Anchor Elementary will be giving a public reading of the controversial book, “I Am Jazz” by Jazz Jennings at an all school assembly Thursday, Feb. 28. The book is the autobiographical story of Jennings’ childhood struggle with gender identity, a subject which some people feel sends the wrong message to kids.
The book is part of the school’s larger celebration of Black History and Women’s History in the months of February and March. Anchor Elementary Principal Craig McCalla, who will be reading the book, explained in an email sent out to parents February 5 and in his weekly phone call:
“During February and March, we will be honoring Black history and Women’s history. We will specifically be talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to achieving equality and justice for all Americans of all colors through peaceful refusal and love. We will be reading stories and having discussions with our students about supporting ALL people and creating a safe and supportive school environment.”
McCalla explained different people will be honored on a rotating basis in a visual display called the “Hall of Heroes” and readings from these people will be shared with students. Also in an email to parents, the Anchor Social Justice Committee listed the readings for February as:
- I Have A Dream from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold
- The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler.
- Scribbleville by Peter Holwitz
- I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings
- Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins Bigelow.
Jennings reads her book on a YouTube video . In the book she describes being in a boy’s body but being drawn to things traditionally associated with girls, insisting to confused adults that she was a girl. Jennings describes her childhood self as, “I have a girl brain but a boy body.”
Written in soft and simplistic language for children, she describes the confusion of other people regarding her situation. Teachers at school wanted her to use the boys bathroom, but “that didn’t feel normal to me at all”, she says. Her doctor diagnosed her condition as “transgender”. Her parents’ response is, “We understand now. Be who you are.” Jennings tells of the hurt at being teased, but “that the kids who get to know me usually want to be my friend.”
In a postscript to the reading, Jennings ends the video by telling viewers, “Always love yourself and always spread that love to the world around you because you are beautiful no matter what.”
It is a story the school hopes will inspire kids to be kind and accepting of one another. But transgenderism is a complicated and challenging subject that some think is simply too risky for such young, developing minds.
Webster township resident and former judge Karl Fink expressed just such a concern:
“Although apparently there was an email that mentioned that the book ‘I Am Jazz’ would be read,” says Fink, “it was not stated that it was a book about choosing to transgender. The author, a young person who has had hormone treatment and surgery, may be looked to as a role model. I do not think that this is the type of information Dexter parents, and, as in my case, grandparents, want presented to their young children.”
Fink refers to an article by Michael K. Laidlaw, MD, specialist in Endocrinology, who diagnoses Jazz Jennings’ condition as “gender dysphoria” (defined as the distress a person experiences as a result of the sex and gender they were assigned at birth). From a medical standpoint, the article refutes Jennings’ statements as to what “transgender” really means and goes into great detail about the physiological complications Jennings has experienced as well as the risks she is now facing as a result of the hormonal therapy and transitional surgery.
Laidlaw is clear that “children with gender dysphoria deserve our compassion and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness, just like all other children. Their unique condition makes integrating in the school a challenge.” He encourages children to be educated on gender dysphoria so they know how to properly respond to. In that, he agrees with the objectives of Principal McCalla and Anchor Elementary educators.
However, Laidlaw goes on to state, “’I Am Jazz’ contains both false information and very troubling omissions. Children who are experiencing gender dysphoria will likely be harmed by this book, as will children who do not have the condition.”
He describes the destructive effects of the hormone therapy Jennings’ has undergone as well as the transitional surgery and its complications. These topics are not mentioned in Jennings’ book. Laidlaw’s concern is that “I Am Jazz” paints a false picture of transgenderism and in doing so, could possibly persuade young impressionable minds to pursue it, and its risks, when they otherwise might not.
Others share this fear. In an email to We Love Dexter, Larry Courson, Pastor of Peace Lutheran Church expressed such a concern:
“I understand the need for addressing this topic with Middle School and High School students. I have had conversations with both students and parents in this age group dealing with Gender Dysphoria. It seems to me that this issue should be addressed by parents with their children, especially at a very young age.”
Similarly, Dan Robelen, Pastor of Dexter Gospel Church, says, “Having watched a reading of the book by the author, I am troubled by the inaccurate and incomplete viewpoint presented. I also feel that especially for elementary school children as young as five years old, this is a matter that should be addressed primarily by parents, who will be most aware of and sensitive to their own children’s development.”
Not everyone agrees with Laidlaw’s claims. Zinnia Jones is a technical writer who specialized in transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine.
Jones writes, “Laidlaw’s review is shot through with misrepresentations of the evidence regarding gender dysphoria and its treatment, and contains a panoply of unsubstantiated claims with no sound basic in science.”
In her article, Jones proceeds to dismantle Laidlaw’s arguments point by point. Citing research to back up her claims, Jones asserts “(Laidlaw’s) article thus presents a highly distorted view of the lives and experiences of trans youth and the known benefits of a gender-affirming approach.”
St. James Episcopal Church in Dexter has been ardently supportive and inclusive of the LGBTQ community, especially kids. Rev. Carol Mader strongly disputes the idea that this lifestyle is a choice that can be suggestively implanted into young minds.
“I’ve never heard of a transgender person reporting that they got persuaded into being transgender,” she said in an interview. “I’ve never heard a gay or lesbian person say they were persuaded and convinced into being transgender, gay, or lesbian.”
In his article, Laidlaw lists the risk factors for transgender people which include depression, a higher suicide rate, and destructive side effects of hormonal therapy and transitional surgery. Rev. Mader concurs with Laidlaw regarding the high “at risk” factors for transgender people, and it only strengthens her point.
“Why would anybody willingly choose to be transgender in our community?” she asks. “You are at such a higher risk for suicide higher risk for mental illness, higher risk for violence against you, higher risk for being kicked out of your home, why would anybody choose that? It’s a hard life.”
But all discussion of the transgender teen experience strays from our subject at hand and the reason Anchor Elementary is reading “I Am Jazz” – to inspire elementary kids to be kind, accepting, inclusive, and affirming of one another.
Courson commends the school on their selection of books and their “effort to create an environment where all students are loved, supported and welcomed at Anchor School. Every child and family needs and deserves that.” But when it comes to the book “I Am Jazz”, his concerns echo Laidlaw’s.
“While I can appreciate (the schools’) concern from students dealing with Gender Dysphoria, I wonder if this topic is age appropriate for Young 5’s – 2nd grade students. I also question whether the book “I Am Jazz” is the best way to address this topic. This book is written from a personal, not from a medical perspective. While some of the comments made by the author may be true from the writer’s perspective, they may not be true or accurate from a medical perspective.”
Robelen states, “’I Am Jazz’ appears to cross the line from encouraging compassion for others who feel differently to actively encouraging other children to follow this same course of action for gender dysphoria.”
The Schools maintain, however, that they are not promoting a particular sexual orientation. Their purpose in using Jennings’ story is to teach kids about being nice to, and accepting of one another. The reading of “I Am Jazz” is but one component of a larger effort by educators to get kids understanding one another with more compassion and empathy.
Anchor Elementary principal Craig McCalla, who will be reading the book to students at Thursday’s assembly, states their reasons for selecting the controversial book.
“In our building, we strive to make sure all students and families are respected, understood and feel safe in our school. I work hard with my staff to ensure that we have built a safe and supportive environment for all students and families. Research shows that when students feel safe and supported in school their academic achievement goes up and emotional stressors are reduced. I have chosen the books for the month based on our social justice focus for February and March.”
“The book I am Jazz is one of three books I am reading at the assembly on Thursday. The other two books I am reading are Scribbleville by Peter Holwitz and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. There are 11 books are students will hear or have heard throughout the month of February and March. There will be more as we also focus on Women’s History in March. The discussion and questions during the assembly will focus on respecting everyone’s differences and how each person should be happy to be who they are.”
“Adults often find this idea of transgender kids particularly startling, and amazing in some ways,” says Rev. Mader. “It is far out of anything that we ever experienced. My sense around reading this story for young kids is that this helps kids normalize LGBTQ.”
Dexter Community Schools Superintendent, Dr. Chris Timmis, weighed in with his thoughts on the “I Am Jazz” reading:
“Throughout the district and especially at the K-2 buildings, we guide our work on the philosophy of ‘All Means All’. Historically, we’ve always had students in all of our buildings who are transgender, including our K-2 buildings. ‘I Am Jazz’ is a children’s book intended for preschool through third grade. It is a few hundred words in length written at an elementary reading level.”
The schools did have some discussion about offering an “opt-out” for parents but quickly came to the conclusion that offering an “opt-out” is discriminatory by nature toward transgender students. It also went against their “All Means All” philosophy of accepting others for who they are and treating each other well.
Disappointed that the purpose of the book reading has been misunderstood, Superintendent remains firm on the District’s mission to kids:
“Honestly, I’m disheartened and saddened by how bothered a few people are by what is happening in one of our schools during a three to five minute period of time on a single day. To put it in perspective, it’s a children’s book, written at a level appropriate for children, and read at the same time as other books with a similar theme of understanding each other and treating each other well. Dexter has always presented itself as a loving and caring community, and the assemblies continue to foster this approach to teaching our kids to treat each other well despite their differences. ‘All Means All’ is why our kids get along so well as they move through our school system.”
“Every school system has trans kids,” says Rev. Mader. “We have kids in this community who are at high risk, attempt suicide, and are ostracized. So to me, part of this effort is about potentially saving lives. It’s about when the kids get to middle school or high school and they feel like they’re okay in the world.”
Principal Ryan Bruder of Beacon Elementary also plans a reading of “I Am Jazz” next week as a part of International Anti-Bullying Day.