In my line of work it’s pretty routine to face opposition. I help teachers and administrators create safe, welcoming, and inclusive elementary schools for children across the nation. It sounds tame in the reading, but in some places such work can have a disruptive and disturbing effect. Because what I’m really talking about is difference. And difference can generate fear, and fear can be very motivating.
But last week I was lucky enough to be in a place where when fear reared its head, a community did not succumb to hateful rhetoric and, instead, responded with overwhelming love and support. All I can say is thank you Liberty Counsel — your attempt at fearmongering didn’t work. In fact, it brought out the very best in the people of Mount Horeb, a small town in southern Wisconsin.
Inciting love and compassion in Mount Horeb was certainly not Liberty Counsel’s intent. By threatening a lawsuit against the school district for its plan to read I Am Jazz, a book by and about a transgender girl, the anti-LGBTQ group aimed to shut down efforts to foster compassion and tolerance for a local 6-year-old transgender first-grader. But little did they know that their lawsuit would actually light a fire under parents and students living in this community.
By the time I arrived in Mount Horeb last Wednesday morning to support the community, the flames were already burning bright. I met up at Sjölinds coffee shop with Amy Lyle, mother of two students at the school — neither transgender — who was organizing a public reading of I Am Jazz at the town’s public library that night. Upset that the local elementary school, under pressure from Liberty Counsel, had canceled its reading, Amy simply scheduled one of her own. She was hoping that a few families with their children would share the evening with her as she read I Am Jazz.
What happened next was nothing short of extraordinary.
Amy wasn’t an activist; she was acting from the heart, simply wanting to do the right thing and set an example for her own children. But her decision, rooted in her faith in the inherent goodness of the community, set off a series of events that have been the most moving in my many years of advocating for LGBTQ children.
I found out during my meeting with Amy that Sjölinds is not just a coffee shop but also an informal town meeting place. The group gathered there last Wednesday included Amy’s dad and his friends. I was met with hugs, handshakes, and numerous offers of help for that evening’s reading. It was clear that this community was defying maybe even my own preconceived notions of how a small town would react to a lawsuit intending to incite fear and stoke bigotry.
One of those gathered with us even offered to make the 40-minute drive to the Madison airport to pick up the coauthor of I Am Jazz — Jessica Herthel — who had decided to fly in from California to participate in the reading. As the day unfolded, it became clear that community support for this transgender child, her family, and her school runs deep. The library moved the evening reading from a community room to the more spacious main area to accommodate a crowd much larger than the dozen or two Amy originally anticipated.
It’s a good thing they did. By the time we started the event, more than 600 community members packed the library — people of all ages, families with their young children, teachers, neighbors, even an older man who told me later that he came not knowing anything about transgender people but knowing it was the right thing to do to show up. When the chairs ran out and the standing room in the back was four and five people deep, the kids instinctively gathered and sat cross-legged in front.
The children quieted as Jessica began to read and all eyes were on the book. I Am Jazz shares the story of a transgender child in a way that makes sense to young kids — and to adults as well. I could see the ‘What’s all of the fuss about?’ looks on the children’s faces as they learned that some children are born and told they are a boy, but know they are really a girl in their heart, and that some children are born and told they are a girl, but know they are really a boy in their heart. I noticed parents breathe a collective sigh of relief as Jessica spoke beautifully about how adults can talk, in very simple terms, with children about differences, including what it means to be transgender.
The children and the adults cheered, and the room was filled with love. Not hate. Not fear. Moments like this can divide a community, or make them stronger. The people of Mount Horeb chose to come out in force to demonstrate that, in their town, love and acceptance will always win the day. Everyone, including me, learned something that amazing night — about strength, compassion, and rejecting fear in favor of supporting all of their children and all members of their larger community.
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JOHANNA EAGER is the director of the Human Rights Campaign's Welcoming Schools program.