Gettysburg community fights to retain trans coach

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In a 6-2 vote, the board for the Gettysburg Area School District retained a trans coach at a Sept. 5 meeting.

As a staff member of the Gettysburg Area School District, Sasha Yates was due to have her contract renewed, along with other staff members, this past August. The renewal was expected to be automatic. However, Yates’ renewal hit a snag.

The normal procedure when the Gettysburg Area school board reappoints their coaching staff is that they are approved as a group, which is what happened on Aug. 7 — except for one small difference. At that meeting, board member Michelle Smyers, who has identified herself as the chair of a local chapter for the Moms for Liberty organization, was successful in introducing a motion to separate Yates from the dozens of other appointments.

Yates has been GASD’s head tennis coach for a number of years. But there is one aspect of the popular tennis coach that Smyers has a problem with: Yates is transgender.

Yates was on the original reappointments list for coaches as proposed to GASD administration. However, Smyers succeeded in getting Yates removed from that list, to be considered separately. The remaining list was approved unanimously by the board in one motion, but deadlocked on approving Yates’ reappointment in a separate 3-3 vote. The final vote to determine Yates’ employment status was postponed until the Sept. 5 board meeting.

Despite the fact that a final decision was not reached, Yates was removed from the list of staff on the school’s website in the meantime.

While the school board has given no official reason for this turn of events, the deadlock left the tennis team without a coach to train them back into the season.

Smyers, who is the driving force in the effort to terminate Yates, has been vocal in her criticisms of the coach, making a number of allegations against Yates on social media. Smyers’ allegations center around what she claims has been inappropriate behavior around students, such as disrobing in the girls’ locker room to change clothes. Smyers spelled out these allegations in detail in an interview first published in The Epoch Times, a right-wing publication. A number of other conservative news outlets picked up on the story, repeating details from the interview.

It should be noted that of the people who spoke on Yates’ reappointment, none came forward to confirm Smyers’ allegations of misconduct.

Yates herself has not responded publicly to Smyers’ allegations. According to a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, an LGBTQ+ policy advocacy organization that is assisting Yates, the coach is not currently speaking to the press, but will release a statement in due course.

A large contingent of Yates supporters attended the Aug. 21 board meeting, which had to be moved to the school auditorium to accommodate the overflow crowd. Approximately 30 students, alum, parents, health care professionals and community members spoke in favor of Yates being retained in her position as coach, with only two against.

Among those who spoke on Yates’ behalf was Neil Matthews, who runs a local tennis program. He said, “I am appalled and flabbergasted that her contract is in jeopardy because some of you are uncomfortable.”

Dr. Sonya Del Tredici, a parent of a student on the tennis team, said, “The existence of trans people does not hurt our children. What hurts our children is discrimination against trans people.”

Jennifer Nalrright, a nurse, said, “By all accounts, this is a wonderful coach. I’m confused why we are even having this discussion.”

In a statement prior to the Sept. 5 school board meeting, Jason Landau Goodman, board chair of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said, “The Gettysburg Area School Board might have thought they could remove an LGBTQ staff member in the cover of a quiet August, but their communities will not let them do this without a fight. It’s sad that this school board feels driven to score political points for a game most people could care less about, over the wellbeing of incredible student athletes who just want their cherished coach back. Hopefully, this school board will vote to reappoint Coach Yates at their next meeting.”

At the Sept. 5 board meeting, a large number of community members lined up to speak, both for and against retaining Yates. Of the 31 people who spoke, the majority, 22, supported Yates, while the remaining nine spoke against her being retained.

Among those who spoke against Yates were local pastors and people affiliated with Moms for Liberty. They repeated familiar conservative catchphrases like “grooming,” “indoctrination,” “sexual predator” and “sexual harassment.” They also refused to refer to Yates by her proper pronouns.

Those who spoke in support of Yates included several students on the tennis team and parents of similar students who had been guided and supported by the coach, as well as legal experts and social workers.

The supporters also brought up the issue of Yates using the girls’ locker room to change, which apparently amounted to her changing her top and not fully disrobing, as Smyers and others alleged. They pointed out that that issue had been resolved by giving Yates access to a private changing area. They also pointed out that in the past, cisgender coaches often changed in student locker rooms without there being a problem. 

After the public comments concluded, and prior to the vote, several board members made personal statements. Smyers passionately defended her position, vociferously denying that she is homophobic, transphobic or otherwise prejudiced.

But in the end, the board voted to retain Yates.

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