Recently a friend walked by my office at the exact moment I happened to be sobbing hard. After receiving assurances that no personal tragedy had struck, she exclaimed “there’s no crying in political science!” While that may be her rule, I’ve found myself in tears more than a few times in this profession. Mostly, true, during grad school when various frustrations and doubts reached epic proportions. This was the first time that my research material itself had led to tears. It all started when I received a freedom of information (FOI) response from Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.
When I first became interested in this research, I quickly gravitated towards challenges of books representing trans and genderqueer characters. The children’s, mid-grade, and YA markets have seen an explosion in this content in recent years but challenges focus primarily on the first two. Challengers frequently target picture books for their ire. I came across the Mount Horeb story early in my research. The story as presented in most media is relatively simple. An elementary school sent home a notice that one of its classes would read and discuss I am Jazz, the nonfiction children’s picture book about trans activist and reality TV star Jazz Jennings. This was in support of a trans girl in the class who was preparing to socially transition. Some elements of the community exploded in anger and the next day Liberty Counsel sent a threat of litigation if the reading occurred. As a right-wing Christian group, its arguments are pretty much what you would expect from a group that engages in anti-trans activism. The gist of it is that trans people don’t exist, they are simply “gender confused,” and that any exposure to this “gender confusion” is likely to harm children—as an aside, I sometimes wonder what it is like to be so unsure of one’s gender identity that you believe simply learning of the fact of trans people existing will alter it. The school bowed to pressure and cancelled the reading leading supportive members in the community to hold a reading of I am Jazz in the public library. They were shocked when 600 people showed up for the event, an impressive turnout of community love and support. This reaction spread to other cities where readings were held as well. So, at a minimum, the Liberty Counsel attempt to hide trans stories backfired tremendously.
I had a hard time figuring out the school from the fragments of the news story. Like many, I initially assumed they were cowards but as a member of an educational bureaucracy myself, I understand that sometimes decisions are made by higher-ups for reasons that have nothing to do with education or student needs. After all, one email described how the district’s legal counsel proposed delaying the girl's transition for the district’s convenience, a truly horrifying proposal. Instead of exposing the school to be cowardly, the FOI material suggested that the relevant elementary officials were all working hard to support their student and that they continued to support her after the public controversy. The FOI material also held the answer to a question I shared with Liberty Counsel. It complained strongly of the timeline of the notification, suggesting that it was some nefarious plot to indoctrinate children with only the veneer of parental notification. While I certainly did not believe this bizarre conspiracy theory, it was odd. The notification to parents was sent on a Thursday for a reading scheduled on the following Monday. The entire purpose of notification letters is to avoid public uproar and such a short window invited claims of hiding things. I came to discover the reason for this timeline in an email summarizing a meeting with the girl’s parents. A school official worked out a ten-day period where the school would train its staff and the parents agreed to delay their daughter wearing dresses and using her name. When they informed the girl, she burst into tears upset that she would have to wait and saying she was ready now. As the entire purpose of transitioning is for the child’s benefit, the adults agreed that they would make sure things were ready for her to begin the next Monday. Rather than being the actions of a shady queer cabal, the short timeline reflected the child’s needs.
If you couldn’t guess, my tears started when I read the girl’s response. If I’m being honest, I’m tearing up now just remembering it which doesn’t bode well for public presentations on this topic. It was another example that I need to be careful in rushing to judgment. School administration is a complex job and requires a difficult balancing act much of the time. My material, admittedly limited in scope, demonstrates a school that worked hard to support a girl before and after the controversy with the public concession on the issue of reading the book. Incidentally, one school employee reported that her transition went over without controversy in her class, probably because young children have far fewer problems with this topic than their parents. Perhaps by avoiding the most public aspect of support the school helped defuse the situation. With transphobes at the gates, I can’t really say they had any other choice.