Shortly after he became Orange County Schools’ chief equity officer in 2022, Lee A. Williams II was summoned to a tense meeting at an elementary school. 

A father had objected to an art project in which students had the option of coloring in their pronouns. Williams defended the project. The father turned to Williams. “Are you a pedophile?” he recalls the man asking.

For those who have studied school districts embroiled in culture wars, this was a predictable encounter. According to a UCLA study published last year, equity officers across the country have reported being targeted by conservative groups as a part of the growing backlash against anti-racist and LGBTQ-inclusive policies. Though not an entirely new tactic, the intensity has ramped up over the past two years as activists have made “critical race theory” a key talking point.

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Sometimes, the UCLA report said, the campaign against equity officers (and especially officers of color) takes the form of explicit threats and intimidation. One father, Williams said, called him 19 times in a single day. “Do you think you’re safe?” the parent asked. “Do you think your family’s safe?”

He’s not sure. He tells his team to leave school board meetings together. He lifts weights to strengthen his body. “I have reckoned with this idea: This is work I will die for,” he said.

Williams knew he’d face hostility, though he didn’t realize how much, when he left his job as a middle-school principal in Guilford County to come to Orange. Shortly after his arrival last summer, Education Week published an article quoting his predecessor. She explained that she left the Orange County post because the blowback against critical race theory had made her job both ineffective and exhausting.

Stickers decorate Williams’ laptop. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

This past May, Williams’ office hosted a panel discussion for LGBTQ+ school-system employees and their allies called Pride in the Profession. It was open to the public, but there were enough safety and confidentiality concerns that organizers decided not to record it.

Gretchen Schmid, the local Moms for Liberty chapter chair, was there. The event poster had welcomed both LGBTQ+ people and their “co-conspirators,” a word that caught her eye. “If you’ve been labeled a conspirator in our country in the last three years,” she said, “the FBI is hunting you down.”

Panelists shared their personal stories and discussed age-appropriate ways to support queer kids and educate all students. They discussed a Pride Month slide deck for elementary classrooms. And they shared their fears about North Carolina’s Senate Bill 49, a Republican-sponsored “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that Gov. Roy Cooper later vetoed. (No override vote has taken place so far.) The bill would require schools to notify parents when their children adopt new pronouns. 

“A lot of teachers have already said they’re not comfortable throwing their kids under the bus,” panelist Billie Markham, a fifth-grade teacher, remembered saying.

Afterward, Markham said, audience members lined up to thank her. She felt so supported, she said, that later she used the phrase “my wife” in her classroom for the first time in 26 years. “It got zero reaction from my students,” she said.

Williams works in his office in Hillsborough. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Schmid viewed the event differently. She bristled at the mention of the slide deck, believing that its message of inclusion and allyship masked a pro-transgender “indoctrination” campaign. And she disliked when Williams asked the audience not to debate panelists. “Basically,” she said, “this was like a communist meeting.”

Barred from recording, Schmid took detailed notes instead, and reported them through email and social media. Word spread from there. “The district is using celebrities and children’s picture books to brand LGTBQ by instilling thoughts into undeveloped children’s minds that they too can switch genders,” Jacquie Barker, the parent who challenged the Cedar Ridge High School library books, wrote to elected officials. 

One of them was Senate Bill 49’s co-sponsor, Alamance County Republican State Sen. Amy Galey. She in turn wrote to Superintendent Monique Felder, asking about plans to disobey the law if it passes. (“Orange County Schools complies with all federal, state, and local laws,”  Felder replied.) Galey also requested Orange’s elementary-school curriculum and teaching materials related to sexuality and gender identity.

The right-wing journalist A.P. Dillon wrote to the district, requesting Markham’s employment details, including her salary. And at the next regular board meeting, a Moms for Liberty member without kids in the system publicly named Markham and another panelist. 

Williams knows that some colleagues are uncomfortable in the spotlight. But he also believes that change is birthed from discomfort. 

“There is no more hiding in fear in the shadows,” Williams said. “I’m right here. I come in every day, head held high—on a swivel, still wanting to make it home every day, but also knowing this is the right work for me.”

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham. Find more of his work here.

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