All are welcome in Hastings (unless you’re transgender), say pastors

Hastings is making an effort to be more inclusive. Eight preachers don't like the sound of that idea.

Hastings is making an effort to be more inclusive. Eight preachers don't like the sound of that idea. Star Tribune

This year the little river town of Hastings proclaimed its commitment to diversity. Both the City Council and the School Board unanimously declared its appreciation of its people, no matter their ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender identification, and so on.

“It is something that I think we need,” Councilman Joe Balsanek says. “It is important that we accept all the folks with different kinds of identities.”

Hastings, a suburb of 22,600 straddling Dakota and Washington counties, is a warm, progressive community, he says. So far, it has largely escaped the influence of big box stores. The citizens bop around its small shops and attend car shows in its downtown historic district. Residents tend houses over 100 years old and stroll through its 33 parks.

It’s the kind of “idyllic” place, Council Member Lori Braucks says, where you’ll meet three or four people you know on a single trip to the grocery store.

In recent history, the town has been largely white, she says, but is less so now. The population is changing, growing with the times.

Which, to her, is all well and good. In Hastings, the city’s new diversity proclamation reads, “all are welcome.” But a letter circulating through town has a few stipulations.

It’s signed by the leaders of seven churches and Pine Harbor Christian Academy. The pastors congratulate Hastings for making an effort to “eliminate all forms of prejudice, bullying, and mistreatment directed toward any marginalized subgroup.”

“Our city is becoming an increasingly diverse community and we must send the clear message that ‘all are welcome’ in Hastings.”

Then comes the “but.”

The writers believe there is one group covered under the “all are welcome here” credo that shouldn’t really be welcomed: transgender folks.

“There is extensive evidence that the promotion of the view that a person’s sex as a fluid self-perception rather than a biological fact is harmful to children and teens,” they write. This view is “factually unsubstantiated” and will encourage young people to “make irreversible decisions to artificially alter their sexual identity.”

None of the faith leaders responded to interview requests, though River of Life Pastor Steve Schoenwald declined comment.

For the record, being transgender is not “factually unsubstantiated.” Not according to the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Still, the church leaders have concerns. For one: stocking I Am Jazz, a children’s book about a transgender kid, in circulation at Hastings schools. For another: teens being “render[ed] infertile” by hormone treatments and surgeries. Then there's the students being allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

“Are we being intolerant?” they ask. “No.”

“I had to cool down for a minute,” resident Emma Oelkers says. The recent University of Iowa grad stumbled across the letter as it circulated through Snapchat, accompanied by the outrage of her friends. She wasn’t entirely surprised. She moved to Hastings from Minneapolis when she was in fifth grade. She had to get used to the culture shock.

“I feel like Hastings has always been kind of half-and-half,” she says -- one foot pointing toward the future, the other entrenched in the past. It was the same way when same-sex marriage was up for debate. When Oelkers confronted people who were anti-gay marriage, they’d usually tell her they were siding with their relatives.

Hastings is a family-driven town, she says. Opinions on whether or not it’s okay to be gay or transgender tend to fall along family lines.

Of course, every social development has its holdouts. They remained even after same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, and they’ve remained as rules crop up barring discrimination based on gender identity. 

Balsanek still believes it’s a progressive town “from a government standpoint.” Different churches, he says, will believe what they believe, accept who they want to accept.

He and the City Council still agree that “all are welcome.” As history has proven time and again, those not onboard will eventually get left behind.