This is an important, but complicated story. Sunnie Kahle was adopted by her great-grandparents, Doris and Carroll Thompson, because her mother was unable to raise her. Doris Thompson said, “I wanted Sunnie to have a Christian education,” so they sent her to Timberlake Christian Schools. Sunnie began to have trouble when she decided to cut her waist-length hair short and donate it to cancer patients. Her pre-K teacher raised concerns about Sunnie’s gender identity. In kindergarten, another girl thought Sunnie was a boy. That led the teacher to again raise the issue of Sunnie’s identity. In second grade, some boys tried to pull Sunnie into the boys’ bathroom. Again school staff questioned Sunnie’s behavior.
A few months later, Principal Becky Bowman sent a letter to the Thompsons. It’s worth quoting. Bowman emphasized that the School’s role is “to mold students to be Christlike,” and then reserved the right to “discontinue enrollment of a student” when “the atmosphere or conduct within particular home is counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle.” To be sure that the Thompsons understood what she meant, Bowman specified that the issue was “condoning or supporting sexual immorality; practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.” Bowman then wrote that “unless Sunnie clearly understands 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.”
To Principal Bowman, some teachers, and some boys and girls at Timberlake, Sunnie’s “dress and behavior” did not follow their ideas about “her God-ordained identity”. They were so sure that her short hair and her preference for jeans over dresses were evidence of immorality in her home, that they singled her out for humiliation and exclusion. Perhaps we could excuse the boys and girls, who need not take responsibility for what they were taught about proper gender behavior.
Sunnie was heartbroken about leaving her school, and the Timberlake authorities have shunned all responsibility for their behavior. Their subsequent open letter is clear that they stand behind “traditional values”, and that their mission is to “instill Christian values”. They hired some lawyers, who then blamed the Thompson family, saying “the facts are not as S.K.'s great-grandparents have portrayed them”. Their lawyer then claimed, “This is not at all about how she is dressing.”
To those who want to mold little girls into their narrow vision of what women should be, who anxiously search for any signs of “immorality”, it’s never too early to wield the sword of discipline on deviators.
I don’t think this is just about Christianity. The gender identity guardians at Timberlake Christian Schools are more concerned with “traditional values” than with modeling Christlike behavior. They are joined by many others who wish to impart a particular vision of what a girl should be. On Sunday, March 30, the rules for the Princess Contest of our local Morgan County Fair Pageant were published, outlining a vision of the perfect girl. They specify that girls between 5 and 7 will be judged on beauty, personality and charm, to be determined by how they look and act in a party dress and a swimsuit.
What does a 5-year old learn when she is judged by her appearance in a swimsuit? What does an 8-year old learn when her teacher and her principal take the side of the boys who try to humiliate her by dragging her into the boys’ bathroom? Why can’t girls wear pants? Why must they have long hair?
Timberlake Christian Schools says it’s about following Christ. The Morgan County Fair Pageant seems to be about beauty. I say it’s about indoctrination into a narrow definition of gender that ranks girls and women by their appearance, that demands their subservience to male ideals and men’s authority, that demonizes any deviation from heterosexuality.
Even the most liberal people appear to have trouble abandoning traditional sexist values and the social practices that support them. Just this year, the Miss Southern California Cities and Miss Long Beach competition stopped making their “little Miss” competitors aged 6 to 10 wear swimsuits. The “Mrs.” contestants (must be over 21) also won’t wear swimsuits, but the Teen (13-18) and Miss (19-30) will. You are only allowed to ogle unmarried girls, apparently. Yet this pageant welcomes same-sex couples and pregnant Mrs. contestants.
Sunnie said, “I should just be able to be me and not let them worry about it.” But despite her 4.0 average, some people will never let Sunnie be herself, if that conflicts with their ideas of what a girl should be.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 10, 2014