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A call to hate: victims speak out over false allegations

Ash and Eli, targeted by false allegations about indecent behavior at the Waynesville Recreation Center, are speaking about their experience for the first time. Cory Vaillancourt photo Ash and Eli, targeted by false allegations about indecent behavior at the Waynesville Recreation Center, are speaking about their experience for the first time. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Tow people assigned female at birth who visited the Waynesville Recreation Center and followed the letter of the law but were subsequently the subject of a social media firestorm that included threats of violence are speaking out for the first time about their experience. 

The person called Jane Doe was confused for the couple who visited the Rec Center on the same day.

The episode started when a youth pastor named Jess Scott claimed in a July 12 post on Facebook his teenage daughter and his niece witnessed a “full grown man” changing into a bikini in the women’s locker room at the rec center.

In a rush to judgement, Scott’s post was shared multiple times, including by local leaders, business owners and Republican candidates for Waynesville’s governing board.

Some of the comments on the posts promised violent retribution.

A few days later, another woman filed a police report about the same individual being at the rec center, referred to by The Smoky Mountain News as “Jane Doe” because they’ve yet to be identified.

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That report failed to state any cause of action other than the woman’s discomfort at having to share the unisex sauna with a transgender person.

Parallel investigations by Waynesville administrators and by the Waynesville Police Department centered on video footage of Doe’s visits to the Waynesville Recreation Center on July 12, 17 and 18.

Waynesville Town Attorney Martha Bradley wrote in a July 23 memo that based on the video evidence, Scott’s allegations were not supported.

Two days later, a regularly scheduled meeting of the Town of Waynesville’s governing board turned into a display of unity as the LGBTQ+ community, along with cisgender allies, showed up in force to decry the hate and bigotry that the social media allegations provoked.

Speakers during the public comment session talked about their hopes, their fears, their constitutional rights and their desire for accountability on the part of those who fueled the furor.

Only one of the roughly 20 speakers that night, David Lovett of Waynesville, expressed disdain for the very existence of LGBTQ+ people — vowing to deprive them of their legal rights to access public accommodations by force if necessary.

At the end of the public comment session, elected officials took two huge steps to express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

The first was to endorse a statement by Council Member Anthony Sutton condemning “cold-hearted, calloused and libelous attacks” on LGBTQ+ people. Sutton is Waynesville’s first openly gay member of the town’s governing board.

The second was for town government to reexamine all of its policies to ensure that there was no language, explicit or implied, that could be perceived as discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

One week later, the Waynesville Police Department announced that Scott had come forward with “additional information.” Based on the new information, another investigation was conducted by the WPD, but it yielded the same result — no unlawful activity had occurred at the Waynesville Recreation Center.

 Two of the people at the center of Scott’s most recent allegations agreed to meet with The Smoky Mountain News and speak on the condition of anonymity, due to the violent threats made against them and against the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. They asked to be referred to as Ash and Eli. 

SMN has confirmed that both were contacted by WPD as part of the investigation, and that they presented their drivers licenses as proof of their birth genders — both were assigned female at birth, both outwardly present as female, both identify as non-binary and both shared their harrowing story of feeling targeted for their identity by people they don’t even know.

“It’s been hard. I’ve been avoiding social media because of the threats,” Ash said. “I’ve been avoiding news articles because of the threats. We have protection at our house, we have surveillance cameras and other security measures, but this makes me want to do more.”

Eli was first to discover the now-deleted July 12 post made by Scott, who didn’t respond to a request for comment by SMN.

“I just remember the fear that struck through me when I read the post, and I said, ‘That is my family,’” Eli said. “I felt it in my heart. I was so fearful I started crying. I immediately worried that people were going to show up at my house, like a mob.”

Ash and Eli did indeed visit the Waynesville Recreation Center on July 12, just hours after Jane Doe did. Wearing swim clothes under their street clothes, Ash and Eli entered the women’s locker room and said there was a teenage girl, without any adult supervision, who wouldn’t stop staring at them.

The girl made Ash and Eli so uncomfortable that they went into separate changing stalls, behind curtains, and removed their street clothes there.

North Carolina law is clear on the rights and responsibilities of people using public accommodations. After a compromise repeal of HB2, commonly called the “bathroom bill,” and following subsequent court cases, people may select the bathroom, locker room or changing area that most closely aligns with their identity.

Even if they had entered into a state of undress in the locker room — something most people would reasonably expect to encounter in such a facility — that alone would not be a criminal act.

According to Waynesville’s Police Chief David Adams, absent an overt act like assault or graphic sexual conduct, undressing in a room specifically designed for that purpose is not a crime.  

Regardless, Ash and Eli discussed which facility to use before their arrival, and settled on the women’s locker room because they weren’t aware of the current status of their rights and because they could prove via drivers licenses that they’re both female.

“According to the post, it sounded like it was all indecent exposure and that [Scott’s daughter] saw this burly, full grown man come in there and that’s not what happened at all,” Eli said. “[Scott] could have filed a police report at that point. You don’t immediately just skip over everything and go straight to social media. It almost was like a call to hate.”

Ash was quick to point out that it’s an awful slippery slope to make determinations on a person’s gender or gender identity based on their appearance; a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome can produce hormonal effects that can lead to women — even cisgender women — taking on a more masculine appearance.

Ash also said she doesn’t agree with other media outlets trying to turn Scott into a victim.

“It feels like they’re trying to turn [Scott] into the victim even though he’s the one who rushed to post on Facebook, who didn’t put in a police report, who didn’t go through all these proper channels that you would have when you actually have a concern about your daughter dealing with something as serious as seeing, like, male genitalia in a bathroom,” Eli said. “He said like, ‘I didn’t mean for it to turn into hate, I didn’t mean it for to turn into this, I deleted the comments,’ but the story was already out there. The comments were already out there. They already threatened to murder and hurt people. It’s like a slap in the face.”

Despite the terror felt by Ash and Eli over the two-week period during which the drama unfolded, they both feel buoyed by the support of Western North Carolina’s LGBTQ+ community and both had especially kind words for the Waynesville Police Department, whom they say treated them with dignity and respect.

They also expressed approval for the measures town government took in the wake of the allegations.

“I feel they are doing what they can with the means that they’re given,” Ash said. “I do think it’s been a step in the right direction.”

Ash and Eli don’t want to see anyone else subjected to the kind of dehumanizing ridicule and graphic threats they were subjected to — even those whose comments shook them to their core.

“I wish there was a way to give them education instead of punishment,” Eli said. “They can educate these folks that we are people, that we exist and that we are not here to harm you or your children.”

Instead, they hope the community can build on the experience, even though they sometimes still look over their shoulder when walking down the street at night.

“I feel safe with my family. I felt safe with when that crowd poured in with support. I’m feeling safe right now,” Ash said. “But that could change tomorrow.”

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