When Jaim Foster began teaching nearly two decades ago in Nebraska, he said he was discouraged from being an openly gay educator. He had championed LGBT causes at his liberal arts college but suddenly found himself switching pronouns when telling students about his boyfriends.
“I was told I had to stop being that advocate, and I had to go back into the closet because it wasn’t really safe,” the teacher recalled. “You could be fired.”
On Thursday, Foster reflected on how far the country has progressed, he said, as dozens of kindergarten students sat cross-legged in his classroom at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, listening as an advocate for transgender rights paged through a children’s picture book about a transgender girl.
“I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way,” the advocate, Sarah McBride, read to the students from the storybook “I Am Jazz.”
McBride, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, who drew national attention when she came out as transgender the day after her term as American University’s student body president ended, wanted to relay a message of tolerance on a national day of reading led by the country’s largest teachers union.
“For young people, being kind and being respectful is quite simple,” she said. “LGBTQ young people are their classmates, their friends. They may be LGBTQ themselves. And so, this just makes sense. No one’s ever too young to learn to be nice.”
Students throughout the country were expected to participate in the National Education Association’s annual Read Across America Day. It was the first time the union partnered with the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for LGBT civil rights.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the union, said the support was especially urgent because the Trump administration has reversed guidance intended to protect transgender students.
“We have seen a complete, literal rollback of the protections for students, especially transgender students,” said García, who also read to students. “The Trump administration has been openly hostile, whether or not you’re a transgender soldier or a transgender little boy or little girl. It is more important than ever before that we speak out.”
Shortly after President Trump took office, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, who was attorney general at the time, rescinded Obama-era guidance that directed schools to allow students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Some parents and students fear privacy and safety are endangered by accommodating transgender students in school restrooms.
DeVos said states and individual schools should decide how to address transgender students’ needs — a position that runs counter to the Obama administration’s stance that barring students from bathrooms that align with their gender identity violates federal law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex.
The reversal changed the course of a landmark lawsuit filed by transgender teen Gavin Grimm, who was a sophomore when he sued his Virginia high school for prohibiting him from using the boys’ restroom. The case was scheduled to go in front of the Supreme Court, but the justices, citing the withdrawal of federal support for Grimm, now 19, returned the matter to a lower court.
Schools vary widely on how they educate children on LGBT issues. School systems in Seattle and San Francisco, for example, have built a robust curriculum around sexual orientation and gender identity. But in some conservative states, teachers are prohibited by law from speaking positively about relationships that are not heterosexual.
Arlington does not have a curriculum that specifies how students should be taught about sexual orientation or gender identity, Foster said. But he shares experiences about his spouse with the children and stocks his classroom library with picture books such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “My Princess Boy.”
“We talk about it all the time, in one way or another, of accepting families and differences,” he said.
After her reading, McBride told the children, “I’m like Jazz. When I was born, the doctors and my parents, they all thought that I was a boy.”
“Why?” asked a girl in a blue sweater and ponytail.
“Because society, people around them told them that was the case,” McBride said. “It took me getting a little bit older to be able to say that in my heart and in my mind, I knew I was really a girl.”
The kids began discussing hair.
“Can some girls have short hair?” McBride asked. “And can some boys have long hair?”
Yes, the youngsters seemed to agree, answering in unison.
“Anyone can be anything,” one girl chimed in.