LGBT equality took a small but remarkable step forward recently in the rural town of Mount Horeb, Wis. after an incredibly brave six-year-old walked into her primary school class and identified as a girl for the very first time.
As part of a thoughtful effort to support her and to carefully guide her young classmates at this sensitive moment, school administrators planned a reading of the children’s book I Am Jazz.
In it, teenage author Jazz Jennings shares her own story of growing up transgender — a story she began telling at the same age as the courageous Mount Horeb student. By design, it’s a book to teach kids — and their parents — about understanding, compassion, and kindness.
But after the school notified the parents that there would be a reading, Liberty Counsel, which is labeled an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, threatened to sue the school if it proceeded.
The organization’s goal was to stifle the acceptance and inclusion of a transgender student by her peers and their parents, but its action had the exact opposite effect. Although Mount Horeb has only 7,000 residents, 600 people packed the Mount Horeb public library in December for a reading of the book organized by a supportive mom. While the book was never read in the classroom, the library event featured I Am Jazz co-author Jessica Herthel, reading as young children sat cross-legged in front, listening intently.
Today, inspired by Mount Horeb’s repudiation of bigotry and show of support and love for the young transgender student and her family, readings of I Am Jazz are taking place in schools across the country — from Washington, D.C., to Tacoma, Washington; from Miami to St. Paul, Minn,; from Orange County, Calif,, to Pittsburgh. Jazz, in a video released this week, thanks the caring people who are reading her book today. Growing up transgender, she says, can be challenging, and kids — all kids — need the support of caring parents, schoolsm and friends.
That wasn’t lost on the people of Mount Horeb. Amy Lyle, the parent who planned the library reading there, said she knew in her heart that her town was “a loving, compassionate and inclusive one for all kids,” but was still stunned by the community’s overwhelming support. After the event, Mount Horeb’s School Board unanimously approved new measures to accommodate transgender students, and added “transgender status” to the district’s non-discrimination policy.
America needs more stories like this one, and I fervently hope thay today’s readings of I Am Jazz in solidarity with Mount Horeb and its young transgender student will remind people not only of the goodness of the people in that small Wisconsin town, but also of the work left to do. While there are remarkable, loving parents across this country who are quietly embracing and raising their transgender children, there’s a political war raging against their rights and the rights of all transgender Americans. We only have to look 25 miles up the road from that little girl’s classroom at Mount Horeb Primary School for proof.
Just one day before Liberty Counsel threatened to sue Mount Horeb schools for simply reading a book, legislators held a hearing in the State Capitol on a deeply harmful piece of legislation that would explicitly block transgender students in Wisconsin — like the young girl in Mount Horeb — from accessing bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. That’s it. No nuance, no coded language masking the bill’s actual intent. If this shameful legislation passes — which is a real possibility — it would expose trans and gender nonconforming students to heightened risk of bullying, harassment, and discrimination. And it would put school districts and educators in direct conflict with Title IX and violate federal law, just as the U.S. Department of Education determined a similar policy in a school district in nearby Illinois did.
At a time when the Wisconsin legislature should be addressing important issues such as jobs, the economy, or the lack of explicit state-level non-discrimination protections for transgender Wisconsinites, it’s focused on bathroom surveillance. And sadly, they’re not alone. Last year, school bathroom surveillance bills were also introduced in Kentucky, Minnesota, and Nevada. In fact, out of the more than 115 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation introduced in 31 state legislatures in 2015, at least 11 sought to specifically restrict transgender Americans’ access to public accommodations, school activities, or appropriate medical care.
There’s no doubt these and other types of discriminatory legislation will be introduced and considered as several state legislatures reconvene this month. And while none of the bills in the latter group have passed, there have been instances in which the rights of transgender Americans have been stripped away by other means.
Consider these horrifying statistics: more than one-third of gender-expansive youth face harassment at school, and three-quarters of transgender students feel unsafe in school settings. Transgender youth are also nearly four times as likely to experience depression, and research suggests that almost half have seriously considered committing suicide, with one in four attempting to do so.
These kids need messages of hope rather than hate, and they deserve a future in which their rights are protected and expanded, rather than attacked and eliminated. We read I Am Jazz today, across the nation, sending a message of hope and support, galvanized by the example set by Mount Horeb.
Here’s to more Mount Horebs.
CHAD GRIFFIN is president of the Human Rights Campaign.