MT. HOREB, Wis. — The Mt. Horeb Primary Center, a public elementary school, had scheduled a reading of the children’s book, I am Jazz, in an effort to foster compassion and understanding for transgender students. On Nov 19, they sent a letter home to parents informing them of this special school assembly. In less than 24 hours, complaints began to surface. In fact, the very next day, Mt. Horeb School Board President Mary Seidl received a letter from the Liberty Counsel regarding, the “Inappropriate discussion of gender confusion and sexuality with primary school students.” As news quickly spread, Mt. Horeb Primary Center decided to cancel the book reading.
Author Alex Bledsoe lives in Mt. Horeb and his son attends the school. He heard about the reading and controversy first through other parents. He explained, “Originally only one floor of the school, the students who’d have direct contact with the transgender girl, were notified.”
Mt. Horeb Primary Center has a transgender child, whose name has been purposefully kept out of the news, in one of its 3rd-floor first grade classes. As noted in the parent letter, the school had been working with this child and her parents to provide a safe learning environment within the school. The letter reads:
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.
After hearing about the book, Bledsoe purchased a copy and read it to his own children. Written by young transactivist Jazz Jennings and co-author Jessica Herthel, I am Jazz shares the real-life experiences of transgender child. Bledsoe said, “ I discussed it with my son, and we read the book, which is entirely age-appropriate. He’s seven; he’s fine with it. If a child wants to dress a certain way and use a different name, it doesn’t bother him at all. From what I’ve observed, none of the children had any issues; only the adults.”This isn’t the first time that the book has created controversy. For example, in April, it elicited parental protests at a Maine elementary school, after guidance counselors read it allowed without first informing parents. After a wave of backlash, Mitchell Primary School in Kittery apologized for not notifying parents of the reading first, in order to give them a chance to opt out. However, the school stood by its decision to read the book, saying, “The Kittery School District embraces diversity and is committed to creating an atmosphere of respect and tolerance for all people…”
As in that example, some parents in the Mt. Horeb districts did not agree with the school’s decision to read I am Jazz. However, Mt. Horeb did give advanced notice, which caused a near-immediate response. As reported by The Capital Times, “concerned parents” contacted the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based group that describes itself as a “Christian Ministry” and “international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989.” The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the group as an “extremist” group and “anti-LGBT.”
Already engaged in litigation regarding transgender bathroom usage in a Virginia public school system, the Liberty Counsel quickly emailed an official letter to the Mt. Horeb School Board. It reads in part:
The decision [to read the book] ignores the District’s obligation to support the vast majority of students who are not gender-confused, and creates the potential of gender confusion and resulting harms in these other students, who are currently happily living as normal, well-adjusted First, Second, and Third Graders.
The Counsel also states that the school has “violate[d] parental constitutional rights to direct the upbringing of their children,” and requested a cancellation of the reading with the threat of a federal lawsuit.
Under pressure and with the Thanksgiving holiday only days away, the school backed down and cancelled the assembly. In a statement to local radio station WORT, Mount Horeb Area School District Director of Student Services Theresa Daane said that “the school is providing additional time for parents to review the material.” In a later statement, Daane said, “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.”
When author Jazz Jennings learned of the cancellation, she simply stated on Facebook, “Meanies”
Then, all went mostly quiet during the four day holiday break, but the controversy picked back up as children returned to class the following Monday. It was over that long weekend that Bledsoe finally heard the entire story, which also began to attract national attention. He said, “First, I went to the school principal and expressed my disappointment with the decision. She was sympathetic, but of course couldn’t really say or do anything until the school board made a decision. Then I contacted a member of the board and discussed it with her. ”
In response, the Mt. Horeb High School Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) group produced and uploaded a support video and staged a public reading of the book. Before school on Wed, Dec 2, SAGA students and 200 community members gathered at the school’s flagpole to hear a reading of the book. Bledsoe said, “To get that many people outside on a Wisconsin winter morning is something. ”
In addition, Bledsoe and several fellow community members organized an evening reading at the local Mt. Horeb library on the same day. Bledsoe said, “I contacted Jessica Herthel, co-author of I am Jazz and helped arrange for her appearance. We also had Welcoming Schools, a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, send a representative.” The event attracted far more than the 80 chairs allowed. Local news sources reported anywhere from 500 to 700 people showed up for the reading. After the event, Herthel herself stated on Facebook that she was thankful for being asked to participate, adding “I [am] astounded by the magnitude of support for both the book itself, and for the 1st grade transkid at the heart of it all. Your actions are not going unnoticed by the world!”
Bledsoe was pleased with the turnout, but not surprised by the support. He described the Mt. Horeb community as “accepting” and “very open.” Bledsoe said, “We have a number of churches, primarily Lutheran. This is anecdotal, but I know that some of the most vocal opponents either homeschool their children, or have no children currently in the school system […] these people are definitely in the minority, which is something I think we showed rather clearly.”
He added, “I think the vast turnout for the library event really put the exclamation point to Mt. Horeb’s willingness to accept this little girl.” There were no reported protests or backlash directed at either event.Then, this past Monday, the Mt. Horeb School Board addressed the issue, which resulted in the Board “unanimously passing an Equal Education Opportunity policy that supports measures to protect the rights of transgender children. As published in a post-meeting eblast, the district policy clearly states:
It is the policy of the Mount Horeb Area School District to provide equal educational opportunity for all students, regardless of sex, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, color, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, transgender status (including gender expression, gender identity and gender nonconformity), or physical, mental, emotional, or learning disability.
This new policy clarifies that a transgender student should be allowed to participate in sports and in-school physical education programs that are “consistent with the gender identity.” They should also be permitted to use the restrooms “consistent with the gender identity.”
A number of people spoke out during the meeting, including several opponents who predominantly identified with the Liberty Counsel position. However, as Bledsoe already noted, these people are in the minority. To demonstrate his point, he added, “The last parent who spoke at the school board meeting, in fact, stressed that Christianity was not monolithic, and that she as a Christian wanted to welcome and accept this student.”
Board president Mary Seidl told The Wild Hunt that a video of the meeting and the minutes will be available online in the coming weeks.
I am Jazz and other children’s books teaching or addressing difference do regularly run into entanglements within school systems. This includes books regarding minority religions, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity and more. Each school administration handles the policies toward the reading and availability of these books differently. As we have reported in the past, these type of books are key components to building and supporting a healthy diversity in communities as well as teaching tolerance and change.
Bledsoe, as an author himself and a parent agreed, saying, “History had shown that banning books never works. I guarantee that more children have now read I am Jazz than ever would have, had the school not been threatened. The world is changing, and people who were once forced by societal norms to deny their true natures are now able to be open about who they truly are. I want my kids to be aware of that, and accepting of it. And I’m really glad my community feels the same way.”