The Palm Beach County School Superintendent announced he would pull two children’s LGBT books off the shelves in order to review them in light of the new “Don’t Say Gay” bill Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law.
Local LGBT leaders are questioning his decision to bow to right-wing activists.
The two books in question, “Call Me Max” and “I Am Jazz,” were pulled from classrooms and library shelves just days after DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education” (dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) into law, according to the Palm Beach Post.
The books feature trans characters who describe their differences and discuss things such as names, pronouns and bathroom choices.
Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke ordered the books (that were already state-approved) to be pulled and reviewed due to the law, which doesn’t go into effect until July.
Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, is also perplexed about why Burke decided to act so quickly.
“I do not understand why [he] has started removing books from the schools,” Hoch said. “The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law has not yet taken effect and is being challenged in federal court. He appears to be kowtowing to the narrow-minded parents intent on bullying him into submission.”
Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, is calling for schools to include diverse voices in books and classroom materials.
“LGBTQ people are a normal, healthy part of society and we deserve to be seen and celebrated alongside everyone else. The censorship being promoted by Governor DeSantis is going to weaken our education system and leave vulnerable LGBTQ kids feeling more stigmatized and isolated,” Wolf told SFGN. “School districts must adopt and adhere to standard processes for evaluating books and materials that include the diverse voices of the school community, not simply bend to the bullying of that intent on erasing LGBTQ people from the classroom.”
Not So Lovely
Erin Lovely of Palm Beach Gardens, though, is one of the parents upset over the children’s book.
She told the Palm Beach Post she was “livid” when she learned that “Call Me Max” was read to her second-grade son at Marsh Pointe Elementary without a “heads up to parents.”
"It's turned me off completely from the public school system, to be honest," Lovely told The Post.
She added that references to mistakes in gendering that happen to trans people “isn’t appropriate fodder for a 7-year-old.”
Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT rights group, is one of the organizations a part of the lawsuit challenging the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
It’s decisions like Burke’s that had LGBT activists and leaders worried. Laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill could hurt trans people by limiting their rights, especially in schools.
“This is the dangerous chilling effect that LGBTQ people have warned would come as a result of anti-LGBTQ policies. It’s always been our concern that schools, fearful of frivolous lawsuits, would begin pulling back on inclusivity,” Wolf added. “Pulling books from shelves. Muzzling teachers. Peeling safe space stickers from windows. This is the natural consequence of passing policies that target LGBTQ people and embolden those who are hoping to censor us out of society.”
Wolf also made the argument whether the same standards applied to a trans character would also be applied to a cisgender character since the law bans all classroom discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3.
All county teachers had access to “Call Me Max,” and it was described as “an excellent, and potentially groundbreaking, publication choice as an early reader title with a trans protagonist. A welcome title for classrooms, libraries, and … other support organizations' collections" by the School Library Journal, The Post reported.
"In recent months, a national campaign demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color has surfaced," the American Library Association reported.
More than 330 challenges were counted at the beginning of this school year, twice as many compared with the year prior, according to the ALA.
"Call Me Max" by Kyle Lukoff.
“I Am Jazz” is one of the most challenged books. It’s a children’s illustrated book written by Jazz Jennings, a Broward resident, who later went on to star in a reality TV series about her life as a trans youth.
Julie Seaver, the executive director of Compass, said books like these need to be part of the classroom.
“This was expected. School is where a diverse group of kids come together for the first time and learn about all different types of people and families in the world,” she said. “So we are back to the days of book banning and silencing young voices with growing questions about their bodies and the world around them? Transgender children exist and this censorship will not erase them from humanity, nor will it help children build empathy and understanding for other people in their community.”
The actions by Burke caught Seaver off guard considering just last month he attended a town hall at Compass where the superintendent met with LGBT students to listen to their concerns and find ways to be more inclusive.
“Compass’ Authentically Youth family members and the LGBTQ+ students who attended [the town hall] hosted at Compass last month will be disappointed for sure,” Seaver said. “If I were those kids and parents, I would be wondering if he truly heard them?”
“Just sitting here in a circle close to our students, hearing them tell their stories, was incredibly impactful to me," WPTV reported Burke saying at the event.
According to WPTV the students, while sitting in a circle, one by one, spoke of harassment, sexual assault and even bullying from teachers.
"I really don't like hearing that, and it's tough," Burke told the TV station. "It was gut-wrenching. It was heartbreaking. I can't understand how anybody would feel like that's acceptable behavior."
Seaver added to SFGN: “Those kids told horrific stories with hands wrenched and tears streaming down their face. It was horrific. School Board Member Erica Whitfield and I sat there trying not to cry.”
The Trevor Project, a mental health organization for LGBT youth, reported that youths who learned about LGBT issues in classes had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year.
"Negative treatment by others, such as bullying, is a strong and consistent risk factor for youth suicide, and LGBTQ youth experience bullying at significantly greater rates than their straight and cisgender peers," reports The Trevor Project.
Burke said he is intent on complying with the law and promises to “make schools safe and welcoming spaces for all students,” according to The Post.
"We are a large school district with 179 schools and roughly 12,000 classrooms," he said, unaware of the two books until now.
"I expected to find books illustrative of families in our community with children who have same-sex parents,” he said. “However, I was not aware there was a book in our primary grades with a storyline dedicated to a young child's journey through a gender-identity change."
He hasn’t determined what the review process for the trans books will look like. However, according to Wolf, it should include a diverse community of people.
"It can't be the decision of a single parent who's frustrated that results in a book being pulled from the shelf," Wolf told the Post. "Trans parents have the right to have their voices heard in terms of classroom materials as well. That's a deep concern … how school districts are bullied by a handful of parents into censoring what books are on the shelves."
A Matter of Interpretation
According to one lawyer, Burke is looking at this law all wrong.
Donna Ballman is an employment attorney, who has recently opined on the ambiguities of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to SFGN.
In her legal opinion gender must be removed entirely from the classroom. So she can’t understand why Burke has decided to interpret the law against the LGB and trans community and target them.
“The statute says, ‘Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on ... gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3...’ The bill does not define ‘gender identity.’ Thus, we turn to the dictionary. Websters defines ’gender identity’ as ‘a person's internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.’"
Hoch concurred with Ballman’s interpretation.
“I agree,” he said. “Challenges should be made on materials mentioning pronouns, people with spouses, parents, and children, etc.”
Ballman further added: “By the way, it says ‘classroom instruction’ not ‘libraries.’ So this move with libraries seems pretty ham-handed and an overreaction.”
“According to the plain language of the statute, all books referring to any person’s internal sense of being male or female must be removed along with all books referring to being neither or both. That’s a whole lot of books,” Ballman said. “I assume that parents of trans kids will demand that the school board comply with the law as written. Should make for an interesting school year.”