The Gay Pastor Fighting for LGBTQ Lessons at a Calif. School District

Pastor Casey Tinnin

Rocklin, Calif., has been in the news for some anti-LGBTQ activism by those who object to a new state-mandated inclusive public school curriculum — but there’s some support for LGBTQ youth in the area as well.

In a May 1 meeting that went past midnight, the Rocklin Unified School District board adopted a curriculum that complies with California’s Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, which requires public schools to teach about the contributions of LGBTQ figures, along with those of other historically marginalized groups, starting in second grade. For example, one book in the curriculum states that Sally Ride was the first woman and first lesbian astronaut.

The meeting was marked by intense debate, with many parents contending the information was being given to children who were too young to understand the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity — although, as one attendee at the meeting pointed out, “Sexuality is already taught to students when textbooks say that John F. Kennedy is married to Jackie Kennedy.” And there were those who objected to LGBTQ inclusion at all. The board had little leeway in acting on the curriculum, as it has to follow state law, although there were a few iterations it could choose. But some parents in the Northern California town, in Placer County near Sacramento, were so incensed by the move that they protested by keeping their children out of school May 3.

But LGBTQ-supportive forces have mobilized as well. Among them are a youth group, the Landing Spot, led by Pastor Casey Tinnin of the Loomis Basin Congregational Church United Church of Christ — an LGBTQ-inclusive church in the nearby town of Loomis that draws many congregants from Rocklin and the surrounding area — and local gay-straight alliances.

The Landing Spot is nonreligious; it’s designed to give LGBTQ youth a place to go, be themselves, and feel safe and supported. It holds monthly meetings, plus dances on holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Tinnin also works with GSAs in the area and connects kids with one-on-one counseling if they don’t feel comfortable going to GSA meetings or to his youth group.

Some area residents had asked Tinnin to attend the May 1 board meeting to be a progressive voice. At a previous meeting, another clergy member had said LGBTQ people should have a millstone hung around their neck and be tossed into the sea, Tinnin says. The pastor, who is gay, was glad to take on the task of countering such hateful rhetoric. The high school’s GSA and five young people from the Landing Spot joined him, along with other supportive forces.

They arrived at the site, a Rocklin middle school gym, at 4:45 p.m., well in advance of the meeting’s 6:30 p.m. start time, Tinnin tells The Advocate. But there were about 20 members of the opposition there already. More than six hours of debate ensued.

“We heard some of the traditional stuff,” Tinnin says — that homosexuality is an abomination, a mental illness, and a sin that will result in eternal damnation. But alternative voices made themselves heard as well.

One of the highlights for him, he says, was when one of the teens from the youth group said he wanted to be able to look into history someday and see that progress had been made. The youth also pointed out that he was a Christian and that gay kids pray, just as straight kids do.

And Tinnin noted to the gathering that he’d heard rhetoric that showed homes and churches were not safe spaces for LGBTQ kids, and that leaves schools as the only safe place for them — demonstrating the need for the inclusive curriculum.

Then, the last person to speak before the board voted was the homophobic minister from the previous meeting. Tinnin says he doesn’t know the man’s name and thinks he’s from Southern California. The minister started by saying he was the one who really loved LGBTQ people because he wanted them to change. But while he was speaking, Tinnin and his group began singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and drowned him out.

The meeting closed after the board approved the curriculum by a vote of 3-2. Tinnin says he’s proud of the young people who attended, “the energy that they had, that they made a difference.” At least one person told him that hearing them changed his mind.

Although Placer County is a traditionally conservative area, there is growing support for LGBTQ people, Tinnin says. He notes that he encountered a couple of elementary-age children who, after hearing people talk about some parents keeping their kids out of school in protest, decided to wear rainbow shirts to school to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Young children often do understand what being gay means, he says, and they also understand when they hear homophobic messages. “Children are listening,” he points out.

He estimates the number of students kept out of school on the protest day is lower than what was reported by local media, which said 650 to 700 students were absent in the district, out of a total enrollment of 12,000. Tinnin says only about 100 kids missed school that day.

The pastor, who’s been at the Loomis church for two and a half years and cohosts a progressive Christian podcast at Irenicast.com, sees reason to be encouraged. “There are a lot of families in this area who are rising up and saying kindness matters,” he says. Of his role, he adds, “I just feel like I’m carrying on a holy tradition.”

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