A Pennsylvania school board voted last week to rehire a transgender tennis coach who had transitioned from male to female following an outpouring of support from former and current student-athletes and their families — despite the objections of some conservative community members.
After previously deadlocking on whether to renew Gettysburg Area High School tennis coach Sasha Yates’s contract last month, and then delaying the vote at a subsequent meeting, the Gettysburg Area School District Board voted 6-2, with one member absent, to retain Yates for the fall season. As a result of the board’s delay, the girls’ tennis team had to start the season without a coach.
Board members had been tight-lipped about why they had delayed renewing Yates’s contract. However, some of Yates’s supporters had speculated publicly that it may have been due to her transition, which began in 2021 — a charge that some school board members denied, according to the news website PennLive.
School Board President Kenneth Hassinger told PennLive that the decision on whether to renew the tennis coach’s contract was to give the board sufficient time to investigate further concerns about her — concerns that turned out not to be credible.
“Overall I think it came down to widespread rumors that were going on in the public and we wanted to take a deep breath and make sure we had all the information before we took a vote,” he said. “We were able to go back and look and see if rumors and other stuff, if there was any factual basis behind it — and I think you saw the vote tonight would tell you that the majority of those rumors did not have a factual basis to them.”
Hassinger said he had no way of knowing whether the rumors were driven by Yates’s gender identity, but insisted that the private conversations between board members did not focus on her transgender status, but rather her actions.
“The comments that this was on [Yates being] transgender are not factually correct in my world,” Hassinger told attendees just prior to the vote, which took place during the school board’s September 5 meeting. Board Vice President Michael Dickerson had made similar comments to the Gettysburg Times last month denying that Yates’s gender identity was the reason the renewal of her contract was being held up.
Current and former student-athletes defended Yates — who has coached both the boys’ and girls’ teams since 2018 — as a top-notch coach, and spoke forcefully in favor of renewing her contract at all three meetings where the public was able to comment on her contract renewal.
But the belief among some of the coach’s supporters that she had been targeted for transitioning appears to have been exacerbated by School Board Member Michelle Smyers giving interviews to conservative media outlets criticizing Yates’s alleged actions.
Among the actions that raised concerns were rumors that Yates had disrobed in full view of students in the locker room, that she had used a women’s restroom, and had walked through the girls’ locker room on the way to a meeting.
In September 2022, Gettysburg High School principal Jeremy Lusk penned a memo to Yates expressing “concerns” about some of her actions and stressing that it is “imperative to maintain professional boundaries.”
That memo claimed that Yates had changed near students in the girls’ locker room, although Yates said she only removed her top in a “secluded area away from others.”
The memo also alleged she had talked to students about undergarment preferences and menstruation. Yates denied the charges.
Yates admitted to using a female restroom, but no official action was taken against her. She subsequently told the Gettysburg Times that she had “accepted the compromise of the school administration issuing me a key to a private single occupancy changing room that is used for sports officials.”
Many parents and students who spoke in support of Yates said they believed that the directive instructing coaches to use single-occupancy changing rooms had resolved the issue. They also noted that Yates’s contract had been renewed, without incident, for the boys’ spring 2023 tennis season, well after the principal’s letter had been sent.
Some of Yates’s supporters attacked Smyers for giving interviews to right-wing outlets suggesting that Yates’s disrobing in the locker room was more provocative than the 2022 letter made it out to be. Last month, the right-wing America First Legal Foundation — which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union — said it had sent a letter, on behalf of Smyers, its client, to the school district.
That letter demanded that administrators turn over additional records on Yates’s employment and stop obstructing Smyers from fulfilling her duty to investigate the claims and rumors surrounding Yates’s alleged behavior. The group subsequently said in a press release that it was working to “protect students from the insidious transgender movement.”
Supporters of Yates, including several parents of tennis players, accused Smyers, a self-described local chapter chair of the right-wing Moms for Liberty organization, of bias, pointing to past Facebook posts that featured anti-transgender statements, including one referring to transgender people as a “cult.”
Molly Heaton, a member of the girls’ tennis team, accused Smyers of having “used her platform to attack the trans community even before there was any question about the conduct of Coach Yates.”
Prior to the vote, Smyers, who was one of the two dissenters voting against renewing Yates’s contract, defended herself from accusations of bias or transphobia.
“I am not a schoolyard bully, I am not anti-LGBTQ,” she said.
“While I personally do not believe in chemically castrating or surgically mutilating a child to affirm the gender they want to be, I will support those same children. Never once have I ever discriminated against a child here because they are children and they need our support, our care, and our guidance,” Smyers added, according to the Gettysburg Times.
Smyers also defended her right to her opinions, which are protected under the First Amendment. “I have always voted with my conscience, based on my morals, values, and ethics, and I will continue to do so.”
The majority of speakers who offered public comment supported Yates, including Tristan Smith, the rising captain of the Gettysburg boys’ tennis team, who said he’s been helping coach the girls’ team in Yates’s absence.
“There’s no validity to the disgusting claims I’ve heard about my coach,” Smith said during the public comment period, describing Yates as an exemplary coach and condemning the rumors and misinformation spread on social media about her. “I cannot stand here and refuse to acknowledge that blatant transphobia is the main motivation behind this commotion.”
Following the vote in Yates’s favor, the room erupted in applause, with many giving a standing ovation in the direction of the tennis coach, who was in attendance at the meeting — although, as PennLive notes, a group of bikers with conservative slogans on their vests frequently heckled Yates’s supporters throughout the meeting, meaning there wasn’t universal support for her.
Yates later told PennLive in an email that she was “extremely delighted” to continue coaching.
“I have been very moved by the outpouring of support that I have received,” she wrote. “I am very much looking forward to continuing to support and guide both [girls’ and boys’] teams as they represent Gettysburg Area High School in the coming seasons.”
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