By Evan McMorris-Santoro and Yon Pomrenze, CNN
Kelsey and Chris Waits moved to Hastings, Minnesota, to build a dream home for themselves and their two children.
Chris had a promising job opportunity when he left the Navy but it was the neighborhood that drew them in.
“Kelsey said, ‘Well, I hope the interview went well because we’re moving here. This town is great, this town is perfect, this is what I want,'” Chris recalled his wife telling him.
The city of about 22,000 people is close enough to Minneapolis to be a distant suburb but just far enough away to be surrounded by green Midwest farmland. The historic downtown is in great shape, with a spiffy park along the Mississippi. All around are nice houses, nice cars, nice shopping.
But when the pandemic put pressure on the community, cracks began to appear. Stressed by school closures and debate over wearing masks, some neighbors started taking aim at the school board.
Kelsey Waits was the face and voice of that school board as its chair. The ugliness that followed in Kelsey’s unsuccessful race to be re-elected to the board now has the Waits packing up their dream home to move — and their love for Hastings likely tainted forever.
“I do feel really betrayed by this community,” Kelsey told CNN. ”Not because I lost but because not only did people attack a child, but so many of them sat by and allowed it to happen.”
The move to a new place proved bumpy for the Waits’ oldest child, Abby, who struggled so much in classes that Kelsey decided to home-school her.
It hadn’t been in the family plans, but it was something they could do and make a success of, Kelsey said.
Realizing that other children might have similar needs to Abby, now 11, but be in the public school system because their families did not have the means or desire to home-school, Kelsey says she decided to run for the school board to be their voice.
She’d been active in local Republican politics as a young woman, but became disillusioned and drifted away, particularly over the opposition to same-sex marriage. She says she was progressive on lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, but transgender people were not on her radar.
The 2016 election persuaded her to get involved again, but her interest in the school board proved confusing to some. “They just couldn’t figure out why a home-school mom wanted to be on school board,” Kelsey said.
So she knocked on doors, children often in tow, explained her goals and in 2017, she won the third seat on the Hastings School Board by 104 votes.
The school board work fascinated her, and she went back to college to study public policy and learn how public servants could be more effective.
She also impressed her fellow members and in January 2020, they elected her board chair, just two years into her first term.
And then the coronavirus pandemic swept through the US, bringing fear, lockdowns and closed schools.
At the start, Kelsey says she felt the community rallied together and dealt as best it could with the spring semester of distance-learning.
Tensions rose as the new academic year approached. And as the chair, it was Kelsey’s role to speak for the board and answer all questions.
“I probably got about the same number of emails from parents saying, ’My child is not going to school if masks are required’ as “My child is not going to school if masks aren’t required,'” she said.
“This community was very split and there were very strong feelings on both sides.”
But still, this seemed to the Waits to be usual politics within an interested community, even if some chose to attack Kelsey personally.
And then what Kelsey said was her most precious secret was revealed and used against her.
‘Your little girl’
Chris and Kelsey’s younger child was always the extrovert in the family.
Assigned male at birth, they were into more traditionally feminine things — if there was a truck being played with, it was likely being driven by a Disney princess — so the couple took it in stride when their child asked for a Kit Kittredge American Girl doll for a fourth birthday present. Kelsey wondered about the future but Chris just thought it was his child responding to living with a mother and sister while he was deployed overseas with the Navy Reserve.
“So we got this doll and Kit’s eyes just lit up. And Kit was so happy and so excited to get this doll,” Kelsey said.
“About a week later, when dad was in Japan, and I was standing right there in the kitchen, Kit walks up to me and goes, ’Mom, can you call me Kit?’ And my stomach dropped a little bit. Because all of a sudden, maybe things were making a little more sense. Click. And I said, ’Sure. Still my little … boy?” And Kit goes, ’No, your little girl.’
“I was like, ’Absolutely, sweetie, you got it.’ And then I ran into the other room with a panic attack and called Daddy in Japan and said, ’What the heck just happened?'”
Neither parent said they knew much about trans kids, and decided to let Kit be Kit while they figured things out.
It quickly became clear something very real was going on. When another fourth birthday gift arrived — a custom Paw Patrol shirt bearing Kit’s birth name — Kelsey found herself face-to-face with something she had never seen.
“Kit saw that name on the shirt and shut down and walked across the room and sat in my lap and cried and didn’t say anything to me. Just cried,” Kelsey said. “That was my wake-up moment for this. This is the real thing. This is not a normal response from a child. This was not a temper tantrum fit. This was a kid who went into a very deep, dark place.”
Kit’s coming out lost the family some relatives and some friends who were unwilling to accept their identity. But it was not an issue that had to be addressed much more broadly.
And Kit, now 8 years old, wore their dresses, went to school, played with their friends and their toys, and lived a life familiar to any suburban kid.
‘Most precious secret’
Kelsey had thought about her own children before running for the school board, aware that putting her family into the public spotlight, however dim, had its risks for their privacy.
She says she ran to work for the community, especially the students.
“Being on school board is not about my kid. It’s about protecting all kids. And transgender students are the most at-risk students in our schools for attempting suicide,” she said.
She supported diversity in schools but the biggest goal pre-pandemic was creating an onboarding handbook for new members to explain the board’s role as well as spelling out the myriad acronyms that can baffle a newcomer.
Then Covid hit and interest in and scrutiny of the work of school boards intensified in Hastings as across the country.
Central among concerns were mask mandates — and in Minnesota the governor delegated the decision-making to local authorities.
In Hastings, neighbors organized against mask mandates in a Facebook group called “Conservative Parents of Hastings” when it was formed in July. A few weeks later that was changed to “Concerned Parents of Hastings.” The group was closed, but it’s a small town and Kelsey knew parents in the group and she knew they were working against her.
“I’m fine with that. That’s politics,” she said. ”People can say they’re frustrated with me, I understand that. Completely fine.”
But after one parent posted a long complaint about a whole host of things involving Kelsey, another parent went uglier.
“She should be locked up for child abuse,” the parent wrote. “Her younger ‘daughter’ is actually a boy.”
Others jumped in, attacking the Waits as “woke parents” who had pushed their views onto their child.
Kelsey soon found out what was being written.
“This was my most precious secret. The thing I protected most and the thing I was most afraid of ever being used in a political way because for me, this isn’t political. This is my family, this is my child,” she said. “I dropped to the floor, and I cried.”
Kelsey decided to appeal to decency, writing a letter to the editor of the local paper.
“Even in this time of political division, a line must exist,” she wrote. “Families are off limits, this is true for my family and the family of anyone running for or holding office.”
On Facebook, some of the “Concerned Parents” reacted with glee. “We made the paper!” one wrote. “Please inform Ms. Waits of our appreciation for the free press.”
Local politics spurred safety concerns
The hate spread and so did the Waits’ fears.
“Every interaction we have with new people is me trying to figure out if my child is safe,” Kelsey said.
“I’m not talking about if my kid’s going to have fun with their kids, it’s trying to figure out if my child is … safe in that household?”
Kelsey and Chris held on to their anxiety for a month or so before the new school year loomed and they felt they needed to let their children know what people were saying to prepare them.
Acquaintances who had always known Kit as Kit started using the wrong pronouns for them.
And by the time of the election, winning was not on Kelsey’s priority list.
She says she still campaigned and believed in what she was doing, but the issue had become not about politics but about her. Even more than about her motherhood, this had implications for the safety of her child.
“You out a kid before they’re ready, you’re subjecting them to that sort of behavior that’s going to increase their risk of suicide,” Kelsey said. ”This is not about my parenting practices. This is about the lives of kids.”
She lost her bid for re-election by 403 votes, a result that Chris admits seemed like a relief.
But he says the election did not end the abuse. It may even have spread. The day after the election Chris says he was told by another parent that a middle-schooler was approached by another student and told: “My mom says that we won so now we can deal with sickos like you.”
So the Waits are moving from the dream house they designed, the one where Kelsey spent hours hand painting murals. They are seeking more privacy, and they believe safety, in a new address that has not been publicized.
“That’s where we’re at right now. There are people that we know, that are not safe for our kids in our neighborhood,” Chris said. ”We can’t trust our kids alone at the bus stop waiting for the bus, not because of the kids necessarily, but because of the parents.”
They don’t want to go too far from the city they thought would be their home forever, but they do need time and a safe space, to move forward, Kelsey said.
She still wants to serve the community and says she’s not the type to let bullies win. But she needs to heal from being hurled into the gutter of American politics for running for a school board.
“I think with time, I will find forgiveness,” she says. ”I think it’s going to take time.”
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