EXCLUSIVE: Washington state 4H competition threatens students for wearing 'My pronouns are nor/mal' t-shirt

“I am fine with disagreement, but just because he disagrees with something doesn’t make it wrong, harassing, or discriminatory."

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA
Teen girls competing in a 4-H equestrian competition were threatened with punitive action for wearing t-shirts proclaiming their pronouns as “nor/mal.”

During the Pierce County Fair in Graham, Washington earlier this month, the girls purchased the shirts that read, “My pronoun is nor/mal” from a booth at the fair after discovering that in an event called Groom Squad, teams could get extra points if they had matching outfits.  

The girls wore the shirts during the 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands, and Health) equestrian competition, which operates under Washington State University (WSU).

Brian Brandt, with the Pierce County Extension 4-H, allegedly approached the girls to discuss the shirts without their parents present. In a statement to WSU 4H obtained by The Post Millennial, one of the girls, Sydney Smith, wrote, "My dad saw what was happening and came over to be part of the conversation and to make sure I was okay. I barely know Brian Brandt and he made me feel very uncomfortable when he wanted to talk to me without my parents being there...and I know my friends felt this way too."

"Almost immediately after my dad came over to see what was going on, another parent (not involved with us, or the situation) involved herself in the conversation and started yelling and pointing at me, telling me I had no business wearing that shirt and I needed to take it off. I was scared and felt harassed and discriminated against by both Brian Brandt and the other parent. I felt very unsafe with them and still do. For the rest of the fair, I made sure I was never alone and had one of my friends or parents with me or close by."

She added, "My dad asked the other parent to remove herself from our conversation because it had nothing to do with her. She was angry and yelling and I was scared and uncomfortable. My dad intervened, telling her to leave – something he only had to do because Brian Brandt allowed the situation to escalate. She refused to leave and turned her anger on my dad."

"My dad did not swear or call anyone names. He was protecting me and my friends from a very hostile situation. The other parent started to lunge toward my dad after he told her to leave saying, “What are you going to do about it” or something to that effect. It was very embarrassing, uncomfortable, and just plain awful for me. She kept lunging at my dad and asking what he was going to do about it. I thought she was going to bump him – she was very aggressive. I do not feel safe with her, and I hope 4-H takes some action against her to make sure other kids are not put in an unsafe situation by her like I was."

Later in the day, Brandt approached Donna Person Smith, one of the parent volunteers. Brandt asked if she was aware that the picture of the girls in the shirts had been posted to Facebook. Person Smith told The Ari Hoffman Show on Talk Radio 570 KVI that Brandt's position was that a pronoun shirt worn in this competition or any other 4-H-sanctioned event would be acceptable and allowed provided it included one of the pronouns he deemed appropriate. "It was not a blanket rule that there are no 'words' or 'pronouns' on shirts, just that he gets to decide which 'words' or 'pronouns' are allowed.  This is not only unfair, it is a violation of my daughter's right to free speech and free expression.  Brian Brandt specifically targeted these girls because of his personal interpretation and opinion about the shirts -- not based on any actual rule violation."  

Brandt demanded the photographer who posted the pictures to social media remove the images of the girls competing in the shirts from Facebook because of “discrimination and harassment” laws and the photographer complied. "When I asked Brian what rule the shirt violated, he was unable to provide one," Person Smith told Hoffman. "He simply stated there are federal, state, and local laws against harassment and discrimination. I told him I was relieved to hear this and wanted to know what he and 4-H were going to do about the harassment and discrimination towards my daughter for how she chose to express herself. He did not respond."
According to Person Smith, Brandt kept saying those using other pronouns might be offended, to which she replied, “They might be offended by lots of things.”
He said if they were “normal”, someone who felt otherwise would then be “abnormal.” 

Person Smith told Hoffman that she then suggested to Brandt that they "...look up the definition of 'normal' and he declined."
According to Person Smith, Brandt continued to insist that the t-shirts were political and offensive to “marginalized” communities.

As the discussion continued into which pronouns are acceptable, Person Smith stated “There are new ones every day and why is it up to him what pronouns are acceptable?”  She then stated that the shirts were about freedom of expression and her daughter has a right to express herself — “not profane, not political, not harassing.” 

Person Smith told Hoffman, “I am fine with disagreement, but just because he disagrees with something doesn’t make it wrong, harassing, or discriminatory. I am tired of people who disagree with me telling me I am guilty of ‘wrong think.’”  “Brian then told me that he spoke to the club leaders and told them to tell kids to remove offensive clothing — so I told him it would appear that the harassment by this parent was done not only with WSU/4-H’s knowledge and consent — but at their direction.”

Another parent, Audra Doll, told Hoffman, “It seems some people who made the complaint to Brian Brandt… made their post public and shareable of our daughters and the photo. Donna and I personally confirmed with Brian today that he wrote this response to the people who complained and they then shared it publicly on FB as well.”

According to Doll, Brian “…also confirmed that his (very emotional and subjective) response was approved and sanctioned by WSU.”

She added, “My biggest concern, which I told him today, is he put a target on our 15-year-old daughters’ backs by writing a statement saying that these girls by "choosing to wear these T-shirts at a public event created a less safe, less welcoming and, for some, a seriously harmful environment for other youths and adults.’”

“Brian responded to that public complaint with the full knowledge that it insinuates our daughters were purposely creating a dangerous environment for the LGBTQ+ community, which is a disgraceful and a dishonest portrayal of the facts. The truth of the matter is by issuing that response to someone, unknown from the public, he made this environment unsafe for our daughters by putting a target on their backs and he put them at genuine risk for someone unstable to seek retaliation against these girls.”

Brandt did not return a request for comment. However, someone the women are not familiar with named Zoe Bowens posted her outrage on Facebook, along with an apology she and her friend Anissa had received from Brandt on behalf of WSU.

In the statement, Brandt apologized for the “unacceptable situation,” adding, “We will also be revisiting how to create and maintain an open and affirming 4H environment.”

“In our state 4H policy, there are multiple passages that detail our program values of inclusion, nondiscrimination, and policy against gender-based harassment.”

He then claimed that “The shirt suggests that anyone with non-binary or gender-expansive pronouns are not normal. Choosing to wear the shirts as a team at a public event representing 4H led to the creation of a less safe, less welcoming, and for some, seriously harmful environment for other youth or adults.”

A one-sheet on WSU’s 4H website encourages participants to share their pronouns noting, “We often make assumptions based on how someone looks, sounds, behaves and more, but people express their gender in many different ways. Sharing your pronouns makes 4H a more welcoming place for people of all genders and expression.”

The flyer added, “I think it's easy to guess my pronouns correctly but sharing them helps everyone feel included and respected.”

Sydney added in her statement, "Brandt harassed and targeted me for my chosen pronouns and told us that if we had chosen other pronouns, that wearing a shirt would have been fine, but that our shirts were not ones he found acceptable. By doing so he created a less-safe and less-welcoming environment for me and my friends. This was very harmful to me, and I do not want to ever have anything to do with Brian Brandt or 4-H ever again. This is hard for me because I started 4-H as a 9-year-old junior and dreamed of staying in the program through high school when I would get my senior recognition and buckle. That won’t happen now."

My mom has always taught me to be welcoming and inclusive to all people. I have never been accused of mistreating other people and my shirt is not a statement against anyone – it is a statement about myself and how I identify."

It appears that Brian Brandt and 4-H are welcoming to all genders and gender identities except mine."
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