The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A book about a dress-loving boy was supposed to teach kids acceptance — until lawmakers complained

North Carolina's Senate has voted against repealing a law that requires transgender people to use the bathrooms of their assigned sex at birth. (Video: Reuters)

In “Jacob’s New Dress,” a children’s book published in 2014, the title character loves playing dress-up at school — fighting over who gets to be “the princess” with his friend Emily — but is teased by some of the boys in his class for wearing “girl clothes.”

Their teacher explains to the other students that Jacob wears what he is comfortable in.

“Just like you do,” Ms. Wilson tells the class. “Not very long ago little girls couldn’t wear pants. Can you imagine that?”

The story is meant to foster support and acceptance of gender-nonconforming children, according to co-authors Sarah and Ian Hoffman. And until this week, “Jacob’s New Dress” was set to be included in lesson plans for first-grade students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the largest public school districts in North Carolina.

But the book was abruptly pulled from the reading list after several teachers complained, according to Charles Jeter, the district’s government liaison. Those complaints reached a few Republican lawmakers in the state’s General Assembly who “weren’t happy about it when they found out about it Monday,” Jeter said.

“I got a call that it was brought up in the House Republican caucus Monday night, which is never a good thing,” he told The Washington Post by phone Wednesday.

Because of Jeter’s position — and because he is a former Republican state representative — he said those lawmakers asked him to relay their concerns to the school district. So he did, then spent all of Tuesday in Raleigh speaking with “mostly Republicans, some Democrats” about their issues with the book.

By Tuesday night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg district officials had “made the decision to not move forward with ‘Jacob’s New Dress,'” Jeter said.

Gender identity and children who struggle with it

“The purpose of our elementary schools is to teach writing, reading and arithmetic, not to encourage boys to wear dresses,” Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition said Tuesday, according to the Charlotte Observer. “These lessons found in the ‘Jacob’s New Dress’ and ‘My Princess Boy’ and other transgender curriculum are not appropriate for any child whose parents support traditional family values.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district is one of the largest in North Carolina, with 170 schools and about 147,000 students. A district representative declined to comment in detail Wednesday, instead emailing a statement from Superintendent Ann Blakeney Clark.

The book had originally been part of an annual “age-appropriate lesson for each grade level” to comply with Title IX and to recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, Clark wrote. (Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, at schools that receive federal funding for educational activities or programs.) Each lesson plan had been intended to teach children how to handle harassment and bullying.

“CMS is committed to safe school environments where all students are empowered with the tools they need to prevent, detect and report harassment and bullying,” Clark said in the statement. “The lesson will help students understand how to recognize harassment and bullying, what to do if it happens to them and how to help someone else who may be experiencing it. The initial first-grade book selection, which focuses on valuing uniqueness and difference, has been replaced due to some concerns about the book.”

A copy of the original lesson plans obtained by The Post showed that first-grade students in the district were to read (or watch on YouTube) “Jacob’s New Dress” and then discuss it to learn about sexual and gender harassment. Some recommended guided practice questions had included:

  • “Why do you think Christopher is upset that Jacob wants to wear a dress? What does he do to hurt Jacob’s feelings during the story? (tore up dress, says he has to be on the girls’ team)”
  • “How did the teacher help him? How could other students have helped Jacob?”
  • “What should Jacob do if this happens again? (teach students to say STOP, move away, tell a trusted adult)”

The lesson plans had also suggested that the students participate in an activity to share what they like and encourage a “welcoming classroom.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl, the color of your skin, the language you speak, or where you are from, everyone gets to choose what you like,” the original lesson plans stated. “Emphasize that students had many similarities and differences no matter how they look.”

Trump administration rolls back protections for transgender students

According to Jeter, “Jacob’s New Dress” will be replaced by another picture book called “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” about a blue crayon mistakenly labeled as a red one. The publisher’s blurb describes the crayon’s journey to “find the courage to be true to your inner self” as follows:

His teacher tries to help him be red (let’s draw strawberries!), his mother tries to help him be red by sending him out on a playdate with a yellow classmate (go draw a nice orange!), and the scissors try to help him be red by snipping his label so that he has room to breathe. But Red is miserable. He just can’t be red, no matter how hard he tries! Finally, a brand-new friend offers a brand-new perspective, and Red discovers what readers have known all along. He’s blue!

Jeter said that, while he was in Raleigh on Tuesday, two lawmakers reviewed an e-book version of “Red: A Crayon’s Story” and were not pleased to learn that it had been included in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s lesson plans previously.

“I’m not sure they’re real thrilled with that book, either,” Jeter said. “That book is now going to be getting more scrutiny in the General Assembly because of this issue.”

Jeter noted that, when he was a state representative, he was “a staunch supporter of LGBT rights” and took issue with some Democratic critics who thought he had orchestrated the removal of “Jacob’s New Dress” this week. He said he was simply doing his job by relaying information between lawmakers and district officials.

“I’m not here to judge or prejudge,” Jeter said, adding that about 60 percent of the district’s budget is approved by the General Assembly. “With everything going on in North Carolina right now, poking the bear is not a pathway that I think is beneficial to students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I don’t think we want our children to live in a bubble and I don’t think the General Assembly wants to micromanage curriculum.”

‘I am Jazz’: How a transgender teen became a nationally known activist

As a state representative, Jeter was one of the few Republicans to oppose HB2, a controversial bill that required transgender people use public restrooms that matches the “biological sex” on their birth certificate.

North Carolina legislators passed HB2 last year, and it was signed into law by then-Gov. Pat McCrory — prompting widespread protests and boycotts of the state. Both the NBA and the NCAA ditched plans to hold special games and tournaments in North Carolina, causing a potential loss of more than $100 million in tourism revenue, CBNC reported.

In December, North Carolina lawmakers convened a special legislative session to rescind the law but failed to do so.

“It’s just a weird time politically in North Carolina right now. People overreact on both sides,” Jeter said. “It’s unfortunate that this is where we are as a state, for a lot of reasons, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”

Read more:

‘Stop this nonsense’: ‘Percy Jackson’ author snubs invite from Texas lawmakers over bathroom bill

He’s the only Texas Democrat to support the state’s ‘bathroom bill.’ One vocal critic: His son.

‘We are angry’: Families of transgender children meet with Betsy DeVos

Trump seeks to slash Education Department but make big push for school choice