This is an opinion column.
Tim James wants folks to know he doesn’t care much for LGBTQ acceptance, which the Republican candidate for governor says is putting Alabama children in the “crosshairs of hell.”
“I will show these people and what they’re doing to these little ones no mercy,” James said in a recent speech to the North Shelby County Republican Women.
Of particular interest to James, and the biggest target of his ire, is the Magic City Acceptance Academy, which he calls “vile” and “evil.”
The new charter school, now in its first year, is open to all students, not just LGBTQ youth, who are looking for a place to be different and safe from bullying.
Unfortunately, they’re not safe from James. In recent weeks, James has used photos of the school, including students there, in his campaign ads.
“And now, right here in Alabama, millions of your tax dollars are paying for the first transgender public school in the South,” he said in the ad as images of students and teachers played on the screen. “Enough of this foolishness.”
James spoke about the school at the Republican women’s group, too, as well as at other stops on his campaign. Of particular interest to him was a recent fundraiser in which teachers dressed in drag to raise money for the school’s quiz bowl team to go to Washington D.C.
“They create an affirming school with teachers and faculty who three weeks ago put on a drag show in front of the children at the school,” James said. “This is what abuse looks like.”
James has promised, if elected, to defund the publicly funded charter and close it.
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James has opposed what he calls “transgenderism” since launching his campaign last year, but after the Legislature passed bills banning discussions of sexuality in elementary schools, restricting bathroom use by “biological sex” at birth and outlawing gender-affirming medical care for minors, James seems to have found his moment.
Until now, James has struggled against a public perception that he’s not that bright. In a failed 2010 campaign for governor, he ran strange commercials in which he meandered from room to room in a house saying kinda racist things about how immigrants should speak English in between unusually long pauses. It was the pauses that turned the ads into a target for viral online parodies.
He lost that 2010 race after it came out that he’d joked about cutting Alabama head football coach Nick Saban’s pay if elected governor.
And last year, he made himself the target of jokes again, when he attacked lawmakers and the governor for lifting a ban on yoga in public schools, which he described as a gateway drug into Hinduism and pointed to a school permission form as evidence.
“I don’t remember needing permission for jumping jacks or toe touches, do you?” James said. “Think about it! They took prayer out of schools, and now we have this Trojan horse called yoga.”
If you wrote a fictionalized version of Alabama politics, James is the sort of character a lazy writer might come up with. But he’s real: A lumbering former Auburn football player and son of a former governor fighting for folks to take him seriously.
So it only seems prudent that if you’re going to crusade against kids in school laughing as their teachers hammed it up in drag …
Well, you might want to look back at your own high school yearbook first.
Because to attack the Magic City Acceptance Academy for doing something like what you at your own school four decades ago — well, that would be a new level of stupid.
But this is James we’re talking about.
So I looked. His high school yearbooks is online. You can look at it, too.
Beginning in the 11th grade, James attended Baylor School, then an all-boys prep school in Chattanooga, Tenn. There, he ran a little track and served as a monitor in one of the dorms.
And he played football. His number was 20, and if you look closely you can find some good action shots of him running the ball down the field.
But that’s not all you’ll see.
Each year, Baylor plays its cross-town rival, the McCallie School, and the schools celebrate the week by, shall we say, letting their hair down a bit. Uniforms become optional. Students hang banners bashing the other team around their campuses. And there are pep rallies for “Spirit Week.”
And judging from the yearbooks it was a common thing during Spirit Week for the football players to trade their jerseys and helmets for dresses and wigs and put on a show.
You know — in drag.
And on page 264 of the 1980 “Kliff Klan” (that’s the name of the Baylor yearbook) is a picture of 10 senior football players. Half in dresses and wigs. The other half in cowboy hats, boots and jeans.
And that second guy from the end — in a cowboy outfit, not a dress — sure looks a lot like Tim James. But I wasn’t 100 percent sure.
So I sent James the picture and asked him. We spoke for nearly half an hour. James repeated the same things he’s said on the campaign trail and in his ads. He wanted to talk more about school administrators in drag and the charter school commission than about what was in his high school yearbook, but I insisted we be clear who that was in the hat.
“This is ridiculous. This is a football team,” he said. “Yeah, that’s me in the cowboy hat, isn’t it?”
James rejected any argument these were comparable things and was more interested in the MCAA principal dressing as Mrs. Claus for Christmas.
“No, it’s two different things and you know it,” he said.
You might not be that surprised by James’ high school show. Lots of schools do this sort of thing during their homecoming festivities. We did the same thing at my high school. It’s not a big deal. The players goof around and have fun. The students watching have fun, too.
And that’s just the thing. They’re supposed to have fun — just like those students and teachers at the Magic City Acceptance Academy were having fun.
Until James came down from the mountain and ruined it for them.
This is James’ political moment — and a scary one for LGBTQ folks, especially the young and especially in Alabama.
Ultimately James’ ad is designed to provoke outrage and he’s hopeful what you’re reading right now, will too.
“I don’t care if you take that picture of the Baylor football team and blast it all over,” James said. “You’re just gonna help me because people know better. I wish you would.”
A significant convergence is happening in conservative spaces, where Q-anon Pizzagate-like conspiracy theories about political pedophiles are cross-pollinating with more moderate concerns over transgender participation in sports and medical treatments for minors. “Groomer” has replaced “socialist” and “communist” as the pet pejorative, while sensible people are being seduced further into fringe beliefs.
A recent Yougov survey found that nearly one-in-three Americans and 49 percent of Republicans believe top Democrats participate in child sex trafficking. And in the very place and among the same people that once supported Roy Moore for the United States Senate, the safety of children from sexual exploitation has become priority number one.
Since James began running his ads attacking the school, the Magic City Acceptance Academy has had to increase security. School officials have reported strange people scoping out the school and taking videos of the students from outside.
They have to live in fear.
Because of a hypocrite.
When the parent of one student complained to the James campaign about her child being visible in the campaign ad, the campaign posted a snarky reply on its Facebook page, questioning the parent, Kimberly Fasking, for allowing her child to attend the school.
When I spoke with James, he repeated the same things and called the school child abuse.
“I will have no mercy,” he said again. “For these faculty, these teachers, this principal who are abusing these children.”
I asked him whether he could understand that sounded like a threat.
“No, that’s not a threat,” he said. “We’re gonna expose this to the Nth degree. And they’re going to be held accountable for what they’ve done what they’re doing.”
Ultimately, James could not understand why anyone would want to send their children to such a school or why the public should pay for it.
After I told Fasking about the yearbook, she had questions for James, too.
“He’s claiming that by doing this drag show these people are victimizing these children, they’re harming these children,” Fasking said. “Does he feel after having participated in, or at least been in close proximity to that skit, or whatever it was in the 80s, that he was somehow victimized?”
James claims he’s protecting children, Fasking said, but he’s really putting them in danger.
The Magic City Acceptance Academy was supposed to be a place where students could be safe away from bullies.
But Tim James found them anyway.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ award for opinion writing, and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins prize for political commentary. You can follow his work on his Facebook page, The War on Dumb. And on Twitter. And on Instagram.
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