Arecent report tells us that an 8-year-old girl with a straight-A average in Virginia was deemed not “feminine” enough by her Christian school. The girl, whose name is Sunnie, started wearing her hair short when she was five and wanted to donate her long hair to kids with cancer. She prefers wearing jeans and t-shirts.
But this didn’t please the school officials and so they sent a letter to her great-grandmother and legal guardian (Doris Thompson) stating that “our biblical role is to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christlike. On those occasions in which the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home is counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle that the school teaches” we reserve the right to “discontinue enrollment of a student.” The letter stated that this counter lifestyle may include “condoning or supporting sexual immorality; practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity…”
The letter then clearly suggests that unless Sunnie and her family “clearly understands” that God has made her female” and that her dress and behavior corresponds with her “God-ordained identity” that Timberlake Christian School is not the place for her.
Throughout early childhood both girls and boys are pressured in many different ways to conform to cultural notions of gender roles. One of the things that sex role research has found is that by the end of grade school, girls begin to evaluate themselves more negatively than do boys and in fact begin to realize that the male role is more favored than the female role. A study by Barrie Thorne found that of particular importance is boys’ display of “masculine superiority” also involved a “contempt for things feminine” while also setting the stage for “adult male privilege and sexism.”
According to their web site, the vision of Timberlake Christian Schools “is to be a discipleship and educational institution for young people in order to develop in them a passion for glorifying God and train them for a life consistent with a Biblical world-and-life view.” Their mission statement elaborates on this vision as follows:
The mission of Timberlake Christian Schools, a ministry of Timberlake Baptist Church, is to assist Christian parents in:
- educating their children to think and live consistently with a biblical world-and-life view (Genesis 1:1ff, Proverbs 1:7, 2:6-15, Romans 11:36, Ephesians 3:10, Philippians 2:5);
- discipling [sic] them in love and truth toward Christlikeness and a lifelong passion for glorifying God (Matthew 28:19, Luke 10:27,Galatians 4:19, Ephesians 1:15-19, and 4:15)
The misspelled word (disciplining) can be ignored since, after all, it is clear that the goal is not so much education as proselytization. But for them to go to such lengths as to make it very clear to this 8-year-old girl that she is somehow less than, and in fact inferior, is inexcusable.
In the letter sent to the great-grandmother, the school noted that Sunnie is “being counseled professionally regarding her identity and image in order to steer her in a particular direction to handle these identity issues.”
However, Doris Thompson wrote back to the school’s representative that sent the letter (a Mrs. Becky Bowman) denying that Sunnie is in counseling for any “identity issues” such as homosexuality and noted that her psychiatrist is upset that “you being Christian” would label an 8-year-old this way. Thompson also said in her letter that their home is a “Christian environment.”
In a piece reported by local news station (WDBJ) Doris Thompson describes Sunnie as “simply a tomboy, and that she’s too young to understand sexual orientation or gender issues.” She further stated that: “If my child grows up to be homosexual or transgendered, I will love her that much more.”
WDBJ reproduced a letter from the school lawyers denying that Sunnie was kicked out of school, saying that: “This matter is far beyond a simple ‘hairstyle and tomboy issue’ as inaccurately portrayed. It is not about that at all. At no time did the Church or the School state or imply that S.K. [they said they were using her initials to protect her privacy even though her name had already been revealed] was sexually immoral or the like. Yet, reports like this have appeared in the media. The School has never told S.K. she cannot return to school.”
The lawyers also noted that there was an issue concerning the bathrooms, stating that:
“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. While we welcome all students, parents and guardians are made aware of the School’s Christian mission and beliefs. We not only have a right, but we also have a duty to uphold these Christian standards.”
It was not made clear what the problem with the bathroom was nor what “other matters” were involved, claiming that certain “things disturbed the classroom environment.”
Sunnie is now attending a public school and is moving on with her life, yet she was not happy about having to leave all of her friends behind. One report quoted Mrs. Thompson saying that: “She cries every morning to get on the bus, she cries when she comes home because she wants to go back to Timberlake Christian with her friends.”
A Google search reveals the extent of the coverage and a cursory review of comments by readers demonstrate the anger and disappointment over this incident, with many accusing the school of being very “un-Christian” in their behavior, with one writer typifying the sentiment stating: “I ask you what would Jesus have thought of this? He was all inclusive! This school and these people are not Christian.”
As Meda Chesney-Lind and I note in the 4th edition of our book, Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice, girls growing up face hurdles concerning gender identity and this bears directly to what they face upon entering the juvenile justice system.
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice