddle — and instead attack the underlying policy.

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Nathan Shores and Katie Hays, in front of their church
Lucas Manfield
Bailey has claimed that the district has an unofficial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy when it comes to teachers’ sexual orientation. A district spokesperson hotly disputed this, and wrote: “The notion that the district shares any anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is outright false and even offensive.”

Hays' group, which by then was calling itself the Mansfield Equality Coalition, began attending school board meetings religiously. The activists had expanded their goals, arguing that the district should update not just its employment policies but its anti-bullying policies as well.

Dallas ISD’s policies include explicit language prohibiting bullying due to “sexual orientation; gender identity and expression.” Mansfield’s, like most other DFW districts, does not. Thanks in part to the coalition, the public comment period at the district’s weekly board meetings, which had previously been pro-forma affairs, now dragged on for hours.

“They told us, now that they understood what kind of church we were, they weren’t going to renew the lease.” — Katie Hays

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For one meeting, Hays recruited local therapists to address the board about the experience of LGBTQ students at their schools. One was Wes Parks, a Fort Worth therapist and policy analyst. “For many months, you’ve heard many stories about the harshly negative effects of bullying in the schools based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation,” he told the board.

He went on: “More salient to me are the stories I hear in my office from your students and your staff about the daily struggles of feeling safe in MISD.”

According to gay students, going to school in Mansfield can be terrifying. Quinn Robben, now 20, attended Danny Jones Middle School. After she told a friend she was bisexual, he stood up on a chair and announced to the class that “Quinn eats pussy.” Although a teacher was looking on, she said, the student was not reprimanded.

Gay students at the school, Robben said, tended to keep to themselves. “I know a couple people that didn't come out until after high school, and I feel like a big part of it is just that we didn’t have a very accepting district,” she said.

In response to questions about its policies and efforts to protect LGBTQ students, the district issued an emailed statement: “The district will continue its efforts to ensure that all students and employees are not only protected from harassment and discrimination, but that they also feel they are in a safe and welcoming environment.”

Hays said she was tired of hearing from the district that it was unaware of LGBTQ employees feeling harassed, so she organized a series of private meetings at parents’ homes and invited school administrators and their LGBTQ staff. A few weeks before the scheduled meetings, the district’s superintendent told Hays that after consulting with their attorneys, he and other staff members had been advised not to attend.

Over the last year, the district has given varying public responses to the coalition’s demands. First, it promised to review the policy over the summer following local elections. Once that passed, the district argued that it cannot change its policy because of Bailey’s ongoing lawsuit.

A member of the Mansfield school board, Raul Gonzalez, confirmed this in a phone interview with the Observer. “Our attorneys said not to make any changes to our anti-discrimination policy that could affect the lawsuit,” he said, adding, “I hate to hide behind that, it drives me up the wall.”

Gonzalez said that the story has “two sides” and called the backlash frustrating. “I wish we weren’t in this situation, because I feel like it’s tearing the community apart," he said.

Three board members did recently meet with Hays and other members of the coalition. But Hays suspects the district is stalling for time. “I think that as soon as we go away, they think this whole thing evaporates,” she said.

A Similar Tale

Hays has good reason to be suspicious. A similar story played out in another Fort Worth suburb four years ago. Casey Akers, then 16, attempted to ask a female friend to prom and was told it was “inappropriate” by administrators at her Keller high school. Like Hays, Akers found out that sexual orientation wasn’t protected under the district’s anti-discrimination policies and set out to change it.

The district promised to review its policies, and a proposal ended up on the school board’s agenda. But it was never voted on. The Texas Observer investigated and discovered that the district’s superintendent, who claimed the issue was too polarizing and threatened to create “winners and losers,” had quietly pulled the proposal from the agenda after consulting with other board members via text message prior to the meeting.

Since then, the issue “has not been revisited,” a spokesperson for the district told the Observer in an email.

And yet, in October, the coalition thought it had made progress. They had been working closely with Rafael McDonnell, the advocacy manager for the Resource Center, a Dallas-based nonprofit that provides services for the LGBTQ community. He had been fighting for years to convince cities, businesses and government agencies across DFW to adopt inclusive anti-discrimination policies. He’d reached out to Mansfield earlier this year and was told to check back in October.

He did and, to his pleasant surprise, noticed that the city had quietly changed the policy on its webpage to include the LGBTQ-inclusive language he’d asked for. He shot off an email to Hays, who forwarded it to the Mansfield school board. She figured the district might be more willing to update its policies if it could claim it was following in the city’s footsteps.

The email appeared to have the opposite effect. A few days later, the language from the city website was gone.

The city blamed its human resources director for publishing an unapproved policy. After being asked by the Observer whether the policy change was still being considered, a city spokesperson claimed it “has no information.”

“If Walmart can do it, if ExxonMobil can do it, why in the hell can’t the city of Mansfield do it?” McDonnell wondered, his voice rising in frustration. “They haven't given the public — their citizens — a real explanation."

He was willing to speculate, however. “I think there's someone who wants to be able to discriminate against people because of who they are and who they love. And damn the consequences.”

For LGBTQ advocates now paying close attention to Mansfield, things only got worse. The Friday after the inclusive policy was removed from the city’s webpage, the Mansfield Chamber of Commerce tweeted out a link to a post by a known hate group deploring Target’s LGBTQ youth programs. It was quickly removed and the chamber has refused to acknowledge it.

The chamber has close ties to the district. The district’s current superintendent, Jim Vaszauskas, was a member of the chamber’s board in 2018. Lori Williams, its president, was named the district’s “2019 Ambassador of the Year.”

Williams declined an offer to speak with the Observer and issued the following statement via email: “The Mansfield Area Chamber of Commerce is pro-business and we welcome all legal businesses in the Mansfield Area for membership with the Chamber."

A district spokesperson said the district had contacted the chamber and was told it didn’t reflect their views and that the incident was being investigated.

Change in Leadership

The school district recently announced a search for a new superintendent to replace Vaszauskas after he retires in February. Members of the coalition argued that, given the controversy, the replacement should come from outside the current administration. Instead, the board announced plans to promote Kimberley Cantu, its current head of human resources. Cantu was originally named as a defendant in Stacy Bailey’s lawsuit. Cantu, Bailey claims, told her, “You can’t promote your lifestyle in the classroom.”

Cantu did not respond to requests for comment on this article. She referred the request to the district spokesperson, who wrote, “We cannot go into further details because this situation is currently in litigation and pertains to specific personnel matters.”

Meanwhile, Bailey's lawsuit is making its way through the courts. She appears to be winning. Last month, a federal judge dropped Cantu from the suit but allowed Bailey's case against the superintendent and the district to proceed. He concluded that Bailey had been discriminated against based on her sexual orientation, rejecting the district’s arguments to the contrary.

The judge cited Brown v. Board and wrote that Bailey's suspension "was based on her sexual orientation and a desire to appease complaining parents in the community operating on the basis of outdated stereotypes about homosexuals."

Bailey’s lawyer, Jason Smith, called it a major victory. “This ruling sends a message to every school and superintendent in Texas: You cannot discriminate against gay and lesbian teachers or students,” he said. The case, barring appeal, will now go to trial.

But Hays is not celebrating. She feels as though she’s banging her head against the wall. Describing the coalition’s strategy as “stubborn persistence,” she acknowledged its limited results.

They did manage to get an LGBTQ crisis hotline added to a list of resources on a school district webpage.

But, overall, she said, “There hasn’t been much tangible change.”