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Dr. Melissa McCollister: The woman who took on Pence in a News Nation Town Hall, talks death threats and raising a transgender child

“First and foremost,” Pence said, “we got to recognize that there is a radical gender ideology that has taken hold in many of our schools around the country…” My hand rose to my hip in defiance. “We’ve got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology.” A look of disdain painted his face as he spoke. I stomped my foot on the floor.

  • 5 months ago
  • September 29, 2023
10 min read
Melissa McCollister
Interview Subject
Dr. Melissa K. McCollister is an assistant professor for the Department of Social Work at Grand View University in Des Moines, IA. In the photo above she is pictured at the 2023 Pride Parade hosted by CR Pride, where she, along with others, carried a giant pride flag.
For the past 25 years, Dr. McCollister has been a strong activist for the LGBTQ+ community, and co-created the Pride Center of Terre Haute. Being an “out” gay woman herself and raising her sister’s trans child, she has been on the front line of advocacy efforts for the LGBTQ+ community throughout her life and career as a macro practice social worker. She currently serves as the Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee for the NAACP in Cedar Rapids, IA where she has presented workshops on the impact of redlining and provided the African American Museum of Iowa research data on LGBTQ+ youth factors regarding devastating results of the school to prison pipeline within the criminal justice system. Dr. McCollister is also a leader for the Wellington Heights Community Church where she helps to embody and join her fellow community members in the reconciliation of all things through worship and neighborhood development. 
Background Information
On June 6, 2023, the Human Rights Campaign declared a State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the United States for the first time in its more than 40-year history. They cited 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills signed into law just between January and June 2023 – doubling the previous year’s entire number.

According to Scientific American, the increase in violence against the LGBTQ+ community is heightened by far-right rhetoric spread by white nationalist groups, extremist influencers and conservative politicians, says Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications at the University at Buffalo, who studies misinformation and extremism. 

DES MOINES, Iowa ꟷ While working as an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Grand View University, an invitation arrived in my email to attend the Mike Pence Town Hall hosted by News Nation. I submitted my name, and after two more requests, reluctantly sent in a question.

For two long hours I mingled around the student center at the university where the event was held, surrounded by a mixed audience of people from various political backgrounds. The News Nation team handed me an oversized card announcing my query in big, bold letters. My hands trembled as I tried to hide it. “Are these people open minded,” I wondered, as I looked around. “Am I safe?”

No one knew who would end up at the microphone that day, and I tried to be brave. I thought back to the emotional support my friend Corey Jacobson, the President of CR Pride, offered me. When Anne from News Nation approached me and asked, “Are you still willing to speak,” I said yes.

Read more stories from the Sex & Gender category at Orato World Media.

I stood in line while Pence talked about “radical gender ideology”

Anne shepherded me to the microphone. “Stand here,” she said. “Stare straight at the camera, not at the screen. Get ready.” The lights felt blinding as the audience sat silently behind me. A substitute teacher named Kristen stood at a similar microphone at the live event in Chicago.

“I’m concerned about the sex education being implemented in many school districts in Illinois and around the country,” she said. “With American students already being behind in core subjects what could, and would you do at the federal level to reform our education system, which is keeping important information about students from their parents.”

“First and foremost,” Pence said, “we got to recognize that there is a radical gender ideology that has taken hold in many of our schools around the country…” My hand rose to my hip in defiance. “We’ve got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology.” A look of disdain painted his face as he spoke. I stomped my foot on the floor.

Suddenly the focus shifted to Iowa and to me. It felt like a setup. “Good evening, Vice President,” I said, gripping my card while holding back tears. “I am an LGBTQ member and I have trans individuals in my family. Recent anti-LGBTQ bills have been signed into law all around the United States including here in Iowa. So far in 2023, 15 transgender individuals and gender nonconforming people have been murdered.”

The emotion rose again, and this time, it felt hard to hold back. “The vast majority of those people have been Black and Latinx transgender women. It is very hard for me to ask these questions after hearing what I just heard. What is your policy plan to protect the transgender community, specifically black and brown trans women, from historically high levels of violence?”

I watched him spewing intentional misinformation

Looking at me on camera, Pence called himself a Bible-believing Christian and went on to differentiate between adults and kids under the age of 18. He dropped the word “radical” from his phrasing and simply said “gender ideology.” It felt patronizing. When he stopped, I took a long deep breath, looked down at the floor, and closed my eyes. The host said, “Melissa, do you understand the Vice President’s idea that there is a difference between how adults conduct their lives and make decisions and that of how kids do?”

Incensed, I gave him my credentials. Of course, I understood. I worked as a social worker for 25 years, founded LGBTQ youth programs, and raised a transgender child. I found it appalling that he would suggest children could not speak of gender identity or seek support or protection from their schools.

Pence dug in deeper. “I just think we got to protect our kids,” he said. “The idea that we are telling young impressionable kids that little boys can become girls and little girls that they can become boys, I think is wrong.” So, it’s not about limiting medical procedures until a certain age, I thought. It’s really about never having conversations about gender with kids at all. I shook my head.

Dr. Melissa McCollister, Prof. Janice Steinmetz, and the School of Social Work students marched in the 28th Annual Pride Parade in Cleveland on Saturday, June 24, 2017. This was the first time UA ever marched in the parade! | Photo courtesy of Melissa McCollister

Having come from a long line of preachers in my family, and a grandfather who was a Southern Baptist Deacon, I still believe in Jesus. Pence’s view did not reflect my understanding of faith at all. Pence made it sound like young children are having irreversible surgery, when in reality, the support they get is so often about clothes and pronouns and talking to someone in a safe place.

As a person heavily involved with this population, I have never met a five-year-old receiving hormones without something medical necessitating it. I knew he was spewing inflammatory misinformation.

The cruelty of society drove me to secrecy, but I could dress up at home with my aunt Melissa

When the Town Hall ended, I went back to my life, but I considered Pence’s robotic, condescending responses. When I stood at that microphone on national television, I wasn’t just Melissa. I represented my profession, my community, and most of all – my beautiful niece Alexis.

Alexis came into my life full-time at five-years-old when her mother turned custody over to my mother. My mom worked nights and dad traveled a lot for work, so Alexis, in many ways, became my responsibility. Born a biological male, Alexis expressed a transgender identity early on.

“I knew as a young person that dressing as a female made me feel completely happy,” Alexis told me recently, now a 36-year-old adult. “My grandma made me go to counseling and I hated it. The counselor said I was dressing up for sexual arousal; that it was a phase. It was not a phase. It was who I was.”

Alexis, now 36 years old, speaks openly about being a trans woman and credits the support received from Aunt Melissa growing up. | Photo courtesy of Melissa McCollister

“The cruelty of society drove me to secrecy, but I could dress up at home with my aunt Melissa, who was like a mother to me. I had to hide myself away. When Aunt Melissa took me to meet Jacob Nash – a trans man – at Emmanuel Fellowship Church in Akron, Ohio at 13 years old, I met a community of LGBTQ people. They were the most loving, kind-hearted, amazing people I ever met.”

Despite the extra support, Alexis endured so much pain in her formative years, she would end up making choices that led to a stint in jail and homelessness. She talks openly about the major sexual trauma she went through. Standing on the stage staring at Pence talk about the ills of “radical gender ideology” infuriated me. “What about the ills of transphobia,” I wondered. “You have no proximity to these children. How dare you?”

Threatened by the KKK after advocating for gay and trans kids

The discrimination and abuse Alexis endured scratched the surface of what I would watch society do to my beloved community. When I co-created the first pride center in Terre Haute, Indiana and became the Executive Director – the same state where Pence served as governor – we began to advocate for LGBTQ kids at school boards.

In the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic, everything went virtual, and I sat in a meeting that day on my computer. My phone began to light up as messages poured into one of my group chats. Someone in the meeting told me to check my phone. People were trying to reach me.

When I swiped the screen, I saw a note in Messenger asking, “Is this your phone number?” The message included a meme depicting the Ku Klux Klan, bearing the image of a noose. Overlayed on top was my phone number for all to see. I messaged back, “What is this?”

The response came swiftly: “Shut the fuck up, stupid hoe,” it read. My heart sank. “Where am I,” I wondered. I grew up in northeast Ohio. We had our issues, but nothing like this. Back home, I stepped out on the front porch one morning to find all my belongings strategically placed in a giant X. This was a blatant threat – crafted while I slept in my bed, just a few feet away.

I called a friend in hysterics. “Please, come stay with me! I think I’m in danger.” When I called the police, they treated me like a joke and refused to keep an eye on my house. “It’s probably just a bunch of prank kids,” they said. When the harassment continued, I made a decision to protect my mental health. I packed all my things in a U-Haul and moved to Missouri with my partner Darlene.

The Mike Pence Town Hall: coming full circle

Today, from my home in Iowa, I proudly wave a progressive pride flag, but I still feel like I live my life from the front lines of warzone. When I stand up to my neighbors, they say, “You have no business telling children you are gay, it’s your sexual preference.” Just the use of the word preference upsets me. It feels like a tool used by certain Christians and other groups to deny that LGBTQ+ people are not born this way.

The truth is, oppression is separation from self. When a person separates from themselves – when they lose themselves to conformity – they become subjugated. I will always stand in support of transgender and gender non-conforming children. In my version of faith, we elevate those with the least amount of power.

When my mind drifts back to my niece Alexis, a fondness fills my heart. I remember her talking to Jake that day at the church. I could see how healing it was for her to look at him – a trans person – and to be recognized. When she dressed up as Brittney Spears for Halloween, it affirmed her; and every time we took a trip to thrift store and brought home a pile of clothes to try on, her spirit danced a little more.

At the News Nation Town Hall, it was as if I came full circle. Former Vice President Pence served as governor in the very state where people threatened to kill me for my work. On September 13, 2023, that same man looked me in the eye and said he saw my heart. No, Mr. Pence, you give people the platform for hate when you use phrases like “radical gender ideology.”

You put people in danger when you callously use your platform to manipulate the masses, running your campaign on the backs of transgender people to win an election.

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