EVANSVILLE — A video of Evansville Vanderburgh County School Corp. Board Member Ann Ennis shouting at transgender advocates has grabbed national headlines with many calling for her removal from the board, but Ennis said it was taken out of context.
After the Nov. 25 school board meeting, Ennis approached several members of the Tri-State Alliance (TSA), a service and educational organization serving LGBTQ communities in southern Indiana, Illinois and western Kentucky.
The group has attended meetings for the last couple of years protesting and speaking out about the district's lack of support for transgender students during public comment. After the meeting, TSA President Wally Paynter said Ennis went up to the group to express her support for the organization's statements.
Paynter said Ennis mentioned that she's donated money to several LGBTQ organizations and was the only board member in support of the group's push for effective safety practices for transgender students and to establish non-discrimination policies based on gender identity.
However, the video shows Paynter calling Ennis transphobic, which he suggests is due to statements she made during a private conversation. In response, Ennis turns back and said, "Cry me a river," while making a gesture as if she was playing the violin.
The 14-second video posted on TSA's Facebook page garnered the attention of national news publications such as The Advocate and Newsweek.
The video prompted hundreds to sign an online petition for Ennis, an elected official of the EVSC, to be removed from the school board.
After a week of silence, Ennis sent a written statement to the Courier & Press Monday, citing her perspective on the video. She claims the recording was out of context and her statement out of frustration.
"The video of me from November 25th is out of context," she said. "After the school board meeting, I attempted (to) state my support for LGBTQ+ issues to the group and was unable to be heard.
"My comments upon leaving the group were because I was not being allowed to speak," she added. "That unprofessionalism on my part led to my wrong-spirited comments."
While reports suggest Ennis' statement was directed to the deaths of transgender students, she points to the work she's done for other LGBTQ students in Evansville.
"I was not speaking about the tragedy of transgender or of any suicide," she said. "I have a long history of stewardship and political activism for LGBTQ issues. I will continue this work, and have since September with a new area organization — Greater Evansville Youth."
Though many have come to the support of TSA following the surfacing of the video, Paynter's character and the group's reputation has been questioned in the past.
As reported by the Courier & Press, TSA lost its non-profit status from the IRS for not properly filing documents in September 2018. The TSA has appealed the decision, and that appeal is pending.
Nathan Payne, who was in an on-again, off-again relationship with Paynter for several years, said he felt groomed to be involved with the TSA president at 16 years old.
Payne, now in his late 30s, said at 16 Paynter once offered him $60 to place his hands in his pants in an affidavit March 2018. That scenario repeated itself eight to 10 times over the next two years, Payne said in the affidavit. He said he was urged by Paynter to get tested for STIs and would leave those appointments with cash Paynter gave him.
Paynter denied the claims.
Former TSA board member the Rev. Paul S. Mefford supported Payne's assertions, assisting him and others to sign affidavits while Payne was employed by the Vanderburgh County Health Department as a disease intervention specialist.
They also approached the Indiana Department of Health about opening an investigation for Paynter's alleged misconduct, but it ended after Paynter resigned from the agency after 22 years in 2018.
Paynter said these claims are false.
He and TSA members will continue to attend board meetings.
Paynter said the group will continue to seek the support of EVSC board members to establish support and safety for transgender students.
The district currently bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but not on gender identity. The current nondiscrimination policy requires students to use the bathroom based on their assigned gender at birth.
Paynter said TSA members will look to one board member to help collect four votes to change the current nondiscrimination policy and other issues concerning transgender students.
"We're not pushing for the school board to like us," Paynter said. "We're pushing for the school board to make policy changes to help transgender students and make them less likely to commit suicide.
"We need a champion on that board. And we need someone to influence three of the remaining six school board members to use the best practices when it comes to helping transgender students."
EVSC Board President Karen Ragland hasn't returned a message seeking comment about the issue.