ATLANTA — Three years ago, on his first day of eighth grade, James Liming wrote his new name on a school form.
During his first two years at DeSana Middle School in Forsyth County, everyone had known him by the name that his parents had given him at birth. A girl’s name. Now she was coming out as a he.
James was so nervous about the transition that he wouldn’t tell his parents for another month. He didn’t even tell the school librarian he had bonded with during the prior two years, the woman he’d visited daily to talk about dance recitals and the band Twenty One Pilots.
The librarian quickly learned from her fellow teachers, though. To James’s great relief, she embraced his new identity. Instead of rejecting him, she offered to let him use the staff bathroom. She also loaned him a book, “Gracefully Grayson,” one of the few titles she’d acquired about transgender children.
“Just reading it and knowing that there was someone who recommended that kind of thing, and knowing that there were those kinds of books in the library, was really reassuring,” said James, now 16 and a junior in high school.
Younger students may not find the same support if lawmakers make it easier to ban books and materials from school libraries.
A national movement targeting materials considered obscene is gaining traction in Georgia. It has won powerful support in the Georgia General Assembly that convenes this month. House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November that “children should be shielded from age inappropriate materials” and that she is writing legislation to accomplish that in schools.
Jones said she wants a uniform statewide process for filtering online materials accessible through schools. And she said she wants to give parents more influence over selections. She isn’t specifically identifying transgender issues, but others are.
When former State Schools Superintendent John Barge announced in November that he was campaigning for his old job, he said schools are not the place for “talking to children about, you know, they can be whatever gender they want to be.”
And Noelle Kahaian, director of the anti-obscenity group Protect Student Health Georgia, testified at the Georgia General Assembly last spring for legislation that would standardize the process for banning materials. She also wants an exemption for school librarians removed from a state law that allows prosecution of people who provide “harmful” materials to minors. (The law focuses on visual representations involving sex.)
Kahaian said materials involving transgender issues do not belong in public schools. She thinks they are fueling a “social contagion” of children questioning their gender. “Any ideology, especially surrounding sexuality, should be the parents’ domain,” she said.
Twenty percent of transgender and nonbinary youths who responded to a survey for The Trevor Project said they had attempted suicide during the prior 12 months, the support group reported this year. The rate was lower for those in an “affirming” school.
James eventually told his parents about his new identity, but his mom didn’t learn his new name until a teacher sent a postcard home saying “James” was doing a great job and a joy to have in class.
Mary Liming said she and her husband initially struggled with the news that their daughter was now their son, though they tried to be supportive. “It was very comforting for me to know that there were adults in his life who could just kind of go with it,” she said.
James said people are gay or transgender regardless of what they read. He has spoken at recent Forsyth school board meetings in support of the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion program, serving as a counterpoint to its critics.
Banning books on those topics from school libraries will encourage bigotry and bullying, he said, “or it will create children who don’t make it past their youth because they don’t feel like there’s anyone out there who will support them.”
The DeSana librarian at the time, Tess MacMillan, said every student should be able find a story in their school library that resonates with them. So she acquired a handful of titles with transgender characters.
No one complained, MacMillan said. Indeed, after James left DeSana, she started a gay-straight club that drew nearly two dozen kids.
“James really changed things at DeSana,” she said. “He made it OK to talk about it.”
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