When Lily Freeman was in 5th grade in the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, she wondered how to socially transition as a transgender child. When her parents told her teacher about Lily’s struggle, the teacher suggested Alex Gino’s book lemon balm (previously called george), an award-winning novel about a 4th grade trans student, as a resource for Lily and her family.
The gesture and exposure provided by the book has been invaluable to the family, said Lily’s mother, Mindy Freeman. Two years later, Lily’s social studies teacher offered LGBTQ books on her classroom shelves, making it easier for Lily’s classmates to learn about her experience and that of her community, said Mindy Freeman.
“We were working with the school district to help them understand trans identities and the difference between orientation and gender identity, as Lily was bullied in elementary school, before her social transition,” said she declared. “So she wanted to help the younger generation of kids, so they don’t have to go through what she went through. The school wasn’t perfect, but before the pandemic, more people were listening.
However, this year, after parents complained about commonly banned books about LGBTQ characters or people of color, such as lawn boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, and The The bluest eye by Toni Morrison, and new school board members were elected, the school environment has become much worse for LGBTQ students and especially trans students, including Lily, who is now 16.
In recent months, Bucks County has passed two vaguely worded policies on library books and didactic material ban “sexual content”. The policies were adopted in response to complaints from parents about books like Gender Queer and The bluest eye.
It’s just part of what the American Civil Liberties Union describes as a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students in the Central Bucks School District, according to a lawsuit filed last week that alleges the district violated the Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The district issued guidelines to remove pride flags from classrooms, according to the lawsuit. Some school administrators have instructed their staff to only use student names and pronouns as they appear in school databases and to contact parents if students request to be identified differently and have been punished. employees who supported LGBTQ students and spoke out against the anti-LGBTQ environment the neighborhood is creating, according to the lawsuit.
The district disputes the allegations
The District of Central Bucks released a statement on its website saying its library policy was being misinterpreted. The district argues that the policy is not designed to remove books from libraries, should not be construed as a book ban, and that not all books with sexual content will be automatically removed.
“It is important to emphasize from the outset that the Board, alongside administration, faculty and staff, begins its work in all cases with the understanding that every student at Central Bucks Schools deserves to be seen. , heard, cared for, included, accepted, respected, loved, and most importantly, educated,” says Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh and Board Chair Dana Hunter.
“Our students also deserve access to the great diversity of ideas that are part of the human experience,” the statement continued. “It’s a huge responsibility — one we deeply embrace and share with parents in the district, and one that extends to our school libraries.”
Hunter also addressed the ACLU lawsuit at the October 11 board meeting, calling on the organization to release the redacted names of teachers, students and parents who shared their stories about Bucks County. in the lawsuit, saying that anonymity “makes it impossible for our administrators, school counselors and teachers to do the essential work of connecting with these anonymous individuals to intervene and address any potential bullying or problematic situations, to activate support and resources, and to implement corrective actions with the goal of bringing about positive change.”
But because of these policies, teachers censored themselves and removed books from their classroom libraries preemptively to avoid punitive action, Lily said. The ACLU lawsuit also describes several instances where teachers were told or decided on their own to remove materials from the classroom library after the policies were passed.
As these policies were unveiled at school board meetings, Lily spoke at press conferences and meetings against book bans and other anti-trans measures for months, but she no longer feels like her voice is heard by the district.
“Students have been talking at school board meetings for so long, being against this policy,” Lily said. “And yet they have enforced it and continue to implement scary policies.”
Lily started an Instagram page called Project Uncensored, where she claims these books bring positivity into the lives of LGBTQ students. Through the account, she shares videos and stories of other students who are also campaigning against censorship in school libraries.
“These books are mirrors, [LGBTQ students] can see each other and find comfort, but also for others, they can be windows into the lives and experiences of others,” Lily said. “And I really think education is so essential, because if you’re not educated about it, it leads to hate.”
She also wrote an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer, explaining that she feels less safe at school in light of these policies and laments the lack of student allies.
LGBTQ students from elsewhere take a stand
“She shouldn’t have to spend her time fending off these sectarian attacks on her right to see herself in a book in her school library,” said Michael Rady, senior education program manager at GLSEN, a group of national defence.
“When the existence of students is questioned in schools, many students will take it upon themselves,” he said, “to stand up for their own rights and share their own stories.”
LGBTQ students in particular have become more involved in activism as states and districts have adopted policies prohibiting them from using pronouns and toilets of their choice based on their gender identity, from having access to books about LGBTQ characters and participating in gender-appropriate school sports teams. identities, Rady said. In states that have passed laws or taken other statewide actions against LGBTQ students, such as what opponents have called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and role model policy virginia anti-transstudents staged walkoutsled protests and spoke at board meetings in opposition.
Student involvement and testimonials often have an impact on overturning book bans and reversing bans on gay-straight alliances in schools, Rady said. But the simplest solution would be to avoid “adopting these toxic policies that marginalize, exclude and isolate students, especially BIPOC and trans students,” he said.
Meanwhile, parent groups and associations such as the American Library Association; PEN America, a free speech advocacy group; and Red Wine and Blue, a group of suburban parents, are monitoring the scope of book bans and organize to fight against them. Their success has been variable, but Mindy Freeman said it was important to keep fighting.
“It’s up to the allies to take the burden off,” she said. “The fight is personal because if you can’t read about different people, if they take away that knowledge, that education, then that’s only going to increase the bullying.”
Mindy Freeman testified at a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearing Against the Book Ban in April, sharing her family’s story to show why books about LGBTQ people are essential to students like his daughter. She is also involved in anti-discrimination parent groups in Bucks County and hopes more Allied students will get involved, as will parents.
“We’re not getting enough kids who are allies to stand up,” she said. “Lily could use it, and other kids like her could use it.”