Melissa Carter: How a young girl is challenging a Christian school’s idea of femininity

When I was in elementary school, a man from church complimented my mother on what a handsome son she had. He was talking about me and my stylish Dorothy Hamill haircut. The elderly gentleman was confused by my preference for pants instead of dresses, and assumed I was a boy. My mother simply thanked him and went about her business, not finding it necessary to correct him.

She absently told me what he said, in a “Can you believe that?” kind of tone, but I remember being affected by it. It was one of the first times I felt different. The old man was simply trying to give a compliment to my mother’s family and would never know the lasting effects of his mistake.

Administrators at Timberlake Christian School in Forest, Va., have now made a similar mistake. Enrolled in the school is 8-year-old Sunnie Kahle. Much like I was at her age, Sunnie has short hair and prefers to wear jeans and sneakers. Instead of tea parties or playing with dolls, young Sunnie participates in sports and would rather be outside.

But the school’s K-8 principal was not a fan of this behavior and sent a letter to Sunnie’s family, saying she was not feminine enough. A portion of the letter read:

“You’re probably aware that Timberlake Christian School is a religious, Bible believing institution providing education in a distinctly Christian environment. We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.”

The letter goes on to warn her family that administrators can refuse enrollment for condoning sexual immorality practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.

Her grandparents’ reaction? They immediately took Sunnie out of Timberlake Christian School and enrolled her in public school. They also went public with the school’s letter, causing an outrage online. Even Wonder Woman had something to say about it.

Lynda Carter posted on her Facebook page: “Sending love to little Sunnie Kahle. Stay strong and love who you are…short hair, sneakers and all.”

The public outcry forced a statement from Timberlake Christian School, reversing their position.

“We are heart-broken that Sunnie’s grandparents have made her the subject of a public discussion. We regret that they made the decision to withdraw Sunnie immediately from Timberlake Christian Schools. For confidentiality reasons related to a minor, it is not possible for us to explain in full detail the volume of documentation we have concerning the situation that the grandparents have made public. Despite that response to the criticism, Sunnie’s family says the school is no longer an option for her,” the school said in a statement.

I still prefer pants over dresses, and feel best in casual attire. But I’ve come a long way from that moment of mistaken identity in Central Christian Church, and am very secure in my femininity. It’s the idea that anyone has to deal with being different that is so frustrating to me. Difference in art or science is inspiring, yet for some reason being different as a human being is still a problem for so many. In fact, discomfort with difference is the source of all prejudice and harassment.

Whether your hair is long or short, you don skirts or pants, or you like girls or boys, you belong here in this world. And as I hope Sunnie learns from this experience, you are also just fine the way you are.