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Community support follows cancellation of Mount Horeb school reading of transgender book

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Last Monday, a 6-year-old student went to school at Mount Horeb Primary Center with a new public identity.

It was her first day introducing herself to classmates as the girl her mother says “she really is.”

In an effort to support the student’s transition from male to female, and to help her young classmates understand, the school had planned to read and discuss the book “I Am Jazz,” the true story of Jazz Jennings, a transgender girl who stars in a TLC reality show named after the book.

But the reading didn’t happen after the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based religious conservative organization, threatened to sue the school district for teaching the book and overstepping parental rights, The Capital Times reported.

Calls to the Liberty Counsel were not immediately returned.

The mother of the Mount Horeb student, whom the State Journal is not naming to protect her family’s privacy, said that teaching inclusion to her daughter’s classmates is essential to her successful gender transition.

“My daughter just wants to be accepted, included, and not bullied,” she said. “If we can teach them to respect people’s differences at a young age, it’s important.”

She said the reading’s cancellation “was not a surprise.” But, she said, “the school has been fantastic.”

In a letter to parents dated Nov. 19 informing them about the reading planned for the following Monday, Primary School officials highlighted plans to be more inclusive to all students, saying, “we are taking several steps to support gender-variant students and their families.”

“People express their gender in a variety of ways,” the letter continued. “Gender-variant children include children whose identities, appearances, behaviors or interests challenge the expectations associated with their gender assigned at birth.”

The letter asked parents to let school officials know if they had any concerns about the planned reading.

Attempts to contact district Superintendent Deb Klein and Principal Rachael Johnson were unsuccessful.

In a statement Wednesday, the district said it had “chosen not to proceed as originally planned and allow the Board of Education the opportunity to review the needs of all involved, and address a situation for which the District has no current policy,” The Capital Times reported.

Some people felt that the school did not provide enough notice to parents about the planned reading, the mother of the transgender student said.

“The school didn’t give much time to parents to discuss information, but part of that was because of issues with my daughter,” she said. “Things had to happen sooner than later.”

She said that she and her husband, as well as her daughter’s teachers, had noticed the girl displaying clear signs of anxiety and depression — which is common for transgender children between the ages of 5 and 7 — and knew it was time to do something.

The girl’s social transition has been a year in the making for the Mount Horeb family. Starting when she was 3 years old, and maybe even before that, the child’s mother noticed behaviors that suggested to her that the child may be transgender.

She said her child would take her mother’s tank tops and wear them as dresses, and say that she’s going to pretend to be a kitty, but a girl kitty with a girl’s name. And she would say what she wanted her girl’s name to be.

She also would ask, “Why do I have boy parts? I feel like I’m a girl. Can I grow my hair out? Why can’t I be a girl? I feel like I’m a girl.

“It progressed from there. She vocalized more as she got older and she became more persistent,” her mother said.

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Luckily, she said, bullying hasn’t been much of an issue in the past or since her daughter’s public identity has changed.

“Every once in a while a kid would ask why she likes girl stuff. Even since the transition, the kids in the class were like, ‘That’s OK, you’re (name) now.’ The kids have totally accepted this – it’s just the adults,” she said.

The decision not to proceed with the reading comes on the heels of a controversial bill that would ban transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms assigned to the gender with which they identify.

The bill would require school boards to designate bathrooms and locker rooms by gender, require schools to make special accommodations for transgender students and others, and to require the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits alleging the policy is discriminatory.

Bathrooms have not been an issue at the Primary Center because there is a gender-neutral bathroom available, the student’s mother said.

In response to the decision to cancel the reading of “I Am Jazz,” two readings of the book are scheduled for Wednesday.

A reading by the Mount Horeb High School’s Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA) will begin at 7:35 a.m. at the school’s flagpole. The other, hosted by parent Amy Lyle, is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Mount Horeb Library.

High School social studies teacher Beth Maglio, who is supporting the Wednesday morning reading, said students are staging the reading to “show our support and solidarity with the transgender community, staff and students.”

Maglio teaches a high school course called “Social Problems,” in which students learn about advocacy and standing up for their beliefs. When Maglio saw some of the SAGA students discussing the reading’s cancellation on Facebook, she asked them what they thought they should do, and reading the book publicly themselves was their response.

Lyle said that her reading is in support of the transgender student and her family.

“We were concerned about how the family would be feeling and we felt a need to communicate to them that there is support in our community,” she said. “We want all LGBT youth to feel supported and to feel accepted, and to know that Mount Horeb is an accepting place for all.”

Jazz Jennings, who co-authored “I Am Jazz,” said in a video that followed the book’s release last year that she hoped the book would make its way into schools and teachers could teach their students about acceptance so that everyone can “live and be happy”.

Lyle said that the Primary Center’s initial decision to read the book excited her and her husband because it showed that the schools were looking to shed some light on a subject that is becoming more open in our society.

That excitement led to worry when they later discovered that the class reading wasn’t going to happen. “I don’t know if there is a more important lesson to be taught in our schools (than inclusion),” Lyle said.

“We firmly believe that education and information creates informed and compassionate children who turn into compassionate and respectful adults,” she said. “It’s our obligation to provide the information. Families can have their own discussions outside the school, but the information should be provided.”

The community support is not going unnoticed by the student’s family.

“We were in awe of the support that people have come out and given us not even knowing who we are,” her mother said. “We are thankful for this.”

Most of all, she said, the family wants people to understand one pivotal thing: “We want people to remember that at the center of all of this is a child and her family.

“This child is a very brave, strong, and amazing child that will be dealing with a rough road ahead,” she said. “We’ve spent a year discussing (her transition) and figuring out if it’s what we needed to do. But, for our child to be happy, this is what we needed to do. Our 6-year-old can finally be who she really is.”

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