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School bullies force Trans boy to expose genitals, police yawn

At the beginning of this month, Lucas’s bullies crossed the line to criminal acts, but local police appear to be protecting them

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Lucas, a transgender boy at Wisconsin's Berlin High School (Screenshot from WGBA-TV 26)

By James Finn | DETROIT – As reported in many media outlets, including The Los Angeles Blade, bullies have been openly tormenting a transgender boy at Berlin High School in Wisconsin. Berlin students say their friend, who wishes to be identified only as Lucas, has been the subject of frequent taunts and slurs, adding that anti-LGBTQ bullying at the school is pervasive, severe, and mostly tolerated by teachers and administrators.

They’re going to hear our voices. They’re going to listen to us. And they’re going to do something about it. — Student leader Amber Olmstead

At the beginning of this month, Lucas’s bullies crossed the line to criminal acts, but local police appear to be protecting them

Lucas says a group of boys crowded him into a restroom stall on two separate occasions, taunting him as they forced him to pull down his pants, lift his shirt, and expose his genitals to them. Reportedly, one of the bullies filmed from outside the stall on the second occasion.

Lucas kept quiet at first, crying in class but too afraid to speak up. After friends encouraged him, he reported the criminal bullying to school administrators, who reported it to the Berlin Police Department. That’s when the story takes a bizarre twist, so bizarre I phoned a civil rights attorney yesterday to get his legal take.

Any police officer or prosecutor worth their salt would criminally charge people who bullied a kid into pulling down their pants down in public.

More on that phone call in a second. First, the facts. The Berlin Police say they conducted an investigation and interviewed several witnesses. Within days, they published a statement that shocked many Berlin High School students and some faculty:

On Thursday, November 4, 2021, a Berlin High School student reported to school authorities that they had been assaulted in one of the high school restrooms.

Upon being notified, School Administration immediately reported the allegation to the Berlin Police Department. An investigation was immediately launched into the allegation in cooperation with the department’s investigative unit. After multiple interviews and examining the associated evidence of the alleged assault, our investigation discovered no physical assault or attack against the alleged victim took place.

Berlin High School student. Screenshot from WGBA-TV 26.

When I first saw the police statement, I felt disappointed not enough evidence existed to prove assault, but something about the wording felt “off,” so I read again with closer attention. That’s when I realized why Lucas’s friends were so shocked, and that’s when I decided to call my lawyer friend.

Before I write about that call, let me tell you what else Berlin students say they’re angry about. They say every student at the high school knows the identity of the boys who assaulted Lucas. They say teachers and administrators know too. But school officials have taken neither disciplinary action against the boys nor any steps to ensure safety for LGBTQ students. In fact, after more than 50 kids walked out of school to call out administrators’ inaction, the school district released an apathetic statement that didn’t even mention transgender or LGBTQ students:

The Berlin Area School District is aware of a student walkout in response to allegations of a student assault at the high school. The Berlin Area School District is committed to the success of all students in a safe learning environment and we take such allegations seriously. The school district is cooperating with local law enforcement who are investigating this situation. The district is also conducting its own investigation. Because of the ongoing investigations, the district is unable to provide additional details at this time.

Amber Olmstead. Screenshot from WGBA-TV 26.

Amber Olmstead, the Berlin High School student who organized the walkout, told WGBA-TV 26 that students are fed up with administrators tolerating anti-LGBTQ bullying:

“We told them we’re not backing down this time. They’re going to hear our voices. They’re going to listen to us. And they’re going to do something about it.”

She and other students met with administrators in the days following the protest, but as of today, the school district has released nothing more than their original anodyne statement and failed to announce any policies to protect LGBTQ students targeted by bullies. Students say Lucas’s bullies have still received no discipline even though everyone at school knows exactly who they are.

The Berlin Police are lying by telling a partial truth

The police are not saying lack of evidence prevents them from bringing charges. Read their statement carefully. They’re saying unambiguously that no assault took place. They’re saying no matter how much evidence they’ve already collected or might collect in the future, the facts do not support allegations of criminal assault.

I picked up the phone yesterday and reached out to an attorney friend with a busy civil rights practice in Detroit. I asked him if the Berlin Police were legally correct to affirm nobody assaulted Lucas. Here’s a partial transcript of our call, starting with my question a couple minutes in:

— Are you kidding me? I mean, you agree no assault took place even if the facts are as alleged?

— No, Jim. I’m saying I don’t know. I’m not a criminal lawyer and I don’t practice in Wisconsin, but that’s what the Berlin Police are saying in their statement, so it’s probably true to some degree.

— That’s crazy! How could forcing a kid to strip almost naked not be criminal?

— Of course it’s criminal! It just might not be simple assault as defined in Wisconsin statutes, though I suspect it would be in Michigan. This police statement … is so troubling because it looks like the police are lying by telling a partial truth. Any police officer or prosecutor … worth their salt would criminally charge people who bullied a kid into pulling down their pants down in public … whether the charge was assault or something else. Off the top of my head, child pornography charges might stick. As long as enough evidence backed up the allegations, of course.

— What would you do if you were Lucas or their parent?

— I’d call Lambda Legal and the ACLU. They live for cases like this. I’d threaten to sue the pants off the Berlin Police Department and the school district. If it takes 50 kids walking out of school to get an incident this serious taken seriously, then…

— What would you do if this was your case?

So okay, I don’t specialize in LGBTQ school stuff, but if it were me and my firm, we’d probably go after the district for clear … Title IX violations. If what these student organizers are claiming is even remotely true, then the district faces substantial monetary liability, which I’d explain in terms that would rocket them off their asses. But you know that’s how I roll.

Anti-LGBTQ bullying is on the rise in U.S. schools, and this case shows how apathy can drive the problem

The Trevor Project just released a comprehensive survey that shows over half of LGBTQ students in the U.S. face significant bullying, with rates rising rather than falling over the last 4 years. Rates of LGBTQ teenagers considering suicide (already several times higher than among their cis/straight peers) have risen dramatically this year, and Trevor Project research points to rising bullying rates as one cause. (Researchers cite increasing political rancor as another.)

Students at Berlin High School, located in a predominantly conservative, mostly rural community, say they face as much adult hostility over LGBTQ issues as they do apathy in the face of bullying. Students are angry about both, but they aren’t surprised.

I’m not either.

Taken together, the actions of the school district and the police department appear to be a coordinated effort to sweep a serious criminal sexual assault under the rug. Thanks to Amber Olmstead and other student activists — and especially thanks to Lucas for stepping forward and allowing his first name and photo to be published — the district and the police department will likely be held accountable … this time.

But around the U.S., especially in rural areas like Berlin, LGBTQ students face active hostility from bullies and struggle to find support from the adults who are charged to keep them safe.

As a newly released paper in JAMA Pediatrics has demonstrated, “sue the pants off them” really is good advice. Lawsuits have proven to be as statistically effective as formal anti-bullying programs, markedly more effective in conservative areas where adults are hostile to LGBTQ people.

I’m shocked Lucas suffered what he suffered and I’m outraged the adults who run his school don’t care enough to protect him. But anger isn’t enough. Action is required.

Want to know how you can take action? Read the following story about three effective ways you can fight anti-LGBTQ bullying in your community schools. (Link Here)

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James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, a regular columnist for queer news outlets, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Library board chair publicly bullies librarian over LGBTQ books

What’s it like to live in a place where librarians say they feel terrified? I reached out to residents of a South Carolina town to find out

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Greenville County SC Library Board of Trustees Chair Allan Hill (R) confronts and intimidates Nathan Schmaltz, manager of the Travelers Rest library branch. Images are screenshots from WHNS video coverage.

By James Finn | DETROIT – Travelers Rest, South Carolina is a lovely little stop on the drive from the sea to the mountains, Katie Chaney tells me, “a wonderful place to raise a family.” She grew up there and moved back from Portland, Oregon with her wife Leah to raise their daughter Neba, now 2 years old. Katie runs a bakery called Hester General Store that she says has become something of local center of LGBTQ community life.

Katie, Leah, and Neba are caught up, however, in an anti-LGBTQ backlash roiling much of red-state America. Katie told me yesterday she worries Travelers Rest might not be healthy for her daughter:

Diverse books were important to me a child. Books are mirrors into people’s experiences, and when you take away the mirror, you silence them. I want my child to have mirrors into Leah’s and my experience. These decisions [to restrict access to books] take away her ability to walk into the library and learn about that, and I don’t think that’s okay.

I spoke to Leah after talking to Miles Dame, who called me on behalf of the Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Groupa coalition of former Greenville County librarians and other residents concerned that their region is marching to a censorship drum that Pen America and the American Library Association have been warning about for months. Both organizations have released data showing that book bans and restrictions soared to unprecedented levels this year in school and public libraries.

Censorship often happens in an atmosphere of violent threats, as Brody Levesque reported yesterday in the Los Angeles Blade.

Miles and Katie became especially concerned about censorship two weeks ago when the Greenville County Republican Party officially asked the county council to ban all LGBTQ-themed books from young adult (YA) library sections. Katie attended a council meeting to speak out against the proposal:

“The council people told us to calm down, that nothing had been decided, but we made our voice heard and it was very impactful.”

Katie says that since politicians ordered library Pride book displays removed in June, “People who are LGBTQ in the community or the library are being berated, publicly humiliated for standing up for diversity. These employees are trying to do their job and not be biased. Librarians hold that sacred. As a queer business owner who has an all queer team, it bothers me that this is the experience of people trying to do nothing more than their job.”

This past Monday offers a vivid example of the berating Katie spoke to me about. Some of it happened on camera, broadcast to the public.

Travelers Rest librarian reporting intimidation is openly bullied at library board meeting

On Monday, the Greenville County Library Board of Trustees spent a majority of its meeting addressing book-banning concerns. Six of eight people who participated in public comments spoke in favor of preserving access to LGBTQ-related books. Two spoke in opposition.

During the board meeting, Chairman Allan Hill denied accusations that he “threatened and intimidated” librarians during a visit to the Travelers Rest library branch last Wednesday.

Former library employee Stephen Shelato says he attended the meeting as a spokesperson for current employees, who reportedly fear retaliation. Shelato testified that Hill bullied and intimidated librarians during the Wednesday visit. “For 20 minutes, in front of everyone there, [Hill] berated staff about a book display, pointing to LGBT titles and demanding over and over, ‘Do you see why people don’t like this? Do you see? Do you see?’ And, they said ‘no.’”

Shelato added, “One staff member said that being bullied by Mr. Hill was the worst moment of their life. Had any other patron violated the code of conduct the way that he did, they would have been asked to leave.”

That sounded over the top to me until I watched video of Chairman Hill at the board meeting. He can be seen on camera bullying Travelers Rest Library Branch Manager Nathan Schmaltz, who did not speak until Hill insisted.

The chairman asks about Wednesday’s branch visit: “Nathan, did I threaten anybody?”

Schmaltz swallows and looks reluctant to speak. Haltingly, he replies, “Mr. Hill, your presence at our branch Wednesday night…”

Schmaltz takes a deep breath and lets out a long sigh. He starts to speak again but Hill cuts him off. “I’ve been told by my daughters that I’ve intimidated them when they would have their friends over, so if, um …”

Schmaltz tries again, speaking very slowly and sounding very reluctant. “Your position on this board, and your actions and your words towards our staff was interpreted and felt as threatening and intimidating.” He swallows hard and sits.

“But just to be clear,” presses Hill pointedly, as if demanding a different answer, “Did I threaten or did I bully anybody?”

Shelato speaks up. “He just said that they felt threatened.”

A look of anger crosses Hill’s face. He makes an intimidating arm gesture toward Shelato and barks, “I don’t need you, buddy. Just let him talk.”

Shelato replies, “That seems pretty threatening.”

Branch Manager Schmaltz stands and speaks after a significant pause, again sounding very reluctant. “Your presence with your actions, your behaviors, and your words were threatening and intimidating.”

(To view the portion of the board meeting transcribed above, see WHNS video coverage or to see Hill bullying and intimidating other people he disagrees with, watch the full meeting in video that Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group posted to YouTube.)

Then the police got involved

The day after the board meeting, Travelers Rest Police received a complaint that the Travelers Rest library branch was spreading obscene material by promoting books with sexually explicit material.

Katie tells me she was shocked when she got fearful calls about law enforcement involvement. “Travelers Rest is a choice place to move right now. Friendly, wonderful bike trial. Best farmers market. So to hear this happened, that the police were called…”

Her voice trails off, like she’s having an internal debate about her decision to move back to Greenville County. Miles tells me a police officer showed up at the branch, gathered up an armload of books and took them into a conference room.

Travelers Rest Police chief Ben Ford later said in a statement that his department investigated the obscenity complaint but that it was unfounded.

“I am Jazz” picture book cover via Goodreads.

Libraries are supposed to be about free access to books, not about restricting or banning books.

Miles, speaking for Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group, told me yesterday that Greenville County librarians have resigned for standing up for access to books that are unobjectionable except that they’re about LGBTQ people. He tells me branch managers have been fired for allowing tax-paying citizens equal access to library rooms for drag queen story hour. He tells me librarians have been forced not to create displays of books that would be of interest to LGBTQ people.

He tells me none of the pressure comes from other librarians.

He tells me he resigned his position as a librarian because he wasn’t being allowed to do his job — to provide equal access to books. He tells me librarians feel pressured to restrict LGBTQ-themed books for “sexualized content” when the books do not contain inappropriate sexual content.

As one example, he cites I am Jazz, a picture book featuring the real-life story of a transgender child. The book helps small children understand that trans kid exist and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Nothing in the book is remotely sexualized, but librarians have been forced to place it in “restricted access” sections reserved for books with sexual content.

Miles says he doesn’t understand all the hoopla and pressure to restrict/ban books, since parents already have total control of what their kids see/ borrow at the library. “Parents can already opt their kids out of adult books, and library policy already requires children not be unaccompanied in the library.”

He says librarians feel under siege and unable to carry out the professional responsibilities they trained for. “The library board and the director are not doing anything to support the staff. They are calling for LGBTQ content removal. Who is doing it exactly is opaque.”

Describing an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, he points out that library Executive Director Beverly James sat silent as Hill bullied Schmaltz at Monday’s meeting, saying she didn’t speak up once to defend librarians or free access to books.

Katie puts it more bluntly, telling me, “The librarians are terrified. We get messages asking for help but requesting anonymity, for fear of retribution.”

Allan Hill says since he knows what books young people “should not be reading,” objecting to this flyer.

Terrified librarians? Seriously? Did I really just write this story?

I have to ask myself what’s happened to my nation. When I was a conservative Southern Baptist boy in Gadsden, Alabama — not all that far from Travelers Rest in a cultural sense — I internalized values that books and learning are sacred, that banning books is un-American and even “communist.”

We sure have come a long way from those ideals!

Banning books is all the rage right now, especially books about LGBTQ and Black Americans. As I reported earlier this week, The Republican activist group Moms for Liberty are even fighting to ban ‘Girls Who Code,’ a series of middle-grade books designed to get little girls excited about careers in computer programing and data science.

Somebody somewhere decided girls should not be reading books like that.

Chairman Allan Hill made clear in Monday’s board meeting that he knows what books young people should not be reading: “It’s not our job to provide where a child could get books that they shouldn’t be reading,” he said, objecting to a library flyer letting patrons know the Brooklyn Public Library offers cost-free digital library cards to youth aged 13 to 21.

I guess that’s the nation I live in now, a nation where politicians and community leaders object to free library cards. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to live in the kind of authoritarian state Allan Hill apparently values.

Will you join me at the polls in November to send a clear message? In the meantime, how about dropping by Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group with encouragement and support? And, if you’re passing through the Greenville area, I hear the baked goods at Hester General Store are worth stopping for!

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Virginia is for Lovers, not political agendas

Did a politician leverage state’s brand for his personal agenda? Looking at ethics of politicians promoting state tourism during elections

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Photograph courtesy of the Virginia Tourism Corporation

By Rachel Scott Everett | RICHMOND – As a Virginian, I’ve always been proud of my state’s motto: “Virginia is for Lovers.”

The iconic slogan first appeared in a 1969 ad campaign for what is now Virginia Tourism Corporation. It was created by Martin and Woltz Inc., which later evolved into The Martin Agency, and has been in use ever since. 

Initially positioning the state as a destination for romance, “Virginia is for Lovers” soon gave way to various interpretations. With so much to experience, Virginia has become a welcoming place for history lovers, food lovers, nature lovers—all kinds of lovers. That’s the premise behind a new national campaign, “Virginia is for…”, developed by The Martin Agency, that launched this spring.

“Virginia is for Lovers” resonates deeply with many—myself included. It’s an example of the power that emotionally driven branding can have on our psyche. In an interview earlier this year, Virginia Tourism brand director Lindsey Norment said the slogan’s popularity remains because “it allows Virginians to make it their own and feel prideful of that.” 

Indeed, love is a powerful driver when it comes to persuading people. Love is inherently welcoming, positive and inclusive.

Love is also apolitical, which is why I was disheartened to see a new Virginia Tourism video prominently featuring Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin.

The stand-alone 60-second promotional piece, titled “Welcome to Virginia,” seems to take cues from The Martin Agency’s flagship campaign, but the format and overall tone are entirely different. More anthemic in feel, it highlights different people speaking directly to camera. The sole elected official, Gov. Youngkin, is a central figure in the video and its primary narrator.

Not long after it begins, Youngkin makes his appearance on camera. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and navy slacks, he walks with a confident stride along the track of the Richmond Raceway. Looking directly at camera, he smiles as he introduces himself.

“In Virginia, there’s a million different ways to say welcome,” he declares. “I’m Governor Glenn Youngkin, and I want to be one of the first.” The words “Governor Glenn Youngkin” accompany him on screen.

Welcome to Virginia:

The video continues as Youngkin provides the voiceover for a series of lifestyle shots featuring an impressively diverse cast of characters. We’re welcomed by different types of Virginians: a long-haired surfer dude with his pals, an edgy millennial bartender serving up a cocktail, and a varied group of barbecue lovers, all ages and races, sitting at the same table. “Bievenido!” a Latino boy exclaims.

Youngkin appears on camera again—this time in the driver’s seat of a race car, looking cool and confident. He offers one last welcome before the video ends, signed off by “Welcome to Virginia” and the “Virginia is for Lovers” logo.

On initial glance, the video might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. To many, it will come across as a fun, upbeat tourism piece for Virginia. 

But is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Certainly it’s not a novel idea that a governor might be in a video to promote state tourism. Last year, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska was featured in his state’s tourism marketing campaign. He touted Alaska as a Covid-safe state that was “leading the nation in all the important health metrics,” as an incentive for people to travel there. Later, though, it was revealed that when the ad ran, Alaska actually ranked 30th in the country for vaccination rates.

In 2020, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota appeared in, and narrated, a state tourism ad airing on Fox News. The 30-second ad, which ran for two weeks, cost taxpayers over $800,000. Noem received national publicity upwards of 85 million views, but it’s debatable if state tourism increased. AP News reported that while Google searches for “Kristi Noem” peaked, terms like “South Dakota tourism” and “visit South Dakota” remained stagnant.

But it’s a tourism campaign involving Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey that’s particularly noteworthy. 

In 2013, coming out of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie got star billing in his state’s tourism ads. The “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign ran leading up to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The campaign itself, along with where it aired and the timing of its release, gave Christie an unexpected platform to hone his brand image and gain greater exposure across key Northeast states.

His opponent, Democratic candidate Barbara Buono, said the ads gave him an unfair advantage, calling it both “supremely arrogant and wildly inappropriate.” Buono lost the election. Two years later, Christie announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

There are important parallels to draw here. 

Last year, Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade. The former businessman, who had never held elective office, ran a successful campaign by cultivating his own distinct brand, positioning himself as an enthusiastic, moderate candidate who appealed to both forever Trumpers and never Trumpers.

With his can-do attitude and signature red fleece vest, Youngkin portrayed an affable, everyman image—positive, charismatic and relatable. He kept his messaging simple and concise, advocating for broad issues like safety, education and cost of living.

But many claimed that two faces of Glenn Youngkin emerged once elected. Just 10 days into office, he began receiving blowback over new policies in his conservative agenda which didn’t appear to align with his calls for unity or moving the state forward.

Youngkin immediately signed an executive order to root out critical race theory in Virginia, which isn’t mentioned in the Virginia Department of Education’s curriculum (Politifact). Asserting protection of “parental rights,” he also supported measures to regulate explicit content in schools, force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students, and most recently, restrict the rights of trans students.

Despite publicly distancing himself from Trump during his campaign, he has since hired many veterans of the Trump administration, including a former Trump EPA head who has repeatedly minimized the threat of climate change. Youngkin also plans to withdraw Virginia from a greenhouse gas initiative established to help fight climate change regionally. 

And when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Youngkin reinforced his stance as a “pro-life” governor by pursuing a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia and headlining a pro-life gala in Washington, D.C., for a prominent anti-abortion group.

None of these policies seem to suggest Virginia is moving forward. 

In fact, an opinion piece in The Washington Post states that Youngkin’s culture wars are good for him but bad for Virginia business, causing the state to be viewed as a less welcoming place—an insight that seems to be the antithesis to the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

I reached out to Virginia Tourism to get more information, which left me with more questions than answers.

For starters, the video was not created or produced by The Martin Agency, Virginia Tourism’s current agency of record. According to a spokesperson at Virginia Tourism, the concept for the video was developed by Virginia Tourism and produced by POOLHOUSE, the agency behind Youngkin’s winning brand campaign when he ran for governor.

On its website, POOLHOUSE says it creates “bold campaigns that win elections and move people to action.” A Google search reveals the agency has been referred to as a “GOP-focused political ad firm” and a “scrappy Republican ad agency.” Its Instagram feed includes congratulatory posts for Republican politician wins, a recap of its favorite ads for Youngkin, and a quote that speaks to its desire to be “the best political agency in the business.” This year, POOLHOUSE plans to open a D.C. office to pick up advocacy clients and more congressional business.

Officials at Virginia Tourism did not directly respond when asked if they were aware POOLHOUSE was the political ad agency behind Youngkin’s campaign. Instead, they provided the following statement: “POOLHOUSE was selected because of their outstanding creative work and reputation, not only in Virginia but across the country, for producing beautiful videos.” Yet Virginia Tourism also said that when the project was put out to bid, they only received one offer, which resulted in the contract with POOLHOUSE.

POOLHOUSE did not respond to inquiry by phone or email by the time this article was published.

As for the purpose and timing of the video, Virginia Tourism said it is “an evergreen piece to showcase the beautiful state of Virginia and to welcome travelers to Virginia” and it launched on Labor Day weekend “to coincide with a high-impact travel weekend.”

However, its release also coincides with the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections on Nov. 8. Most of the country is holding state legislative elections and there are 36 gubernatorial seats on the ballot. A week after Youngkin shared the “Welcome to Virginia” video in a retweet, he posted a political ad in which he appears promoting Virginia Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. According to her website, she is working with POOLHOUSE as well. 

While only in office a few months, Youngkin has been spending a lot of time outside of the state he’s supposed to be governing.

Many news outlets report that he’s actively endorsing Republican politicians running for office in key swing states. So far, he’s expressed support for GOP gubernatorial candidates Paul LePage of Maine, who has an extensive history of racist remarks; Kari Lake of Arizona, who has appeared with Nazi sympathizer and QAnon-linked activists; and Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape because she believes there’s “healing through the baby.”

These candidates are all part of an alarming trend of election deniers running for governor this year as well.

In preparation to wade into national politics, Youngkin established two political organizations, America’s Spirit and Spirit of Virginia (the latter of which paid for Vega’s ad mentioned above). Both groups can accept contributions of any size to fund Youngkin’s political efforts, which include his campaigning for other GOP candidates, as well as his own self-promotion.

This summer, Youngkin met with Republican megadonors amid hints he’s mulling a White House bid. One of his midterm stops will include Nevada, a 2024 early state for presidential candidate nominations.

After the upset in Virginia, many believe Youngkin’s win gave the GOP a winning blueprint for 2022 and beyond. Part of his strategy included establishing an early media spend to introduce himself and begin building his brand in a campaign as soon as possible.

That campaign, into which Youngkin put $20 million of his own money, was fueled by a robust media buy including 40 TV videos and hundreds of radio, digital and design advertisements, including bumper stickers in multiple languages. Incidentally, Youngkin is considered one of the nation’s richest politicians, with a net worth of $470 million.

“One thing that Youngkin did very smartly was getting started earlier, particularly with media,” POOLHOUSE CEO Will Ritter said in an interview with Fox Business last year. “That means if you’re running in ’22, you need to be thinking how you’re going to get your message to people as soon as possible.”

Indeed, timing, placement and context are important components to launching a brand.

While the “Welcome to Virginia” video has no associated media buy, it will be seen extensively through state-owned platforms such as Virginia Welcome Centers and the state’s nine commercial airports, including major hubs like Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, outside Washington, D.C. Combined, the foot traffic in these areas alone translates to millions of impressions, giving Youngkin unprecedented exposure to a broad, diverse audience made up of travelers from all over the country.

Because the video is intended to be an evergreen piece (meaning relevant for long-term purposes), it has the potential to run during the entire term of Youngkin’s office, as well as the time of his campaigning should he throw his hat (or fleece vest) into the ring in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination. Like Christie’s “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign, the “Welcome to Virginia” video portrays Youngkin in a positive, heroic way that not only gets his name out, but bolsters his brand on the national stage.

Given all these factors, as well as continued press about Youngkin’s potential political aspirations (which are even making international headlines), it’s not implausible to think that the “Welcome to Virginia” video could be playing a role in a much larger agenda: a long game to establish Youngkin as a viable presidential candidate for 2024 or even 2028.

A recent article in Vanity Fair cautions us not to be fooled by the moderate “suburban dad vibe.” From traditional Republican to culture warrior, Youngkin has become a public advocate of Trump-backed election deniers, which not only normalizes extremists as credible representatives of this country but poses a serious threat to our democracy. 

As a creative professional, it’s been horrifying to come to terms with the role branding is playing in our politics. From misleading messaging to polished image-making, the strategies around crafting a politician’s brand are getting less transparent, more insidious, and farther from the truth.

I care deeply about my country, my home state of Virginia, and my local community in Richmond, which is why I felt compelled to dig deeper into the “Welcome to Virginia” video. 

I don’t like feeling that people in the video may not have been aware of Youngkin’s involvement (or his political agency), or worse, were used for ulterior motives. I don’t want my state to be represented by a polarizing political figure whose brand has been referred to as Trump LightTrump in a red vest, and Trumpism Without Trump.

And I don’t think it’s appropriate for what I perceive to be my tax dollars helping a politician to promote himself for his personal ambitions under the guise of a tourism video—particularly a governor actively working to roll back my rights as a woman and instill countless other antiquated policies that seem at odds with the values of many Virginians, as well as the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

When Youngkin was elected, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement that vowed to fight against his regressive agenda: “Glenn Youngkin’s anti-equality, anti-choice, racist tactics sought to sow fear and confusion, turning Virginian against Virginian for political gain,” said interim president Joni Madison. “Anti-equality extremists will continue to use bigotry to score political points. But we know that history has proven hate-filled electoral strategies ultimately stir the conscience of the nation.”

President Joe Biden also had some choice remarks about Youngkin: “Extremism can come in many forms,” he said at a grassroots event. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” 

Over the years, I’ve written numerous essays about the power of branding. One of the most successful tactics of brand building is to infiltrate platforms that don’t obviously translate as advertising. It’s why brands take advantage of product placement in popular movies and series television. The “soft sell” exposure not only increases awareness of a brand, it enables people to develop a deep connection to it in a much more organic, natural way. 

In my essay “Canceling the Confederacy,” I explain how the United Daughters of the Confederacy found a way to shape the Confederacy brand by promoting the Lost Cause, a biased perspective of U.S. history, through an unassuming medium: school textbooks. It was an attempt at rewriting history, reinforced by the construction of Confederate monuments, and to this day, many still subscribe to its false narrative. 

And therein lies the danger.

Branding, in all its nuance and subtlety, can distort our perception of what’s real. It can skew or stretch the truth and influence our thoughts on a subliminal level. After all, there’s a fine line between the power of persuasion and the art of deception. And when politicians are involved, be assured it’s even more unclear.

To clarify, the issue at hand is not about a governor appearing in a state tourism video. It’s about Governor Youngkin appearing in a state tourism video produced by his own political agency. It’s about the timing of the video’s release during the lead-up to midterm elections in which he’s actively campaigning for other candidates. And it’s about the exposure this video gives Youngkin to millions of people from all over the country amid talks of his own potential presidential run.

Again, is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Everyone will draw their own conclusions, but it’s my hope that by raising awareness on the role branding plays in our politics, we can better understand the impact it has on our elections and the candidates who are running. 

More than anything, I hope this knowledge empowers us all to make informed choices at the ballot box. The preservation of our democracy may very well depend on it.

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Rachel Scott Everett is co-founder and creative director at EVERGIB, a nomadic creative studio specializing in strategically led advertising and branding. A champion of big ideas and the power of storytelling, Rachel believes creativity can be used as a force for good to improve the world we live in.

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The preceding commentary was originally published at Muse by Clio and is republished by permission.

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‘Moms for Liberty’ succeed in banning ‘Girls Who Code’ in schools

The GOP has clearly decided that sexism, homophobia, and extremist Christianity will win for them at the polls

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Reshma Saujani (Screenshot/YouTube Oxford Debate 2021)

By James Finn | DETROIT – My women friends in the tech industry tell me they’re under-represented and sometimes feel disrespected or overlooked at work. They say women make excellent programmers and data scientists, but girls often internalize the opposite message while they’re still very small.

My women friends say empowering girls is critical to countering pressure girls feel not to study math and science. 

That pressure continues this morning in a shocking way, led by a group of Republican/Christian activists infamous for trying to ban books by and about LGBTQ and Black people. 

Sometimes conservatives tell you loudly who they are and what they stand for. This is one of those times. Every person of good will in the United States, regardless of party affiliation, needs to listen carefully. Is their vision for the U.S. one you’re truly okay with? 

‘Moms for Liberty’ attack Reshma Saujani and her books for girls 

Reshma Saujani is a woman who saw a problem and met it head on. In 2012, she began publishing a series of light-hearted, playful books called Girls Who Code, featuring tween girls

who form a school coding club. The books are cute, positive, and empowering. They show girls that programming is cool and fun—for everyone, not just for boys. 

The books also teach little kids basic programming concepts in a fun way kids praise as simple to grasp. 

The books zoomed to instant popularity and today can be found in virtually every elementary and middle school library in the U.S. Many teachers keep copies in their classrooms. 

Reviewers have compared the books’ style to The Baby Sitters Club. Tween girls (and boys too!) say they love them. Parents, like this mom on Goodreads, say they do too: 

4.5 stars. I enjoyed this more than the first book. I liked how it put story and character development first but still managed to include tips about coding. Also, the message about responsibility, grit, and empowerment while not quite subtle, was cutely and cleverly handled. I can see middle-graders loving this series. 

The idea the books should be controversial never occurred to anyone until this summer, when the anti-LGBTQ, Republican-activists Moms For Liberty starting urging school boards to ban them. 

Reshma Saujani reacts to her books being banned in a Pennsylvania school district Yesterday, Reshma Saujani learned a Pennsylvania school district banned her books 

I’m having a hard time believing that news reports about this book ban aren’t satire, but they’re all too real. Click here for details in Business Insider, and click to read Saujani’s Linkedin announcement, which includes the following paragraph: 

I woke up this morning to a news alert that our Girls Who Code middle-grade book series was banned by some school districts as part of the Moms for Liberty effort to ban books. To be honest, I am so angry I cannot breathe. This series was our labor of love, our commitment to our community to make sure that girls—all girls—see themselves as coders. — 

Business Insider and the tech journal The Register reached out to Moms for Liberty yesterday for comment but have not yet published a response. I emailed the group this morning to ask them why they want Girls Who Code banned. I did not receive an immediate reply. 

Moms for Liberty fight against freedom, not for it. 

MFL cofounder Tina Descovich claims the group focuses on “pornography in school,” telling Fox News as recently as last weekend that they limit calls for banning to books that give children “access to pornography and sexually explicit material.” She added, “I haven’t seen any of our chapters that want to get rid of any books that help children find characters they identify with.”

Did somebody forget to tell Descovich about her group’s drive to ban Girls Who Code? 

Anyone closely following Moms for Liberty activism already knows Descovich is lying. Many of the LGBTQ-themed books they target are not pornographic by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, MFL has targeted books for high school students that include sexual themes, but the book-advocacy group Pen America reports that claims of obscenity are “spurious.” 

Pen notes that some banned books aimed at older teens discuss sexuality but not in a manner that approaches any reasonable definition of obscenity or pornography. Pen says book banners seem to focus exclusively on books by or about LGBTQ people, ignoring books about straight sexuality that are more detailed. 

As to books about racism and the U.S. history of slavery? MFL doesn’t even pretend they want to ban those books because of sexual content. They just want them out of your children’s hands. 

Because they know better than you about how to raise your children. 

Moms for Liberty want to snatch your liberty and your child’s liberty by limiting reading choices based on their hyper-conservative Christian values. They’re working as hard as they can to force their beliefs and practices on you. 

Sometimes GOP activists tell you EXACTLY who they are. Please hear them. 

Despite appearances, Moms for Liberty are not a grassroots group of parents. They’re a national organization funded and supported by deep-pocketed Republican donors. Pen America CEO Suzanne Nossel calls them a “sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organization.” 

Their ideology is clear, and it’s the opposite of liberty. 

They want to erase gay people, trans people, and the honest history of American chattel slavery and segregation. And now, they make clear they’re pushing Evangelical Christian notions about women being subordinate to men. 

Girl data scientists are apparently threats to the Evangelical aspiration of a world where women who don’t work, where they limit their lives to caring for husbands and children instead. 

Moms for Liberty have convinced one school board in Pennsylvania to endorse their vision by pulling empowering books for girls out of school libraries. They’re telling you loudly and clearly who they are. 

Will you listen? Will you hear? 

They ARE Republican activism today. The GOP has clearly decided that sexism, homophobia, and extremist Christianity will win for them at the polls.

Will you help me talk to them? 

No matter what party you normally support, please vote Democratic this November to send the GOP a message: 

We’re not buying the reactionary nightmare you’re selling. Girls can code!

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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