Ankur Dhawan’s 6-year-old daughter walked into the living room one day in June and told her family she’d learned in school that you could be a girl in a boy’s body. Her classmate was one of those girls, she said.
She asked her dad, “How does this happen?”
Caught off guard, Dhawan invoked the Hindu god Ganesha.
“Ganesha put souls in bodies, sometimes he goofs up, and that’s all there is to it,” Dhawan told her. That seemed to be all the explanation she needed.
His daughter calls her classmate by her desired name and almost always uses the right pronoun. When she messes up, he gently corrects her.
Dhawan is happy, though, that outside resources exist to teach his daughter about gender identity.
She began to learn her way around the subject when her teacher at her Northern California charter school, Rocklin Academy Gateway, read from the book “I am Jazz,” co-written by transgender teenager Jazz Jennings. Earlier that week the teacher had told the class to refer to their classmate as a girl, by a new name.
In the book, Jazz says, “I have a girl brain but in a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!”
“I think it’s a great way of addressing a very pertinent issue,” Dhawan said. “I think the book does it in a way that’s at least meaningful from the 5- or 6-year-old perspective.”
When is the right time to have these conversations?
The transgender child brought “I am Jazz” into class for the teacher to read, said school spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford. Students often bring books in, she said. The teacher also read the class “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” which talks about identity and labels without bringing up gender.
Discussions about transgender identity are not a part of the school’s curriculum, and the teacher did not hold discussions about the books, Ashford said.
But experts say kindergarten is a good time to start talking to kids about gender identity.
As transgender and gender fluid people become increasingly visible in the media, children are exposed to the concepts earlier and have started feeling more comfortable publicly identifying at younger ages, said Becca Mui, the education manager at the LGBT education and advocacy group GLSEN.
A 2010 GLSEN survey found that 8% of elementary school students said they “do not conform to traditional gender norms.” Orange County parents recently sued a private school, alleging that the school prevented their 8-year-old from expressing her gender identity.
“Young people learn about these things whether we’re having conversations about them or not,” said Mui, who was an elementary school teacher for 10 years. “At kindergarten, they’re at a place where they understand developmentally the difference between boys and girls … and they also developmentally can think about identity versus expression.”
A transgender student shouldn’t be responsible for leading discussions or answering questions in class, so a proactive approach works best, Mui said. Age-appropriate books like the ones the Rocklin teacher read use simple words and break down concepts in a way children can understand.
Books about transgender children should be treated like any other book about diversity — as an accepted part of educating children, said Susan Landon, a therapist who works with transgender children and is the child and adolescent program director of the Los Angeles Gender Center.
“These are all things that children need to know about because this is what you’re going to see in your life and they’re all perfectly normal,” Landon said of such subjects as societal differences, race and gender.
Did the school need to tell parents about the book?
Rocklin is a small, conservative-leaning city north of Sacramento. At Rocklin Academy, not all parents agreed with Dhawan that having the teacher read the books was good for their children. Some complained, to the school and publicly, saying they should have a choice about if and when to talk to their children about gender identity.
“It's really about the parents being informed and involved and giving us the choice and rights of what's being introduced to our kids and at what age,” parent Chelsea McQuistan told CBS Sacramento.
Legally the school could not tell parents that a student was transitioning because of privacy laws, school leaders wrote in a post on the Rocklin website Wednesday. As for the books the teacher read, it said, the school wasn’t required to tell parents about them.
“We live in a diverse society, and our students come to us from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of experience, and with a variety of needs,” Rocklin Academy superintendent Robin Stout wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to families. “Our job as a school is to make sure all of our students are accepted, included, and safe so that they can learn.”
Asaf Orr, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ transgender youth project, agreed. “The law protects schools in making these ... decisions,” Orr said. “Do parents have influence? Sure. They can talk to administrators and the board.” But ultimately, schools don’t have to notify parents as long as the materials are age-appropriate, he said.
Some parents have called for the charter school to change its rules about books.
“[A]ny policy amendments would require a great deal of thoughtful conversation with all stakeholders,” Stout said in an Aug. 15 letter. “There is, of course, the possibility of creating a slippery slope about what can and cannot be discussed in our classrooms.”
The school has since told parents that the board is reviewing these policies and will hear families’ input at a September meeting.
Schools have an obligation under both state and federal law to “create a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students,” Orr said. “Carving out exceptions for books that are specific to transgender kids … or a specific group of people is highly problematic.”
These books can teach children that “difference is an important part of humanity and that it’s important to respect others’ differences and treat them as equals,” he said.
A 2015 GLSEN survey of teenagers found that LGBT students in schools that taught LGBT-inclusive curriculum were less likely to miss school and more likely to feel accepted by their classmates.
Dhawan understands where the angry parents are coming from. He too would have preferred to have time to research instead of having to answer his daughter’s question on the spot.
But he also knows that transgender children face many challenges, and he wants his child to get the guidance she needs to learn to treat them with kindness.