Does an eight-year-old girl have the right to like traditionally “boy” things such as baseballs and short haircuts? Or, more precisely, is she permitted to cause confusion about her gender identity among her fellow students? Not if she wants to attend Timberlake Christian School in Virginia.
Does this story represent an outrageous outlier along the fringes of Christian education, or is this typical of the strictly gendered worldview of conservative evangelical Protestantism? Here at ILYBYGTH, we try not to rush to assume the worst about conservative schooling. In this case, however, it seems the school really did push Sunnie to be more of a girl. And prominent evangelical intellectuals are willing to defend this decision as central to the cultural politics of conservative evangelical Protestantism.
According to a story by James Gherardi at WSET TV in Lynchburg, Virginia, eight-year-old Sunnie Kahle likes to have short hair. She likes to dress in jeans and t-shirts. She likes to play outside. For all these reasons, school administrators at Timberlake Christian School worried she was not acting enough like a girl. To be more specific, they worried about student confusion. Apparently, a group of boys had attempted to pull Sunnie into a boys’ bathroom.
It seems this is not a case of a student who chooses to identify as a different gender than the one she has been assigned. Sunnie agrees that she is a girl. She just likes to have short hair and play outside in the mud. Her fellow students think she acts too much like a boy and insisted she use the boys’ bathroom instead of the girls’ room.
School administrators worried that Sunnie’s dress and behavior did not match the school’s gender standards. As principal Becky Bowman told Sunnie’s guardians (her great-grandparents) in a letter,
we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.
For their part, Sunnie’s great-grandparents insist they will not accommodate the school’s demands. Sunnie is just fine, they insist. They pulled her out of TCS and enrolled her in the local public school.
For those of us outsiders trying to understand conservatism in education, we have some questions we need to ask: Does the attitude of TCS represent the thinking of many other conservative evangelical Protestants? Would other Christian schools have acted similarly? Or was this an outrageous exception, a story that garnered international attention precisely because it was so outlandish?
As we’ve noted in the past, conservative Christians have long worried about loosening gender norms in schools. School bathrooms, specifically, have been a hot-point in these school-gender deliberations. Can students who were identified as one gender at birth, but who choose to identify as another, use bathrooms of their chosen gender? That is, can a student who was called a “boy” at birth but who calls herself a “girl” use the girl’s room? This has been a concern far beyond the reaches of Timberlake Christian School.
And significantly, Mat Staver of Liberty University School of Law has waded into this controversy. Staver has announced that Liberty will represent the nearby Christian school. This issue, Staver announced, “is far beyond a simple ‘hairstyle and tomboy issue’ as inaccurately portrayed.” The support and involvement of Staver and Liberty University makes it appear as if this issue represents something widespread among conservative evangelical Protestant educators.
For their part, the school clarified its position. This was never about hairstyles or clothing, they insist. Nor was Sunnie every kicked out of the school. Rather, this was in line with the school’s duty to create and maintain a Christian environment. As the school explained in a public statement to the Roanoke Times,
Parents and guardians send their children to the School because of our Christian beliefs and standards. We have a duty to create an environment that is supportive of these Christian values. We cannot have conflicting messages or standards because such conflict will confuse our students and frustrate the parents and guardians who have entrusted the education of their children to us.
When elementary children and their parents or guardians express concerns regarding use of the restroom and other matters arising from the sensitive issues here, the School has a duty to address those concerns and to ensure that all interests are heard and protected in accordance with the Christian mission of the School.
At least according to these sentiments, this episode was more than just an over-hyped miscommunication. The school really did insist that Sunnie make her gender identity clearer to other students. And school administrators really did envision this as part of the central mission of the school.
But note also that the school was not the gender-monolith we might think. According to Sunnie’s great-grandmother Doris Thompson, Sunnie’s kindergarten teacher worried about Sunnie’s gender identity. But Sunnie’s first-grade teacher did not. Then again this year in second grade, the issue cropped up once more. It seems the teachers at TCS have different attitudes themselves about the centrality of gender identity to proper Christian education.
So what’s the connection between gender identity and conservative Christian schooling? It seems the attitudes of Timberlake Christian School administrators represent widespread feelings among conservatives. Girls must be clearly girls. Boys must be clearly boys. This is not just a question of haircuts and blue jeans. This is a more profound question of public behavior and gender expectations. At TCS, traditions of gender behavior and identification have become a central part of non-negotiable theological principles.