- Rob Donnelly
On April 1, online content creator and self-described "unwoke cult leader" Karlyn Borysenko cracked open an Imperial Peanut Butter Stout and settled in for her Friday-night happy hour. In these weekly virtual gatherings, streamed on YouTube to nearly 14,000 subscribers, Borysenko shares recordings of equity-focused workshops and trainings, providing barbed play-by-play commentary.
Borysenko, who lives in New Hampshire, focused this particular night on the Burlington School District. She played recordings of two community workshops the district's Office of Equity had organized: "Let's Talk About Anti-Racism" and "Let's Talk About Gender Identity and Expression."
In the latter, Edmunds Middle School assistant principal Nikki Ellis, who is transgender, and Burlington High School music teacher Billy Ray Poli, who is gay, spoke about their experiences and, in conversation with middle school students, discussed ways to support LGBTQ youth.
As they spoke, Borysenko widened her eyes and dropped her jaw in an exaggerated fashion.
"This truly, to me, feels like we're watching brainwashing; we're watching child abuse," Borysenko told viewers. "I actually feel sick watching this, but I feel like it's important that we do watch this because this is what's going on in school every day."
She later issued a call to action: "Let's expose these fuckers."
Borysenko followed up with a lengthy online article on Substack headlined "The most woke school district in America is grooming children live on the internet," with clips from both workshops.
Days later, Ben Shapiro, a like-minded, high-profile conservative political commentator, shared several clips from the gender identity workshop with his millions of followers as part of a commentary on how teachers are indoctrinating children. Then, on the April 6 episode of Fox News' "The Ingraham Angle," host Laura Ingraham also shared the footage in a segment called "Doom & Groom."
"What's happening in our schools is sexual influence peddling," Ingraham told viewers. "What we are saying is, children should go to school to learn how to read and write ... that their innocence is worth protecting."
The blowback in Burlington was swift. The school district's central office and middle school, as well as assistant principal Ellis, were inundated with mostly anonymous calls and emails that appeared to be primarily from outside of the state expressing what superintendent Tom Flanagan called "hateful, harmful and discriminatory" sentiments.
The community countered by rallying behind LGBTQ educators and students.
Flanagan emailed staff, families and students asking them to join him in "wrapping around the brave staff and students who have spoken up about their experiences and who are creating change." Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, in a tweet, thanked Flanagan and wrote that he was "grateful" to be able to send his daughters to a school district "with such a commitment to these values."
The series of events has shown how a liberal and inclusive community such as Burlington can become a symbol of woke insanity to right-wing conservatives, who have used race and gender identity to turn schools into an unceasing culture war battleground.
While local educators who work to promote equity say the offensive has only strengthened their resolve, they're also considering additional safety measures to keep students out of harm's way.
"First and foremost, it's a double-down on exactly why we need to be here doing this work," said Outright Vermont's executive director, Dana Kaplan. The Burlington-based nonprofit has been working to empower LGBTQ youth through community and school initiatives such as support groups, camps and educational programming since 1989. "We have to recognize that these are not new strategies that are coming, in particular, from the right. [They're] basically politicizing the lives of marginalized people as a way to gain political power and backing. There's no smoke and mirrors about what's actually happening."
Kaplan points to data from the most recent Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, from 2019, as an illustration of how LGBTQ students are struggling. The survey found that high school LGBTQ students are nearly four times more likely than their heterosexual, cisgender peers to have hurt themselves on purpose in the past year and five times more likely to have attempted suicide. They are also significantly more likely to skip school due to safety concerns and to use illegal drugs.
"We want to see the numbers of health outcomes for LGBTQ youth shifting," Kaplan said. "We want to make sure we are living in a state where LGBTQ youth have hope, equity and power."
In the days following the Fox News backlash, Flanagan said the district received "tons of messages of support" from Vermont residents. Elementary and middle school students created posters and cards to show their solidarity with assistant principal Ellis.
"For us, it's about making sure that all the members of our community feel like they belong and are supported, and their well-being is taken into consideration, and they're able to express who they really are as individuals," Flanagan said. "That just seems so clearly right to me."
The following week, Borysenko was back at it. The Williamstown, Vt., native — who earned a master's degree in business administration at Norwich University, according to her LinkedIn profile — was finding plenty of material in her former home state for her audience.
On April 13, Borysenko tried to gain access to a Vermont Human Rights Commission online workshop about the state of LGBTQ inclusion in Vermont schools. The event, facilitated by Outright, was apparently ripe fodder for her "Spy Stream," which she describes as a way to "expose" what people are saying when they think those outside their community aren't watching.
Because of the recent events in Burlington, both Outright and the commission were aware that a disruption might occur. After several of Borysenko's followers — whom she refers to as members of her "unwoke army" — managed to gain access and begin recording, organizers made the decision to shut down the workshop "in an effort to keep the learning context safe for all registered attendees who were in earnest there to learn about how to support LGBTQ+ youth in schools," Kaplan wrote in an email.
Tricia Van Vliet, a parent of three in Shelburne, had logged on to the workshop after hearing about it through the Champlain Valley School District. A few minutes in, she said, organizers informed participants that a YouTube channel was broadcasting the workshop without organizers' consent and suggested they turn off their video cameras and remove their names from their Zoom squares.
"I sort of didn't get it at first," Van Vliet said. But eventually, it sank in that she had shared personal information that was likely being streamed on YouTube.
"It started to hit, like, Oh, my gosh," Van Vliet said. "I just feel violated, and I feel like I'm being watched, and it started to feel really scary."
Van Vliet said the incident made her more motivated to support LGBTQ students but also caused her to reconsider how she'll participate in online workshops going forward. She'll no longer show her face on camera or use her real name or identifying descriptors, she said.
In Burlington, the school district pulled the videos on anti-racism and gender identity from YouTube after the negative comments flowed in. Superintendent Flanagan said school leaders are now considering what virtual content they will — and won't — post publicly.
"Zoom bombing," when someone disrupts a virtual class or workshop, was common early in the pandemic, before organizers set more stringent privacy rules. But the latest trend, of broadcasting and insulting the words of children and adults speaking in what they consider a safe space, appears newer.
"We don't want to be silenced in our work, and we want to do everything we can to protect our community as we do it," Flanagan said. "That's the delicate balance."
Kaplan, who said his organization is also being more vigilant about virtual intruders, sees a connection between the recent verbal hostility and physical violence. On April 12, Fern Feather, a 29-year-old transgender woman, was stabbed to death in Morristown. And last week, a still-unidentified person hurled a chunk of concrete and shattered the front door of the Pride Center of Vermont's office in Burlington. Mike Bensel, its executive director, told Seven Days that the organization had received an uptick in hate mail since the Ingraham segment aired.
"It is incredibly important that people not be fooled to see these things as isolated incidents," Kaplan said. "There is a larger, coordinated national effort that is happening right now, and trans youth in particular, and trans people in particular, are an easy target."
Borysenko initially agreed to an interview with Seven Days but didn't respond to a follow-up request to schedule one.
On April 18, she appeared on WVMT radio's "The Morning Drive" with Kurt Wright and Anthony Neri, where she continued to accuse the Burlington School District of indoctrination and "grooming" and threatened to request teachers' emails. Her statements went largely unchallenged by the hosts. When asked about the hateful messages the district received, Borysenko dug in.
"They've brought this on themselves by displaying children as a virtue signal. If they had never put children on the internet, none of this would be happening in the first place," she said.
Borysenko also claimed that teaching about equity and social justice in schools detracts from learning fundamental skills such as reading and math.
But those who work with LGBTQ youth say the opposite is true: Supporting and empowering youth from marginalized identity groups is critical to those students' success in school.
"This is a matter of people having the psychological and physical and emotional safety they need in order to show up and be a part of their sports team, be a part of math class," Kaplan said.
Jessica Oski agrees. Her son, a senior at Burlington High School, is transgender, and Oski is on a district LGBTQ task force that will soon recommend steps to make Burlington schools national models for LGBTQ holistic wellness.
Last week, Oski read to school commissioners a letter about her son's 13 years in the district. She detailed how educators listened when her son advocated for access to a non-gender bathroom in elementary school; how the district and his friends stood up for him when he was bullied in middle school; how the high school worked to ensure that teachers would use his preferred name before it was legally changed.
Though the school district's responses were not always perfect, "everyone's intention and desire to figure out how to do the right thing was constant," Oski wrote in the letter. "To create the kind of foundation of acceptance, love and caring that my child and so many others received ... is a gift he will carry for him for the rest of his life. This foundation will nurture him and give him strength in tough times. I couldn't have asked for more."