An Online Rant Against A Trans Counselor At The Space & Rocket Center Is All It Took To Unleash The Wolves

For LGBTQ+ employees at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, what used to be a haven now feels like a nightmare — and it only took one fearmongering rallying cry from a parent.

In a Facebook post from March 9, Clay Yarbrough, the father of a child enrolled at Space Camp, urged parents to pull their children from the program and started a smear campaign against a camp counselor named Molly Bowman.

Why? Because she’s trans.

As a bisexual woman who has struggled with her identity for years, I’m pretty tired of rhetoric that not only makes queer people question our own worth, but frequently makes us, especially members of the trans community, feel unsafe. As I watched all of this play out in the news, I knew I had to get the story from those who hadn’t yet been included in the conversation.

Though the post included no evidence or credible allegations of wrongdoing on Bowman’s part, the crux of Yarbrough’s argument hinged on the idea that Bowman could do something wrong — a possibility that, of course, isn’t exclusive to the LGBTQ+ community.

Yarbrough misgendered and used slurs against Bowman online, his post amassing comments that made unfounded accusations that she and the rest of the LGBTQ+ counselors had behaved inappropriately. The group dissected Bowman’s personal social media pages, and even her Amazon wish list, in their attempts to pull something from nothing.

Yarbrough’s post blew up with over 6,000 shares, garnering the attention of right-wing groups and politicians. Moms For Liberty Alabama tweeted Yarbrough’s Facebook post with the comment: “Do not send your children to Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. The entire program has gone woke! Girls as young as 7 attend Space Camp and this is what they are exposed to! Protect your kids!!!!

Given that the age range for the camp begins at 9, the group was already off to a rocky start.

Meanwhile, the right-wing account Libs of TikTok misgendered Bowman and repeated the baseless claim that Bowman “went into the girl’s showers while they were changing.”

Bowman’s supporters began researching Yarbrough. Commenters on his Facebook post raised questions about Yarbrough’s own alleged criminal past, which he dismissed on March 11 as irrelevant. After the backlash, Yarbrough wrote on Facebook: “Oh and because I have a mug shot on the internet and have been arrested before then I am a axe murdered with 12 criminal records, in a place I haven’t been since I was 23, IM ALSO ARMED AND DANGEROUS.”

He also posted a comment that read: “The crap is hitting the fan and I just spoiled the devils plans to hurt some kids!!! Major change is coming and the GOD I worship is still in charge and still more powerful than anything they can throw at me!!”

The Facebook conversation caused so many ripples that local conservative officials quickly weighed in.

“I call on the Center to immediately remove this individual and open a safety review to consider the potential harm and damages they have inadvertently caused children,” Rep. Dale Strong (R-Ala.) wrote in a statement.

Rep. Gary Palmer, another Alabama Republican, posted a similar sentiment on March 11, writing on social media: “The situation currently unfolding at @SpaceCampUSA is unacceptable. When parents send their kids to Space Camp in Alabama, they should be confident they are going to a safe, educational environment.”

The Space & Rocket Center said in a statement that the organization conducts extensive background checks on prospective employees, so Bowman wouldn’t have landed the job to begin with if she had a criminal record. The space center said in the statement that she has not been reported for misconduct.

On March 20, Alabama state Rep. Mark Gidley (R) attempted to amend House Bill 130, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in public school classrooms through grade 12. (Under current law, discussion of those topics is only forbidden through fifth grade.) The amendment, which would have specified that Space Camp is subject to those same rules, died in committee, and HB 130 was likewise killed in mid-May.

On March 15, Rocket Center CEO Kimberly Robinson sent an internal memo to staff, which an employee shared with me. The memo described how employees had been harassed and how “people on our staff have also received threats over email and phone.”

Patricia Ammons, senior director of public and media relations at the Center, told me over email that Robinson “wanted to send a message expressing her care and concern for our employees’ safety and well-being.”

Following an investigation, the Rocket Center said in a March 29 public statement that “there is no evidence of inappropriate behavior or malfeasance between any Space Camp staff and student campers.” The statement said the Rocket Center provides private areas for campers to change, shower and use the restroom, and no staffers had been in those areas.

Four Rocket Center employees told me that the center fostered an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ employees, but that it has soured somewhat since the incidents of harassment.

“It seemed like a very queer-positive place, especially for Alabama,” said one. “My department has a ton of LGBTQ+ people in it and most of us feel a bit hung out to dry by higher-ups.”

Another employee said they’d feel better if the center made a “definitive statement” against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, instead of the “HR bullshit we always get at jobs.”

When asked about its support for LGBTQ+ workers, a Rocket Center representative said: “Space Camp is and will remain an equal-opportunity employer adhering to all state and federal laws regulating hiring practices. We are an apolitical organization with no social agenda. Our singular mission is to inspire and educate.”

The Rocket Center conducted an internal investigation and a review of on-campus footage, and concluded that Bowman had done nothing wrong. But she was still transferred to a new department — something that the first employee claims amounted to “punish[ing] a trans employee for online weirdos being mad she’s trans.”

As these trolls have gotten more boisterous and bold, Bowman and her peers have grown concerned for their physical safety.

“As LGBTQ+ folks, we are just trying to do a job that we are underpaid for,” an employee told me. “We’re not indoctrinating your kids or being inappropriate.”

Recently, there have been “many comments from guests regarding our looks and religion,” another said. “It’s a mix of hate and love, but more hate lately.”

“Many [employees] have left because they are scared for their lives, regardless if they are trans or not,” this employee said. “I would feel safer with metal detectors. It’s reasonable for a place that is part of the [NASA] arsenal and that has kids to have metal detectors.”

When I asked what safety precautions the center has taken to protect employees and keep them in the loop about any developing safety issues, a representative told me: “We take the safety of our campers, visitors, and staff extremely seriously. As reported [in the center’s post-investigation statement], we worked with the Huntsville Police Department to increase patrols through our campus and engaged a private security firm in the days and weeks following the social media post with accusations against an employee.”

The employees told me they hadn’t seen much change, beyond noticing police cars on patrol every so often.

The most concerning safety risk, multiple employees told me, was when someone shot a BB gun at the windshield of an employee’s car toward the end of March. The queer employees said the incident spurred fear for themselves and the kids who visit the center — the very children whom all these agitated conservatives are ostensibly trying to protect.

The Huntsville Police Department would neither confirm nor deny that a police report was filed, citing confidentiality restrictions. The Rocket Center said it couldn’t confirm that an employee’s car had been shot at. One of my sources speculated that the center’s leadership is worried about losing funding, and is therefore opting not to confirm any specific threats or violence.

The employees I spoke to don’t feel like management is showing up for them when they feel particularly vulnerable. One employee told me that a recent policy change prohibits employees from wearing any pins other than those provided by NASA. Many of the non-NASA pins that employees wore were Pride- and pronoun-related.

“Regarding pins staffers may wear, it has been a long-standing policy that pins and other embellishments focus on and don’t distract from our mission,” a Rocket Center representative said. According to the workers I talked to, their pins weren’t previously policed.

All in all, I believe that the center missed an opportunity to really stand up for Bowman and queer employees as a whole. Staff there are limited in what they’re allowed to say, and the political pressure brought against them has been significant. Still, the higher-ups have a duty to protect all employees, especially given the widely held attitudes about queer people in the state of Alabama.

“Shame on the transphobic politicians that want to kick out the LGBTQ+ [employees],” one employee I spoke to said. In my opinion, calling for someone’s termination without any facts to back up that action is irresponsible at best and blatant discrimination at worst.

If the politicians who are so up in arms about a trans person working at the Space & Rocket Center want to protect children ― as they claim ― then they need to protect all children. Keep religion-based ideology out of the classroom and out of integral programs like Space Camp. Allow for safe spaces for queer kids to feel seen and worthy of education and love. The separation of church and state exists for a reason, and dismantling that freedom is inherently un-American. It’s about time that political leaders in this country stop weaponizing religion to justify agendas based on personal bigotry.

If one person’s hateful comments hadn’t snowballed, and politicians and hate groups hadn’t bullied Bowman, maybe she wouldn’t now feel like she needs to pack up and leave her state — along with her job, friends and family — to feel safe. But that’s what she feels she has to do.

Due to recent events and media coverage I no longer feel safe living in Alabama,” she wrote in a note on a GoFundMe drive. “This move is not just a change of scenery; it’s a crucial step towards rebuilding my life and securing a stable future.”

Queer people should be allowed to live, work and thrive in every single state. What will it take to get us there?

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