Last June, a kindergartner brought a book to Rocklin Academy Gateway, a charter school outside Sacramento, and asked her teacher to read it at story time. The book was “I Am Jazz”, an account of now-teenager Jazz Jennings’ earliest years, in which she helped her family understand that she is transgender. Like Jazz, the kindergartner who requested the book for story time is also transgender. Gradually, over the course of her kindergarten year, she had let her teacher and classmates know she was really a girl.
Unfortunately, a few parents heard about this through their children and got upset. They contacted the Capitol Resource Institute, a Nevada-based group with a track record of opposing policies that support transgender students’ rights to play on athletic teams or use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity rather than the sex they were assumed to be at birth. Other like-minded groups also got involved.
Earlier this month, 500 people showed up at an emotional board meeting to express their views. Ultimately, the board voted to maintain its policy around literature selection, which allows students to bring in and share books that support their identity. They added a new policy requiring teachers to advise parents when a controversial topic will be discussed in class.
In California, the dustup sparked tons of news stories and commentary. As La Comadre’s Leticia Chavez-Garcia noted in support of Rocklin’s stance, school is often the key place where young people get important information about sensitive issues that counters the misinformation that young children who don’t always know all the facts often spread among themselves.
I’m struck by this controversy because as a parent, I experienced a similar situation very differently. Three years ago, my daughter had the great good fortune to have a teacher who read “I Am Jazz” in her kindergarten classroom. No one blinked an eye. Sr. Joel, the teacher, had a classroom library that included “My Princess Boy” and a few other age-appropriate books about children who defied cultural expectations around their gender identity and presentation.
At our charter school, no one found this troubling. Honestly, I can’t say for sure what made the difference. It could be that, being in heavily-progressive Chicago, our school community just doesn’t have a core group of parents sufficiently fired up and well-connected to anti-LGBT activists to make the same waves. Or it could be that, as an openly gay man teaching kindergarten, Sr. Joel had put much more thought and advance planning into how to address the issues than another teacher might have.
I Want to Believe in the Power of Books and Community
I want to believe two things made the real difference at my daughter’s school: a depth of school community that allows parents and teachers to trust each other beyond our observable differences, and a shared belief in the power of books to teach us about experiences beyond our own.
At a time when transgender youth are at high risk for bullying and victimization—from teasing and ridicule to assault and even murder—we can’t fall for misguided ideas like confusing gender identity with sexual orientation or thinking kindergarten is too young to explain that not everyone with the same body parts understands themselves as a boy or a girl exactly the same way.
Schools can be the most dangerous spaces for transgender children, or they can be safe havens in a hostile world. All kids deserve to be safe and respected at school, and books like “I Am Jazz” can help bring us closer to achieving that goal.
This Banned Books Week, I encourage everyone to make time to read I Am Jazz to get a glimpse into the life of a young transgender girl. As my colleagues Kim De Guzman and Rob Samuelson pointed out in their roundup of great banned books, the whole point of reading literature is to understand the human experience beyond the narrow confines of your own head.