By Peter Cook
This Thursday, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) will vote to elect a new leader.
OPSB District 1 representative John Brown, who has served as board president for the past two years, cannot run for re-election due to term limits. As a result, members have been engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions in recent weeks to decide who will assume the board’s top post.
According to sources privy to those conversations, Leslie Ellison, who represents District 4 and currently serves as the board’s vice-president, has emerged as a leading contender to replace Brown at the helm. However, given her history of homophobic remarks and her retrograde positions on LGBT rights, electing Ellison as OPSB president would be completely unacceptable.
A history of homophobia
Ellison’s anti-LGBT views are well-documented and stretch back to at least 2004 when she organized a rally at the state capitol in Baton Rouge to oppose a series of bills that would have extended discrimination protections to gay and lesbian citizens.
According to an article in The Advocate, Ellison organized the gathering at the behest of Apostle Willie Wooten, the founder of Gideon Christian Fellowship in Gentilly, where she attends church and works as an administrator. Wooten has drawn national attention for his homophobic beliefs and has said that homosexuality is “deviant” and “too nasty.” He has also been an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, arguing that same-sex marriage would open the door to the legalization of polygamy and incest.
Thanks to the efforts of Ellison and Wooten, all four of the bills in question eventually went down in defeat.
In an appearance before the Senate Labor and Industrial Committee, Ellison, who at the time was board chair of the now-defunct Milestone-SABIS charter school, told lawmakers that she refused to sign a charter renewal contract with the Louisiana Department of Education because it included a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But the ugliness of Ellison’s prejudice was most clearly revealed in a caustic exchange with fellow board member Seth Bloom during an OPSB meeting the following year.
As the board prepared to vote on a series of updates to the district’s anti-bullying policy, which specifically included protections for gay and lesbian students, Ellison offered an amendment that would have stripped that language from the document.
Bloom, who is gay, reacted to her motion by saying, “I just find it perplexing that certain minorities seek protection for certain minorities but not for others.” To which Ellison snapped back: “This has nothing to do with being black. I can’t change my blackness at all.”
Ellison’s insinuation that being gay or lesbian is a matter of personal choice – an idea that neither science nor logic supports – drew audible gasps from the audience. Nevertheless, she didn’t stop there. Ellison also tried to block a requirement that schools integrate the board’s anti-bullying guidelines with their curriculum and disciplinary policies. In explaining her position, Ellison made the absurd assertion that it would force schools to teach 5 year-olds about gay sex (it didn’t and hasn’t).
OPSB needs to send the right message
Although Ellison hasn’t had the opportunity to publicly weigh-in on these issues in the past few years, there is no reason to believe her views have radically changed. According to campaignfinance reports filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Ellison’s failed 2015 state senate campaign willingly accepted $2000 in contributions from the Family Resource Council, a D.C.-based activist group that opposes equal rights for LGBT citizens, promotes the thoroughly-debunked practice of “gay conversion therapy,” and is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In light of these facts, it’s hard to understand why so many members of the Orleans Parish School Board are apparently willing to consider Ellison for president. After all, had Ellison made racist or anti-semitic remarks, her bid for school board president would be a non-starter. So why would prejudice be OK when it comes to gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals?
It’s a question worth asking. As WWNO’s Jess Clark reported just this past week, GLSEN (formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) released the results of a national survey of LGBT students that illustrates the tragic impact that prejudice has in their lives. In Louisiana, the statistics were particularly disturbing: nearly 80% of LGBT students reported they were verbally harassed at school due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, 32% had heard school staff make homophobic remarks, and nearly 20% were victims of physical assault.
If Ellison is elected board president, the board will be sending a message to these kids, who struggle with hatred everyday, that homophobia is fine and their basic rights and dignity as LGBT individuals doesn’t really matter.
I hope that’s something our school board members keep in mind before they cast their votes this week.
A native of Pennsylvania and graduate of Washington & Lee University, Peter Cook began his career in education as a teacher in New Orleans in 2002 and has worked across the country as a consultant and strategic advisor for school district leaders. Today, he works as an education policy writer and blogger, focusing largely on New Orleans, which he has called home for more than fifteen years.
Publisher’s Note and Additional Documentation:
This commentary originally appeared on Peter Cook’s self-published education policy website on Jan. 14th, 2019 and has been republished, in full, with permission.
The video of Ellison’s testimony to the Louisiana Senate Labor Committee occurred on March 29th, 2012, and Cook uploaded the footage to YouTube on Nov. 24th, 2014.
On Monday, I shared a truncated clip of the video on Twitter (the edits were necessary to comply with constraints set by Twitter on the permissible length of video content and did not exclude any substantive or exculpatory portion of Ellison’s testimony). So far, the clip has been viewed nearly 11,000 times and has received approximately 42,000 impressions.
Among others, the clip has been shared by Charles Blow of The New York Times and had also been shared by Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Greenblatt removed the tweet without explanation.
Currently, Ethan Ashley represents District 2 on the Orleans Parish School Board, and those familiar with internal discussions about Ellison’s bid for the board presidency claim he supports her candidacy. According to his own campaign website, Ashley “serves as the National State and Local Advocacy Director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).”
When I shared the clip of Ellison’s testimony on Twitter, I was unaware that Cook had reposted the full video on his website earlier in the day. I had received an email from a trusted source with a link to Cook’s YouTube and was provided with additional, credible information that convinced me a video recorded seven years ago and uploaded five years ago (with fewer than 250 views) was worthy of the public’s scrutiny and attention.
In his commentary, Cook mentions Ellison’s work in 2004 with Willie Wooten, the founder and head pastor of Gideon Fellowship Church. There are a couple of other details worth mentioning: On Dec. 28th, 2018, Ellison signed and filed a report with the Louisiana Secretary of State listing herself as the church’s registered agent and administrator.
Today, she has a much more prominent leadership role in the church than she did in 2004, when the two of them organized a rally in Baton Rouge.
The year after that rally, Wooten published a book titled Breaking the Curse Off Black America in which he argues that, by 2009, God would punish African Americans for the next forty years if they did not oppose gay rights and ensure that gay children were subjected to conversion therapy. His book is still available for purchase on Amazon, where you’ll find this passage in its free preview:
And there is one more detail to consider: A year before she was elected as a Democrat in 2012, Ellison was registered as a Libertarian.
I appreciate Cook allowing The Bayou Brief to republish his commentary and am grateful for his relentless work in documenting education policymaking as a service to the people of Louisiana .
The Anti-Defamation League issued a letter to Ellison, expressing “serious concern” about her statements about LGBTQ student rights and the separation of church and state.