Transgender children often know they are different ‘at a really young’ age, psychiatrist says
A book about a transgender child read during story time in a kindergarten classroom in Rocklin has divided a school along ideological lines and sparked a flurry of vitriol on social media and conservative web sites.
The children’s book “I am Jazz” was brought to Rocklin Academy Gateway School on June 7 by a transgender student who wanted to share it with classmates during story time. “I am Jazz” is the story of a real-life transgender girl named Jazz Jennings.
“I have a girl brain but a boy body,” Jazz says in the book. “This is called transgender. I was born this way!”
Later that same day, the Rocklin teacher selected and read “Red: A Crayon’s story,” a book about a crayon struggling with an identity crisis, according to a letter from the public charter school, which is part of the Rocklin Academy Family of Schools. The books are geared to children ages 4 to 8.
Upset parents called the school and met with administrators. They protested at a June board meeting. Two families pulled their kids from the school. The issue has become so heated that the district hired a public relations firm to help handle the fallout.
Social media posts have shown heated opposition to the story-time choice. Stories on local news stations, conservative web sites and press releases from family values organizations quoted parents who said the school threw a coming-out party that culminated with a boy coming out of the bathroom in girl’s clothing.
School officials say there was no such reveal. The child had been transitioning slowly during the school year and had already been wearing girl’s clothes, said Jillayne Antoon, who was principal at the school and has since been promoted to director of growth and community engagement for the Rocklin Academy Family of Schools.
The girl did go to the bathroom later in the day and changed into a dress, but then quietly returned to the classroom, Antoon said. She said the children had all brought extra clothes to school that day in anticipation of water play at recess, although that didn’t end up taking place.
“A couple of girls complimented her on her dress,” Antoon said. “We were so proud of how the kids can handle this in a way that clearly the adults are having a hard time with.”
Upset parents whose children told them about the story called Karen England of Capitol Resource Institute, a conservative advocacy group based in Nevada. England has a long track record of opposing changes supported by the LGBT community. It fought same-sex marriage and a state law (AB1266) that permits transgender students to join athletic teams and use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identities instead of their sex.
England said the school neglected parental rights when the teacher read the book to the children. “No parents were previously notified that this discussion would take place,” according to a press release from the organization.
England told The Bee that parents opposing the teacher’s reading of the book would not talk on the record. Attempts to contact parents who commented on social media were unsuccessful.
“The average parent doesn’t want to have this conversation in kindergarten, and it was forced upon them,” England said.
Robin Stout, executive director of Rocklin Academy Family of Schools, said a large number of the families in the school system have supported the teacher. The family of the student who brought the book to school declined to comment.
Parent Ankur Dhawan had a 5-year-old daughter in the kindergarten class. He doesn’t have a problem with the book.
“This is a topic that is very pertinent to our times,” he said. “If I wanted to have this discussion with my child I don’t know of a mechanism that would work out better then this. The timing isn’t what I chose, but it is a decent way to bring it up.”
It’s not unusual for children as young as kindergarten to transition to another gender, according to officials from Sacramento-area school districts.
Jazz Jennings, the subject and co-author of “I am Jazz,” has been in the media spotlight since 2004, when at age 4 she was diagnosed with gender identity disorder. Since then she has appeared on numerous television programs, starred in a reality series and is a spokeswoman for LGBT rights.
“Our understanding is that most of us have a solid sense of our gender identity by the time we are 3 or 4 years old,” said Nichole Wofford a social worker at the Connect Center at Sacramento City Unified School District, which offers support services to all students, including transgender kids.
Wofford said that the two books read by the Rocklin teacher are commonly known by people who are working with transgender youth and are about gender identity, not about sex or sexuality.
Gender socialization happens very young, agreed Swati Rao, a clinical psychiatrist at UC Davis Children’s Hospital and doctor at the Gender Health Center in downtown Sacramento. “Gender identity is your internal idea of what gender you are, whether you are male or female or neither,” she said. “It is a completely separate issue from who you find attractive.”
How schools discuss transgender issues with students is governed by state law, including the Fair Education Act, passed in 2011. The law requires that the contributions of minority groups, the disabled and the LGBT community be included in educational textbooks in public schools.
The School Success and Opportunity Act (AB1266), passed in 2013, allows transgender students to participate in sports and use facilities consistent with their gender identity. It also prevents schools from revealing the identity of students who are transgender and requires them to use the name and pronoun consistent with the student’s gender identity.
When a child transitions at a Sacramento City Unified, the Connect Center offers support and guidance to the child, family and staff, Wofford said. The district notes the child’s preferred name and gender in the school database.
San Juan Unified uses a handbook called “Schools in Transition” and has offered workshops for transgender students, staff and families through the Gender Health Center in Sacramento. There also are resources online at Gender Spectrum, said Kate Hazarian, San Juan Unified’s director of Family Engagement and Partnership Development.
“We don’t focus on teaching about transgender youth, we focus on tolerance, treating each other with respect and kindness,” Hazarian said.
It’s usually parents who are most anxious about the topic of transgender children, she said. “My experience is that kids are a lot more tolerant than adults.”
Some Rocklin Academy parents are pushing the school to exclude certain books, allow parents to opt children out of reading specific books or offer prior notice to parents about which books will be read in class.
Their concerns prompted the school to review its literary policy over the summer, Stout said. District officials decided that the books that were read to the children were within the policy and did not require prior parental approval, Stout announced that conclusion in the Aug. 15 letter to parents.
Parents can only opt their children out of sex education, which does not include discussion on gender, sexual orientation or family life, according to the California Education Code.
“The board and I feel any policy amendments would require a great deal of thoughtful conversation with all the stakeholders,” Stout wrote in her letter to parents. “There is, of course, the possibility of creating a slippery slope about what can and cannot be discussed in our classroom.”
The school’s policy is in accordance with other public K-12 schools in California, she wrote.
That response did not satisfy England and other critics.
“While the law may allow them to have those books in the school, there is nothing that mandates they do it,” England said. “These children belong to the parents and not to the Rocklin Academy. They shouldn’t have it forced upon them by the school. This is a controversial issue that has no place in the classroom.”
A board meeting last week was emotional on both sides. The teacher at the heart of the controversy offered tearful testimony, while upset parents talked about parental rights and confused children who are afraid they will change gender, according to a CBS 13 news report.
With controversy still raging, the book will also be on the agenda for the Sept. 18 board meeting, according to school officials.
Rao, the UC Davis psychiatrist, said fears that children will change their own gender identities because of peers who do so are unfounded.
“There is actually no evidence to show that being exposed to these issues early on makes children any more likely to become LGBT,” said Rao. “Hiding information about LGBT folks doesn’t make kids any less likely to figure out they are LGBT in the future.”
She said it is common for all children to do some cross gender play. Children who are persistent and continue to insist they are the other gender than assigned at birth are those who are most likely to be transgender, Rao said.