I Am Jazz — the 2014 autobiographical children’s picture book about Jazz Jennings’s life as a young transgender girl and the precursor to the wildly popular TLC reality show of the same name — is no stranger to controversy. In 2020, in fact, because of the many times people have tried to suppress it at schools and libraries, I Am Jazz was named one of the most banned and challenged books of the decade. It was a distinction, Jennings told Yahoo Life at the time, she found “both disappointing and honorable.”
Now that pattern continues in Bellingham, Wash., where the book’s reading by a teacher to her first-grade class has jostled a hornet’s nest — but with most of the buzz, apparently, coming from outside of the community.
“In my experience,” longtime district parent Heather Davidson tells Yahoo Life, “our community is a really unique pocket of acceptance and appreciation for diversity in all of its forms.” So, she adds, “the vitriol being hurled at our educators and school board president and superintendent and the community I live and serve and work in is so disheartening.”
The vitriol in response to the book seems to have taken root after an anonymous caller notified the “campus bias tip line” of conservative Young America’s Foundation, prompting it to run a story on its website; it was subsequently picked up by conservative publications including the Post Millennialand the Daily Wire.
In the original story, there is a screenshot of an exchange between one unhappy Bellingham parent, who refers to I Am Jazz and asks, “Did you read this book to 1st graders today?” and the teacher, who responds, “Yes, I did read the book. It is available in our school library as a part of our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion collection. As a district, we are working hard to support all members of our school community and promote inclusion through understanding and compassion. I am happy to answer any questions you may have or talk about concerns.”
Following the story, school district spokesperson Dana Smith told the Bellingham Herald, “We’re getting all kinds of messages, including some that are more hateful.” Targets also included president of the school board Jenn Mason, who was called out in the YAF story as the owner of a local sex shop that aims to show people that “sex isn’t something to be ashamed about” as evidence of why she has “done nothing” about the alleged controversy. But, Mason told the Herald, “Most of the hateful speech is not coming from people in our community.”
Jennings herself has weighed in, telling Yahoo Life, "Hatred, bullying and discrimination have no place in our schools or our communities, and it is upsetting to see the actions taking place in Bellingham, Wash., in response to a teacher using my book I Am Jazz to encourage compassion and inclusiveness." But, she adds, "I’m grateful that Bellingham Public schools are standing behind the book and send my support to anyone who is being wrongly harassed for providing a diverse and loving environment for all students.”
It's true that those within the school community have been doubling down on their support of the teacher’s reading of I Am Jazz and of transgender youth in general. Superintendent Greg Baker posted a lengthy statement to the school district’s website about how the national “attention” around both the book and Mason’s shop “is prompting hate speech and harassment based on our values as a district and our commitment to equitable, diverse and inclusive education.”
Regarding the book, he continues, “Reading diverse books and learning about all kinds of lives is consistent with our values in our strategic plan, The Bellingham Promise. We believe all children should be loved, and we believe diversity enhances a strong and healthy community.” Regarding the treatment of school staff, he writes, “Our staff are the backbone of our education system, and we stand with all who are engaging in this key work regarding equity, diversity and inclusion. Our zero tolerance policy regarding harassment, intimidation and bullying for our students applies to the treatment of any in our organization that results in their harassment, intimidation or bullying. We treat all adults, students and families in Bellingham Public Schools with dignity and respect.” Smith directed Yahoo Life to the online statement.
That stance has earned the public praise by many in the community, including at least one district teacher, who took to her popular “@twinteacher” TikTok account to post a video — currently with over 281,500 views — noting, “I’m just feeling really proud and really grateful to work for the district I work in.”
On Twitter, an employee of the nearby Western Washington University Libraries shared that “in response to the anti-trans harassment…including the book I Am Jazz in the school curriculum, and antisemitic attacks on the Bellingham Public Schools Board President, many of my colleagues and I have signed the following statement.”
In response to the anti-trans harassment to including the book I Am Jazz in the school curriculum, and antisemitic attacks on the Bellingham Public Schools Board President, many of my colleagues and I have signed the following statement pic.twitter.com/kC7hejoxYd
— Gabe (@GabeGoGabe) May 11, 2021
The statement declares, in part, “unequivocal support of our community educators and policy makers for including transgender stories in the curriculum and in library collections. We strongly condemn efforts to continue to marginalize and exclude voices that do not conform to gender binary conceptions. Further, we believe that transgender voices and stories have been excluded from schools and libraries for too long, resulting in bullying and violence against the transgender community.” In response to the “hate speech” against I Am Jazz, it continues, “we commit ourselves to redouble efforts to ensure that marginalized voices and stories are included in our library collections and integrated into curriculum.”
That, as well as the school district standing strong, earned the praise of Davidson, a college professor who has a 2nd grader and 4th grader in the Bellingham district, plus two grown children who were educated there as well.
“When I see the school district in action [standing its ground], that is the experience that we have as a district family…” she tells Yahoo Life, noting that, in her 20 years as a parent in the district she remains “in a position of gratitude.”
She adds that many in her community are “just flabbergasted by the response to what is working so well in our community… particularly when you consider the rates of self-harm among trans and nonbinary youth… over 60 percent enact self-harm… So, if we’re thinking about inclusivity and representation, it’s… hard for me to imagine coming from such a closed-minded, ignorant place.”
The controversy also comes in the midst of a national barrage of anti-trans legislation being pushed forward or enacted in more than 30 states.
Davidson, while acknowledging that she is just speaking for herself and from her experience, says that she’s known Mason for 10 years, and that they met while doing advocacy work for people who had experienced sexual assault and domestic violence.
“She’s led all sorts of efforts in our community… And she is working to provide inclusive spaces that are destigmatizing sex, which is a very human thing,” she says, noting that some of the conservative media coverage seems “hung up” on her shop, proclaiming on social media that it’s “not creepy,” noting that it must be if it’s calling out that it’s not. “What’s creepy is keeping sex in the dark and having seedy shops where people slither in and out of dimly lit buildings and are embarrassed or ashamed of their sexuality,” says Davidson. “And that’s not what happens there.”
As Mason, who did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, told the Bellingham Herald about her role in the community and its connection to the current controversy, “Our shop serves a huge number of queer and trans folks. I feel honored to play a role in their lives.” She added, “If anything, all this vitriol just shows how much more work we need to do to support trans kids.”
This story was originally published at 7:54pm EDT on May 11 and has been updated to include a statement from Jennings.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated the tweet regarding the Statement of Support of Transgender Voices and Stories in Curriculum was posted by a Bellingham School District employee. It has been updated to note that it was shared by an employee of the nearby Western Washington University Libraries, and signed by some colleagues.
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