A little over a year ago, I flew to Wisconsin to join the small community of Mt. Horeb as they hosted a public reading of the picture book I Am Jazz in solidarity with a first grade transgender girl in the community. The school and the girl’s family had planned their own reading of the book to help explain the girl’s identity to her classmates, but canceled the event once the anti-LGBTQ Liberty Counsel threatened a lawsuit against the school.
As the director of Welcoming Schools, an HRC project that trains educators in fostering safe and welcoming school environments, I regularly use the book I Am Jazz with educators. The book tells the story of living as a transgender child from the perspective of real-life transgender teenager and HRC Youth Ambassador Jazz Jennings, and explains what “transgender” means in words that children and adults can understand. Because we mention the book as a resource to educators across the country during our professional development training programs, HRC’s Welcoming Schools team knew we needed to support the mom planning the community reading.
Amy Lyle, a mother of two students at the school, organized the public reading in response to the school district canceling their own reading. Even though neither of her two children identify as transgender, Amy knew that her community supported LGBTQ youth, and that it was important to move forward with the reading in the community.
Upon my arrival in Mount Horeb that chilly December morning, I stopped at the high school to witness an inspiring reading of I Am Jazz organized by students in the school’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance.
Energized by the high school students, Amy and I sat in the local coffee shop to discuss the evening’s reading event planned for a community room at the local library. As Amy and I began to receive calls from reporters across the nation, I started to realize that this event wasn’t just important for the transgender student in this community, but that the big hearts in this small town were sending a message to transgender youth across the country: “We’ve got your back.”
Soon, Amy and I were joined by the co-author of I Am Jazz, Jessica Herthel, and we headed to the library. Community members continued to file in, and we all moved to a much larger space than the small room we had planned on using. By the time we started the event, more than 600 adults and children of all ages, teachers, neighbors, and families from surrounding communities were sharing the same space and excitement over this historic reading supporting a young child. After a brief introduction, Jessica read the book aloud while the children, who had instinctively sat cross-legged in the front of the room, cheered along with their parents. The room was filled with love—not hate.
As our nation continues to move forward after the election, and as we learn of the stories of misguided hate occurring in our schools today, I am grateful to be celebrating the Mount Horeb one-year anniversary. The kind of ally behavior that Amy and her community showed in response to hate is exactly the model of courage and strength that is deeply needed in schools across the country in this moment. Every community has the ability to say “no” to hate and fear and to stand in support of each and every student, with all of their differences, in our K-12 schools.
Following the success of this event, HRC — through our Welcoming Schools program — created a guide to help organizers build more affirming and supportive spaces for transgender and gender-expansive children and youth across the country. At HRC Foundation’s Time to THRIVE Conference in April, we will acknowledge the bravery of the Mount Horeb community and grow on their success, coordinating with communities across the country to host their own I Am Jazz readings. Click here to register and attend Time to THRIVE.
HRC’s Welcoming Schools is the nation’s premier program dedicated to creating respectful and supportive elementary schools in embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ-inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, creating gender-expansive schools, and supporting transgender and non-binary students.