Note: This post was written by Charlotte McConnell, steering committee member of Equality Loudoun, an LGBTQ-affirming organization based in Loudoun County, Virginia. The Campaign for Southern Equality has been proud to support Equality Loudoun this year and is inspired by their #BigGayBookDrive. In a year where LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books are making headway – and also prompting some opposition, as Charlotte describes below or like this month’s news about Upshur County Public Library in West Virginia – it’s more important than ever to lift up these books and celebrate inclusivity. Thanks to Charlotte for sharing this blog post chronicling Equality Loudoun’s experiences.
At the start of this school year, Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) unveiled their Diverse Classroom Library initiative, a new collection of books selected by LCPS staff using the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Diversity Book List and Mackin’s Identity Inclusive Texts Rubric. This initiative was designed to ensure every student in LCPS has access to books that reflect their lived experiences. The books are not mandatory or a part of core curriculum, although they could be used in lessons if there were a direct tie to the subject matter.
Books were selected to reflect the diversity of Loudoun County in Northern Virginia – including diversity in race, culture, language, religion, disability, and LGBTQ content. One in 4 people in the county are foreign-born, and 43% of households have children under 18 years old. The community’s diversity prompted LCPS to consider who was being left out of their libraries. Diverse students need to be able to access books that reflect their lived experiences, and it’s important for students to have access to books that relate the experiences of people different from themselves, a learning philosophy often referred to as “mirrors and windows.”
A year ago, I was an educator for a day in an elementary school librarian. I asked the library if they had books with LGBTQ characters. The librarian was able to recall one book that briefly mentioned a character that has same sex parents. I was disappointed in the lack of representation, but at the time LCPS did not have any policies protecting LGBTQ people. Parents, students, and community members like me had been working for years asking LCPS to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination policy.
This past February, these protections were added to their 1040 policy. I remember wondering how we can make a policy on paper feel real for students across LCPS, and that was when Equality Loudoun decided to launch our #BigGayBookDrive. We reached out to every librarian across more than 90 schools asking if they wanted free, age-appropriate, LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming books. We had 33 schools ask for more than 750 books. So far in 2019, we have delivered 600 requested books.
We immediately heard from librarians who said their students were seeing themselves reflected in literature for the first time. I imagine these books were able to help students find the language to express issues they have been struggling with. I hope students will read these books to help understand the struggles of their LGBTQ peers.
When I first became aware of the diverse classroom library initiative, I was pleasantly surprised. In the spring of 2019, LCPS had initiated an equity review that found LCPS to have a low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy. The diverse classroom library was a step to address this inequity in our schools.
But this fall we saw a group of parents vocally oppose the diverse classroom library initiative, which caught many people off guard. From the start of the public comment period on the initiative, which began September 24 at a school board meeting, the objections focused on LGBTQ content and “sexually explicit” content. At the elementary school level, less than 1% of the books for the diverse classroom library were selected for LGBTQ content. At the middle school level, that percentage increased to 4%, and at the high school level, it was 5%. The middle school books have not yet been ordered.
I hope the parents objecting to these books – books like Heather Has Two Mommies or Prince and Knight – realize that they are sending a message to young people that they are objecting to anything outside of heterosexual, non-LGBTQ relationships.They are also ignoring the reality that there are students who attend LCPS who have LGBTQ parents and who do not see themselves included in our schools. There are students and staff at LCPS who identify as LGBTQ+.
LGBTQ students face high rates of bullying and some are afraid to live their authentic lives. If you want to see a reduction in youth suicide, homelessness, teen pregnancies, and bullying, we must cultivate an LGBTQ+ inclusive and affirming environment in our schools.
There is a Loudoun based group that has been fanning the flames of this issue in the hope of influencing our school board elections. They made the diverse books into a campaign issue while also supporting candidates who vowed to remove protections for LGBTQ people from the 1040 policy. They also wanted to prohibit teachers from discussing gender identity with their students. Robo calls were made across our county claiming that LGBTQ-supportive candidates for school board support pornography in our schools.
On Nov. 5, voters rejected this false narrative by electing LGBTQ-supportive leaders to the Loudoun County School Board. But that has not stopped the conversation around diverse books in our schools.
Some opponents have argued that these books are available at the Loudoun County library, and that should be sufficient. It’s true that our public library system is strong – it’s one of the reasons I love living in Loudoun. But I recently participated in their Strategic Plan Community Retreat and learned that our library has difficulty serving households with an annual income below $80k/year. The library also falls short in serving people who are of middle and high school age. Other barriers to accessing our public library include a lack of transportation and Internet access.
Others say our schools need to return to the 3 Rs and stay out of social issues or, they say, remove politics from our schools. But being LGBTQ is not about politics or social issues – it is an immutable characteristic.
Making books with LGBTQ representation available in schools is one strategy for increasing participation and passion for reading. After all, teaching students to read is a foundation of our public schools and developing a love of reading is a key factor in creating successful students. If students cannot relate to reading materials available to them in their schools, it’s much harder to motivate them to read.
I think every school district across America needs to evaluate what reading materials are available in their schools and ensure those materials reflect the demographics of their school. Here are some tips on how to do this work:
If you want to push for diverse books in your school, make friends with a school librarian.
Does your county, state, or school district include protections for LGBTQ people? If not, one important first step is to advocate for these protections. If protections are in place, find out the school’s policy for selecting materials.
You also need to learn the demographics of your community. Ask if materials available in your schools reflect your diverse community. It helps to know what is and is not currently available in your school’s library.
Be prepared for backlash. When the backlash occurs, reach out to your local ACLU chapter and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Live in a Southern community and want support? Reach out to the Campaign for Southern Equality or apply for a Southern Equality Fund grant here.
Margaret J Wheatley said, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Schools are perfectly situated to teach students empathy and compassion. They need to be given windows into the lives of people from different walks of life. We need to take every opportunity to instill empathy and compassion in people.