From the continuing culture wars, a true hero arose this week in the person of 13-year-of Hazel Herring of Virginia.
And in so doing Hazel put to shame Dick Black, a former Virginia state legislator and longtime perpetrator of homophobia who seemed to have receded from public life only to roar back on Tuesday at a public hearing on the Loudoun County School Board’s policies regarding transgender rights and racial equality.
Hazel’s 10-year-old brother is transgender and has already suffered torments ranging from being called a sinner to having other kids inform him that the school bus is “only for boys and girls.” And Hazel was determined to join her parents in speaking at the hearing on Tuesday.
The parents were initially hesitant about allowing Hazel to step into a skirmish of the culture war that is being waged by the far right at school boards across America. The Trump reality show has given way to localized insanity involving MAGA minds that long preceded MAGA hats, and here was this rising eighth grader determined to speak truth to power.
“She just asked over and over again, ‘I want to speak. I want to defend my brother,’” their father, Eric Herring, told The Daily Beast.
The parents finally agreed, and Hazel was with them when they arrived for the 4 p.m. meeting at the county’s main school building. More than 250 people had signed up, but her parents had learned from a prior meeting to put in their names beforehand as soon as registration opened. Hazel’s mother, Kellie Herring, was the eighth person to speak. A good number of the people in attendance had signs declaring their opposition to “indoctrination.”
“Hi, I’m back here today, proud, as a proud, screaming parent of a young transgender son in our Loudoun County schools,” Kellie began. “Instead of focusing on the hate that seems to be dripping off the followers of Jesus in this room and from their kids in our schools, I wanted to take the time…,” she said.
She was speaking with the anger of a mama bear whose cub has been injured and remains threatened. The anti-indoctrination crowd erupted and school board chair Brenda Sheridan called a five-minute recess. She reconvened with a warning.
“We will end public comment and move to our next agenda item if the room erupts again as it just did,” she said. “So please respect each other.”
Kellie resumed speaking. She was still a mama bear, but shifted to the tender tone of seeking to comfort and reassure the cubs.
“I wanted to take my time to speak to all of the transgender students that go through our halls every day. I know this feels scary right now and that’s because this is scary and you feel unsafe. I want you to know that you’re not alone and we will continue to fight for you. The transgender community has been through decades of abuse and I promise you that you will come out victorious. These are your schools too and you deserve to be there.”
She was saying what every transgender kid should hear.
“But even more than that, you are wanted. There you are smarter and stronger than any lawmaker or religious fanatic who’s scared of difference. You are perfect and you are brave and you make our school community healthier, more vibrant and stronger.”
Hazel’s father, Eric was next. He hoped to connect with those who somehow believed their religion made his son a sinner.
“In the Book of Genesis we learned that God created day and night, two opposites,” he began. “God created land and sea, two opposites… God created, man and woman, again two opposites… But what about dusk and dawn? Are they day or are they night?”
He could have been a pastor delivering a sermon.
“A trans person is God’s beautiful creation. When we only see the opposites, we only see black and white. We miss all the beautiful colors in between to everyone here. Stop hiding your transphobia in your religion because your religion does not support it. Life on Earth is too short. Let people be who they are.”
He was saying what all of us should hear.
“Show more love and acceptance. Stop the hate. I promise you. God is not going to punish you for it.”
Two more speakers followed. Eric noticed that people in the audience were shushing each other so as to avoid having the meeting shut down.
“Some of them were saying ‘Keep quiet,’ because they wanted their turn to speak,” he recalled.
The 11th speaker was Hazel. She had insisted on writing her own statement. She read it with a clear, steady voice.
“My name is Hazel Herring and I’m a rising 8th grader at Harmony Middle School,” she began. “And I’m here today to speak in support of my friends and brother. They deserve to be safe in school just like I am and making pronouns more and more normalized can also help with the acceptance of trans kids. Things like putting pronouns next to name tags or having teachers teach students about pronouns make all the difference in normalizing it. Let’s keep moving forward instead of backwards. So my friends and brother feel safe in school. Thank you.”
She was as steady as simple truth and remained a challenge as speaker after speaker stepped up. Then came the 51st.
“I’m retired Senator Dick Black of Ashburn, Virginia,” he said from the podium where Hazel had stood.
Black is a Vietnam vet and an attorney who was no sooner elected to the Loudon County Board in 1997 than he made a big splash in the news by proposing restrictions on porno in library computers.
He successfully ran for the Virginia House the next year and sponsored legislation to have internet filters installed on all public school computers. He also pressed a pro-life agenda, distributing plastic fetuses to his fellow legislators to dramatize a bill to restrict abortions. He also sought to curb the use of morning-after pills, calling them a “baby pesticide.”
And along with being pro-life, he was anti-gay.
“If I’m the last person on the face of this Earth to vote against legalizing sodomy, I’ll do it,” he declared.
In 2005, he became aware that a student-penned one-act play involving a gay football player had been staged at a local high school, in his words “promoting the homosexual lifestyle.”
“Two male students engaged in a homosexual kiss onstage,” he complained in an e-mail to his constituents.
He also opposed erecting a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Richmond.
“Putting a statute of [Lincoln] there is sort of like putting the Confederate flag on the Lincoln Memorial,” he said
He rode such attitudes all the way to the state senate in 2011. There, he was a strident voice against same-sex marriage.
“I don’t have to justify my position because my position is justified by the entire scope of human history since the beginning of time,” he said. “When you talk about polygamy, at least it functions biologically. I think you can make a stronger argument for that… It’s just more natural.”
Black went on to become a commentator on RT, the news outfit linked to the Russian government. His star rose in Moscow, but had begun to fall in Virginia. He decided not to run for re-election in 2019.
But on Tuesday he was back. He started out taking the school board to task for having suspended a teacher named Tanner Cross, who had declared at another meeting that his religion prevented him from using transgender students’ pronouns, which he called “abuse of a child… sinning.” A judge had since ordered Cross reinstated and the case is under appeal.
“If these comments were not protected speech, then Free Speech does not exist at all,” Black now declared.
Black then made his own opinion known.
“It’s absurd and immoral for teachers to call boys girls and girls boys,” he said. “You’re making teachers lie to students and even kids know that it’s wrong. This board has a dark history of suppressing free speech and caught you red-handed with an enemies list, to punish opponents of critical race theory.”
Loudoun County schools do not teach critical race theory. But Black was not done. He continued with a rousing voice.
“You’re teaching children to hate others because of their skin color and you’re forcing them to lie about other kids’ gender,” he said. “I am disgusted by your bigotry and your depravity.”
To cheers, Black strode back through the crowd with an upraised arm and a triumphant look, as if he were a kind of hero and not somebody who had just shamed himself.
Never mind that the board acted on its warning and immediately shut the meeting down. The remaining 205 people on the list did not get a chance to speak.
On Thursday, the father of the true hero, Hazel, said he would still like to sit down with Black.
“To talk to him… and try to figure out his thinking on things,” Eric told The Daily Beast.
Eric asked that his son not be identified by name, lest it cause him difficulties in some unforeseeable way. The son had trouble recently with a kid who insisted on using his “dead” name, the one he was given at birth.
“Just last week he was in group chat with many of his current classmates,” Eric told The Daily Beast. “One of his classmates kept calling him by his dead name. Our kid has had his name with his classmates for several years. The kid was doing it to be mean. My kid was devastated. It was in front of all of his friends. It is so hard to see these things happen to him. It takes a while for him to recover from these things.”
Eric added, “I can’t imagine a teacher like Tanner Cross doing that to him in front of his whole school. I am so thankful that we live 10 miles away from Tanner Cross’ school and our kid is not one of his students. His gym teacher at his school is so supportive and loving to our son. All of his teachers are. I am sure not all of them agree, but they show nothing but love to our son.”
And best of all, he has Hazel as a sister.