MOUNT HOREB — In a turnout that stunned organizers, nearly 600 people filled the library here Wednesday night to hear a public reading of a children’s book about a transgender girl, with many in the crowd expressing strong support for a local family with a transgender child.
Most stood, as all of the library’s 80 chairs were quickly taken. Lead organizer Amy Lyle said she initially hoped for 15 people — not because there isn’t support for the family, but because peoples’ lives are busy.
“I knew that our Mount Horeb community was a loving, compassionate and inclusive one for all kids — I knew that in my heart — but you all have just shown that to be overwhelmingly true,” Lyle told the crowd, her voice cracking.
The village of 7,000 is about 25 miles southwest of Madison. The library event — and another reading at the high school on Wednesday morning that drew about 200 — followed the cancellation last week of the reading of the book “I Am Jazz” at the Mount Horeb Primary Center, a public elementary school where a 6-year-old student had just transitioned from a boy to a girl.
School staff said they sought to read the book to the girl’s classmates to help them understand what was happening to a fellow student, and to help the girl feel safe and accepted.
The school canceled the reading after a conservative Florida-based group threatened legal action.
The family of the girl has not gone public, choosing to protect the child’s identity.
Many in the crowd said they did not know the family, and that it didn’t matter.
“That could be any one of our kids,” said Maggie Stack of Mount Horeb, who brought her two daughters, ages 4 and 10, to the reading.
She said she was not concerned that the subject matter would confuse her children or go over their heads.
“I think kids are much more accepting than adults and are much more intuitive about these kinds of things,” she said.
The crowd in general seemed to be entirely in the family’s corner, with cheers and enthusiastic applause throughout.
It appeared that no one from the family of the transgender girl attended the reading, although Lyle said she could not be sure because she has never met the family.
Lyle read a statement from the family that said, in part, “In the midst of all of the media attention that this important matter has stirred up, we just want everyone to remember that at the center of this is a brave little girl who can now be who she really is. And you have all helped to make that happen in a positive way for her and her family. For that, we are, and always will be, truly thankful.”
The crowd was sprinkled with young children, dozens of them sitting cross-legged on the floor around the podium.
Isis Chapman, 4, held a sign she’d made showing two stick figures holding hands. One of the figures was her, she said, the other the transgender girl, whom she does not know.
“She said she wants to be friends with her,” said Myhia Chapman of Mount Horeb, Isis’ mother.
Standing out amid the children was Steve Cowan, 72, who took a seat directly in front of the podium. He came alone from his rural home about 7 miles away.
“I came here to learn,” he said. “When I was young, you never heard about any of this stuff.”
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Afterward, he said he will continue to educate himself, but that in general, “I truly feel we have to express more love in this world.”
The centerpiece of the library program was the reading of “I Am Jazz” by its co-author Jessica Herthel, who flew in from California to support the family. As a straight parent, Herthel said she wrote her book with Jazz Jennings, a transgender girl who stars in a TLC reality show, in part because she felt there were not enough resources for parents like her to teach their children about acceptance.
She said she was overwhelmed by the community response in Mount Horeb.
“I think it’s a barometer of where we’re at as a society,” she said in an interview. “I think we’re more ready to hear about this issue from a child’s perspective, because we know a child isn’t making a political statement or rebelling against society. Kids don’t know not to tell the truth, and we’re getting more comfortable with that idea.”
Herthel said she was “disheartened at first but not surprised” when she heard that the reading at the school had been cancelled. She said she’s aware some see the book as inappropriate for young children.
“When people take the time to read the book, they realize that ‘I Am Jazz’ is about identity — who you are. Not sex — who you are attracted to. And the book’s message of ‘Be who you are, no matter what’ applies to all children,” Herthel said.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy group, said it paid for Herthel’s plane ticket. The group also donated 40 “I Am Jazz” books, which were distributed free to young people at the event and signed by Herthel.
Additionally, Johanna Eager, a Human Rights Campaign staff member, flew in from Seattle and talked to the crowd about how a community can make schools welcoming to LGBT students.
The controversy that spurred the large community response began last month. In a letter to parents Nov. 19, the Primary Center said it planned a discussion of the book for the following Monday in part “to support gender-variant students and their families.”
But the school pulled back after the Liberty Counsel, a Florida religious conservative group acting on behalf of what it said were “concerned parents,” threatened to sue the district on grounds that the planned discussion violated parents’ constitutional right “to direct the upbringing of their children” and what it called their First Amendment right to refer to a person by his or her biological gender.
“A mandatory requirement that other students call a boy ‘her’ and ‘she’ infringes upon the other students’ rights to tell the truth, in accordance with their religious convictions, and reality,” the group wrote in a letter to the School Board.
In a statement last week, the district said it was opting for a delay to give the School Board an opportunity to review the situation and come up with a policy for managing such issues.
“As we seek to address the specific needs of the individual student, the district will also be mindful of the needs of other district students and families and will strive to keep all of the families whose children may be affected apprised of future actions by the district,” Superintendent Deb Klein said in the statement.
As the Wednesday night reading was taking place, members of the Mount Horeb School Board were scheduled to meet in a special session closed to the public. According to the meeting notice, they were to “confer with legal counsel with respect to threatened litigation” related to transgender student issues.
Because of this potential for litigation, Board President Mary Seidl said she was not comfortable commenting on the district’s handling of the issue up to this point. As for the community’s response to the controversy, she expressed admiration in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
“I think it’s incredibly inspiring when you have community members who will come together and support students and keep students at the center of the work,” said Seidl, a school psychologist in the Madison School District.
Seidl expects the board will address the issue from a policy standpoint at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting. She declined to speculate on the nature of any policy proposals, saying the agenda has not been set.
Before school on Wednesday morning, members of Mount Horeb High School’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance and about 200 supporters gathered around the school’s flagpole to read from “I Am Jazz.”
SAGA member Claire Jenkins praised the elementary student at the center of the debate during the reading outside the high school.
“This is a day to show a little girl that we support her,” Jenkins said.