Books can be invaluable tools for helping kids understand the world and gain insight into people who are different, but none of that can happen if kids don't have access to those books. A religious group has stopped a Wisconsin school from discussing a I Am Jazz, a book about a trans girl with students as a way of opening discussion as a trans student at the school prepares to come out to classmates. But fortunately, the local community is stepping up to support her anyway.
The girl in question, who has not been publicly named, is a 6-year-old student at Mount Horeb Primary Center. She began transitioning last year after consistently asserting that she was a girl, and after parents and teachers began to notice signs of depression and anxiety. However, she had not yet started to publicly identify as a girl at school. In order to help make that process easier, the school decided that prior to the student in question coming out as a girl, the students at the school would read the book I Am Jazz , a children's book based on the true story of trans girl Jazz Jennings.
Sounds perfect, right? After all, stories can be great ways to introduce kids to concepts by framing them in a way that's easy to understand and by giving kids a frame of reference for something before encountering it in person. The fact that the teachers would also lead a discussion about the book meant that kids could ask questions and get any help they needed making sense of the idea of a transgender girl.
But unfortunately, not everyone agreed.
On November 19, Mount Horeb Primary Center principal sent a letter to parents that explained that the school would be stepping up efforts to support "gender-variant students" now that a trans girl was planning to come out at school. The letter went over some of the basics of what it means to be transgender and announced the upcoming reading activity with I Am Jazz. "We believe all students deserve respect and support regardless of their gender identity and expression, and the best way to foster that respect and support is through educating students about the issue of being transgender," the note explains.
However, the very next day the school received a letter from the religious group Liberty Council, which is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT views.
In a letter to the school, the group referred to being transgender as “a psychological and moral disorder” and claimed the school was trying to subject students to “propaganda having no basis in science or reality.” Which is rather strange given that being transgender is recognized as a legitimate identity by the medical community. The letter also stated that asking students to refer to a classmate by preferred pronouns instead of the ones they were assigned at birth "infringes upon the other students’ rights to tell the truth, in accordance with their religious convictions, and reality."
Again, about the use of the word "reality"...
The Liberty Council, who claim to be acting in the interests of concerned parents who contacted the organization, threatened to sue the school if they went ahead with the reading for "a violation of parental rights."
Sadly, the school decided to postpone the reading indefinitely to give the Board of Education time to review the situation. They stated in a press release announcing the change,
As we seek to address the specific needs of the individual student, the District will also be mindful of the needs of other District students and families, and will strive to keep all of the families whose children may be affected apprised of future actions by the District. Please know that our continuing goal is to protect all students from any bullying, harassing or intimidating behavior at school so that all of our students may learn together in a safe and caring environment.
Fortunately, while the school may not be going ahead with the reading any time soon, the local community has stepped up and decided to support the girl. The local public library and the local high school's Gay Straight Alliance both hosted public readings of the book. And many parents, having heard about the incident, are standing by the transgender student.
“When we heard about the lawsuit we felt angry and concerned that an identified hate group would try to insert themselves into our community, threaten our teachers and school district, and try to intimidate others,” parent Amy Lyle told Buzzfeed. “We believe Mount Horeb to be an accepting place for all children.”
It's unfortunate whenever people try to block children's access to books based on intolerance or for political reasons. Books can be a marvelous way of letting kids get a handle on complex or confusing subjects, as well as being proven to improve empathy in many cases. There's a big, beautiful, complicated world out there and we do children no favors by keeping them from getting some perspective on it through fiction.
Hopefully, going forward, more schools will use fiction as a way to introduce sometimes sensitive concepts to children — and hopefully they will be able to go through with it.
Image: Giphy (2)