As parents, we make the safety and well-being of our children our number one priority. So when something comes along that we think may frighten, confuse, or upset them, our knee-jerk response is often to pull our kids away and keep them blissfully unaware. But in many instances — such as the introduction of a gender-creative or transgender classmate in school — shielding our kids not only puts that classmate in a dangerously vulnerable position (did you know that the attempted suicide rate for unsupported trans kids is more than 40%?), but also denies our children the opportunity to learn, grow, and embrace the diversity of the world we now live in.
I began writing the children’s book, I Am Jazz, about a young transgender girl based on real-life trans advocate Jazz Jennings (pictured with me, above), because I have three young daughters who are eagerly taking in the world around them. I wanted my girls to meet someone like Jazz and not be confused or afraid because she is unique or different, but to embrace and celebrate how special she is. Diversity surrounds us, and in order to succeed in today’s world, our kids need to learn how to respect and peacefully co-exist with people who do not look, talk, or believe as they do. Is mutual respect really that much to ask?
Jessica Herthel with supporters at a reading of I Am Jazz in Horeb, Wisconsin. (Photo: Jessica Herthel)
I used to help facilitate teacher trainings around LGBT issues in schools and I would often remind people that we do not expect everyone to share religious or moral views, but all parents have the right to demand that their children are safe at school and are in an environment that allows them to learn. That means bullying and harassment cannot be tolerated. Kids, if there is a classmate you do not want to play with, then okay, don’t. You may not, however, use the privilege of your position (you are white, wealthy, able-bodied, non-LGBT, etc.) to ridicule, demean, or belittle someone else.
Which is exactly what the conservative group, Liberty Counsel, tried to do when they blocked the reading of I Am Jazz at a Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, elementary school last week. In a 5-page letter full of legalese and bluster, Liberty Counsel threatened to sue if the school proceeded with its plan to share the book with students. The school cancelled the reading, surely a painful decision in light of the first grade transgender student whose own social transition was not about to be postponed. (For those keeping score, the first grade student did transition to presenting herself full-time as a girl, and her 6-year-old classmates dealt with it and moved on.)
Signs of support at a reading of I Am Jazz in Horeb, Wisconsin. (Photo: Jessica Herthel)
But what could have been a tragic story exploded into something beautiful. Immediately, the Mount Horeb community rallied around this transgender child and her family. Within days, the local high schoolers organized an early morning flagpole reading of I Am Jazz, carrying hand-painted signs that read, “Close the Book on Hate.” More than two hundred people showed up, standing outside in light snow at 7:30 in the morning, to show their support.
The 576-person crowd at a reading of I Am Jazz in Horeb, Wisconsin. (Photo: Jessica Herthel)
Another concerned community member arranged for a reading of I Am Jazz at the Mount Horeb public library for later that same day. I flew from my home in California to Wisconsin to join them, and the generosity of spirit and otherworldly kindness that this small town manifested brought me to tears more than once. Organizers originally expected 45 people to attend the library event. The final headcount was 576, with nary a protester in sight.
In my more than a decade of being a parent, I have spent time with transkids, gender-creative kids, and regular old creative kids. And what I have learned is this: Children want to do the right thing. Children don’t judge one another unless we teach them to. Children are much more accepting, and much less fragile, then we give them credit for.
Please urge your children’s schools to read inclusive books of all kinds. Despite what the Liberty Counsel would like you to believe, diversity is not something to fear, it is not a subject of controversy, and it sure isn’t going away. Rather, teaching our little ones to love instead of hate should be the least controversial lesson of all.
(Top photo: Jessica Herthel)