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Wis. School Board Adds Trans Protections After Canceled I Am Jazz Reading

Wisconsin School That Canceled ‘I Am Jazz’ Reading Votes to Protect Trans Students

The Mount Horeb School Board in Mount Horeb, Wis., Monday unanimously approved new measures to accommodate transgender students, after right-wing activists successfully pushed for cancellation of a public reading of a trans-affirming children's book earlier this month.

By a vote of 7-0, the Mount Horeb School Board granted trans students access to restrooms, locker rooms, and sports activities that match their gender identity, reports the Wisconsin State Journal. The board also added "transgender status" to the district's nondiscrimination policy as a protected charateristic.

"Let the word go forth here and now that this board will stand united and we will not be intimidated, and we will teach tolerance and will be accepting to everyone," school board member Peter Strube said after Monday’s meeting, according to the Journal.

Mount Horeb School Board president Mary Seidl told the Journal that she could not predict whether the book would ultimately be read to students, since reversing the decision to cancel the reading was a matter left up to the individual school and its administrators, and not a matter of board policy.

The 7,000-person town of Mount Horeb, located near Madison, has been embroiled in controversy since anti-LGBT legal group Liberty Counsel demanded and won the cancellation of a scheduled reading at the town’s public elementary school of an influential illustrated children’s book (written by and about trans youth) called I Am Jazz.

Liberty Counsel is designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center, and it most recently grabbed headlines for representing defiant antigay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis.  

I Am Jazz is coauthored by Jazz Jennings, a celebrated 15-year-old transgender activist who appears on a TLC reality television series that bears the same name as her children’s book.

The reading was initially scheduled for November 23 at the Mount Horeb Primary Center. On November 19, the school sent a letter to parents informing them of the upcoming reading. It was intended to be part of an ongoing effort to welcome and support a newly transitioning 6-year-old transgender girl who attends the school. The girl's parents have chosen not to release her name but have been working with school officials to ensure their daughter's safety and success while she attends school as her authentic self.

But on November 20 the Liberty Counsel sent a letter to the school, threatening a federal lawsuit if the school held the reading. The letter alleges that school administrators were seeking "to subject Primary School students to a discussion of gender confusion and sexuality, under the guise of 'antibullying,' 'diversity,' and building a 'safe and nurturing environment.'"

As is typical of Liberty Counsel's dehumanizing rhetoric, the letter sent by the group misgenders Jennings, referring to her erroneously as "a male child 'transgender' activist.” It also mischaracterizes Jenning’s health care, saying that she has “been permitted to undergo harmful gender reassignment drug therapy and hormone blockers, resulting in permanent physical changes to his body." In reality, Jennings and her family have worked closely with medical experts, and her gender-affirming care falls directly in line with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health's guidelines, which affirm that transition-related health care is safe and medically necessary.

A week after the reading’s cancellation, close to 600 people packed a library in Mount Horeb to read Jennings’s book together and support the transgender first-grader and her family who are at the center of the controversy. The reading was aimed at making up for the cancellation of the original event.

The Liberty Counsel's threat was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, argues the National Coalition Against Censorship in a letter sent Thursday to the Mount Horeb school district, urging the Mount Horeb primary school to reinstate its lesson plans around the book. 

"The result Liberty Counsel urges on the district is the opposite of what the courts mandate and what health and education authorities recommend. Acceding to their demand would expose the school district to potential legal liability and disserve the students and families the district serves," the letter states.

Co-signed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Booksellers for Free Expression, National Council of Teachers of English, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, PEN American Center, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the letter goes on to argue that the "decision to include I Am Jazz in the curriculum is easily justifiable on educational grounds" and it encourages the school to carry out the lessons it had planned.

Furthermore, the NCAC's statement publicizing the letter points out that there is a "crucial distinction the Liberty Counsel fails to appreciate: While parents have a general right to direct their children’s upbringing, the courts have held that parents do not have the right to dictate the public school curricula. Indeed, the NCAC letter warns that removing items such as textbooks in an attempt to respond to such parental demands 'exposes a school to legal challenge and potential liability.'"

Jennings wrote I Am Jazz when she was 12 years old with Jessica Herthel, the director of the Stonewall National Education Project, which develops LGBTQ-inclusive educational materials for schools. British illustrator Shelagh McNicholas created the book’s sketches using pencil and watercolors that glow with soft pink, sky blue, turquoise, and candy-yellow hues. Published by Dial Books and geared for readers aged 4 through 8, the book’s colorful pages pop with drawings of Jazz smiling with her family and friends. 

“I Am Jazz!” the young heroine announces on the book’s first page. On subsequent pages, she lists her favorite things: the colors pink, silver, and green as well as dancing, singing, back-flipping, soccer, and imagining herself as a pop star. The heroine with tousled brown hair explains that, most of all, she loves mermaids, and one dreamy image in the book depicts her as a mermaid with a bright green fish tail frolicking in a pool. 

It’s not until midway through the book that the heroine announces, almost offhandedly, that she’s “not exactly like Samantha and Casey,” her two best friends. 

“I have a girl brain, but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way,” the heroine says with simple, direct words designed to appeal to discerning primary-school minds.

After the reading's cancellation, Jennings herself penned an eloquent response that appeared in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel. Jennings thanked the school’s principal for trying to make her school inclusive, and extolled the young trans girl at the school whose welfare the principal had in mind.

“I hope that I Am Jazz continues to open people’s hearts by helping them to understand what it is like to be transgender,” Jennings wrote in her column. “I am proud to see so many people support transgender students in Wisconsin, and I hope that it will also help the Mt. Horeb student love and enjoy life as her authentic self.”

All proceeds for the book support the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, a charity founded by Jennings's family to support transgender youth. Jennings was first introduced to America in an interview with Barbara Walters,and has since gone on to become a popular YouTuber, reality TV star, outspoken trans advocate, and the new face of Clean & Clear's "See the Real Me" campaign. 

Watch Jennings introduce the book in the trailer below, and learn more about the accomplished teen in The Advocate's profile

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