Friends, parents champion LGBTQ inclusion through elementary book donations
Much like the characters in the LGBTQ children’s books they champion, friends Keiko Feldman and Morgan Walsh realized the status quo was not good enough.
For more than a year, the duo, both mothers of three, have transformed a one-time Facebook page linking like-minded parents into a 501 C-3 nonprofit dedicated to inclusion called Gender Nation.
The pair spend much of their free time, and in many cases money, purchasing and donating LGBTQ-friendly children’s books for elementary school libraries throughout Southern California.
Walsh and Feldman have donated literature to 67 schools and eight districts that reach about 40,000 students. They’ve also set equally daunting goals of expanding into Los Angeles Unified and the Central Valley within the next year.
Some book recipients include the Burbank, Culver City, Glendale, La Cañada and Manhattan Beach unified school districts.
“It was born out of an organic need,” said Walsh, a writer, actor and Toluca Lake resident. “Schools need these books and in the last 10 years a ton of these books have been written.”
While Gender Nation was kick-started by an anonymous angel donor and is supported by a board of trustees that includes Walsh’s husband, Matt Walsh, an actor on the television comedy series “Veep,” the charity relies heavily on aid.
“We get whoever we can get to help,” said Feldman, a former NBC News producer, from her Pasadena-based business Juris Productions, a provider of video services and public relations. Walsh was also in the interview.
“Sometimes it’s pulling a friend or co-worker to help out. Sometimes it’s a board member coming out and lending a hand,” Feldman said. “We encourage and ask for assistance. Otherwise, it will just be Morgan and I.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, 40 to 50 children’s books were spread across several Juris offices.
Some were destined for elementary school libraries, others to be reviewed by prospective principals, librarians and administrators.
Feldman gravitated to “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” authored by Michael Hall and intended for children in kindergarten through third grade.
“It’s my favorite,” Feldman said of a story about a blue crayon that suffers an identity crisis because of its red-color wrapping and labeling.
Walsh picked out two books, “I am Jazz” and “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.”
The former focuses on the experience of growing up transgender through the eyes of activist Jazz Jennings, while the latter provides a historical and age-appropriate background about the birth of the rainbow flag through the efforts of icon Harvey Milk.
“Not every book on the list is intended for kindergartners or for sixth-graders, but that’s part of the beauty of putting them in the library among other books,” Walsh said. “Librarians and teachers will direct the students that are appropriate for those books.”
The drive for inclusion is deeply personal for Walsh and Feldman.
Walsh’s epiphany took place in 2014 when her eldest son, then in first grade, confided in her.
“He stopped me in the hallway before bed and said ‘I don’t know any other boys like me,’” Walsh said. “And I said, ‘Do you mean boys that like dolls and dresses and don’t necessarily like sports?’”
Within weeks, Walsh created a Facebook page called Gender Creative Kids Los Angeles with a goal of connecting families and setting up play dates.
“I don’t know what our kid’s label is,” Walsh said through deep breaths. “He’s just himself, and I and my husband wanted to help him have his experience reflected back to him so he didn’t feel alone.”
Shortly after Walsh began her Facebook page, Feldman, a La Crescenta resident, underwent her moment of uncertainty.
Her son, star Crescenta Valley High School distance runner Zach Johnson, came out to friends and the greater La Crescenta community in an Instagram post on New Year’s Day, 2015.
“He was having such a hard time keeping that secret,” Feldman said. “He came out to the family earlier, but I was still a little worried about the public post. Thankfully, nothing happened, but you never know.”
It was that story and similar others Walsh collected as her Facebook page morphed into a separate website that offered inspiration, support and catharsis.
While Walsh received positive feedback, she worried young children lacked access to those experiences.
That concern converted into action as the first set of LGBTQ books was purchased, thanks to recommendations from places such as the Los Angeles Gender Center, destined for an elementary school library.
“When I thought about putting these books into public school libraries, Keiko was my first call,” Walsh said.
“I was blown away because it was such a profoundly simple answer to expanding the reach,” Feldman responded.
“Honestly, it really did have to be a ‘we,’” Walsh added, while pointing at Feldman. “I’m so glad you said ‘yes.’”
In June 2018, the pair donated their first set of LGBTQ books to Children’s Community School in Van Nuys, where Walsh’s children attend, followed by a delivery to Toluca Lake Elementary.
Initially, the pair purchased all of the books. Slowly, however, donations and fundraisers helped offset costs, which included shipping, purchasing and transportation.
One of the more recent deliveries was to Burbank Unified School District’s 11 elementary libraries this past August.
Book titles included, “Riding Freedom,” “It’s Okay to Be Different” and “Julian is a Mermaid.”
Some districts included several elementary schools in the book distribution, and, some included only a handful, which was the case for La Cañada Unified and its three libraries in January.
“What I was looking for was the [developmental] appropriateness of books for the ages,” said Anais Wen, La Cañada Unified’s associate superintendent of education services. “That’s what our principals were also looking for. We screened the books and felt these books would be a nice addition.”
Gender Nation officially announced its mission on National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, 2018, on Instagram.
The biggest donation was made last October when Feldman and Walsh gifted 17 books for each of Glendale Unified’s 23 elementary schools in Glendale and La Crescenta.
Mary Mason, Glendale Unified’s executive director of elementary education, greeted the pair at the district’s headquarters.
“At the elementary-school level, it’s all about having an inclusive school,” said Mason, who vetted each publication. “The books are really titles that are age appropriate for young children. For us, and for Keiko and Morgan, it has to do with belonging.”
Feldman conducted a follow-up visit to Mountain View Elementary in La Crescenta in September.
“As much as I love doing this, I’m hoping we go out of business soon. I hope in a short time these books won’t be such a big deal because every library will have them.”
Gender Nation Co-Founder Morgan Walsh
Inside the library, she was stunned to see a worn copy of a paperback on Gender Nation’s catalog list, “George,” sitting next to an unblemished copy.
Feldman assumed the book had been placed in the library years earlier, while the newer version was delivered by her group.
It turns out the situation was in reverse. The browned, slightly beaten-up novel was donated by Gender Nation in October 2018 and the newer book had been purchased by the library because of the high demand.
“I wanted to cry,” Feldman said. “To see so many kids read that book gave us validation.”
Feldman and Walsh’s book journey has not been without detours and hurdles.
One district declined the Harvey Milk story because of the graphic nature of his death.
Walsh pushed back, however, convincing a reluctant administrator to accept the book because her children — ages 7, 10 and 12 — all learned about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln at young ages.
“While it’s important to have fiction, it’s also as important to have LGBTQ+ nonfiction stories that, yes, include heroes and martyrs,” Walsh said.
Gender Nation has also run into the unavoidable educational bureaucracy.
Pasadena and San Marino Unified school districts, both located less than 5 miles away from Juris Productions, have not responded to multiple emails or calls from the pair.
The greatest challenge, though, has been financing.
Walsh and Feldman could not donate to Toluca Lake Elementary until every piece of literature was cleared by Los Angeles Unified.
The long process paid dividends when the books were cataloged and approved, giving the pair access to donate to every library attached to Los Angeles Unified’s 441 elementary schools.
Feldman and Walsh have designated a list of 96 potential sites and estimate that donating 15 books to each library will require anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000.
“The will is there,” Feldman said, “but we need financial help.”
Gender Nation has hosted a few fundraisers, including a Celebrity Story Hour with Matt Walsh and actress/comedian Suzi Barrett on July 27 at the Secret Headquarters bookstore on Sunset Boulevard.
Matt Walsh and celebrities Tony Hale and Clea DuVall also gathered for a “Storytellers” event at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre on Sunset on Sept. 27.
“Keiko made the dessert,” Walsh said of the most recent event. “She cut up chocolates on a cutting board.”
Feldman added, “We’re a little grassroots at this point.”
“That just means every dollar goes to books,” Walsh said.
While Feldman and Walsh hope to expand their program, their ultimate goal is to eventually disband.
“As much as I love doing this, I’m hoping we go out of business soon,” Walsh said. “I hope in a short time these books won’t be such a big deal because every library will have them.”
Feldman added, “We hope these LGBTQ+ books will one day just be books.”