Wisconsin Library Offers Safe Space for LGBT Event

When a Wisconsin elementary school was threatened with a lawsuit last month over a proposed reading of a book about a transgender girl, plans for the program came to a screeching halt. But within days, parents turned to the local public library for support, and with the community’s help, the event was reestablished. The program was so successful, in fact, that library staff members had to move shelves to accommodate the hundreds of attendees.

Nearly 600 people piled into the Mount Horeb (Wis.) Public Library on Dec. 2 for a discussion on “I Am Jazz,” a children’s book about a transgender girl’s transition co-authored by Jessica Herthel and TLC star Jazz Jennings. Herthel flew from California to read the story to a diverse crowd, which included children who sat cross-legged around the podium. 

An art teacher from Madison, Wis., holds up a copy of "I Am Jazz" to the crowd as co-author Jessica Herthel reads aloud.
An art teacher from Madison, Wis., holds up a copy of "I Am Jazz" to the crowd as co-author Jessica Herthel reads aloud. Source: John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal

The reading was originally planned to be held at the Mount Horeb Primary Center, where staff members hoped to create a more supportive environment for a transitioning 6-year-old student, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. But the event was postponed when Liberty Counsel, a conservative Florida nonprofit, threatened to sue the district, claiming the book discussion would “violate parental constitutional rights to direct the upbringing of their children.”

With their plans at the school thwarted, two parents separately turned to the library in hopes of holding the reading there. Mount Horeb Public Library Director Jessica Williams didn’t hesitate.

 “We set up the library for them and let the community use our space. That’s what the library is here for — for the people,” said Williams. “I was really touched that both parents thought of the library right away when all this happened.”  

Amy Lyle, the lead organizer of the event, and Alex Bledsoe, a local author, each contacted Williams, and the director put them in contact with one another. Initially, the parents decided to hold a small book discussion in the library’s community room, which can fit 20 people. But as the Facebook event RSVPs climbed above 100, the library board and staff altered their plans and held the event in the common area, the largest space in the library.

“We have these movies on roller shelves, so we moved all those collections out and we set up all the chairs, which we counted — we had 80,” said Williams. “We did manage to get everybody in the building that wanted to come.”

Businesses and organizations also rallied to support the library. A university student went to businesses and asked if they could donate food to the event, said Lyle. Although Williams isn’t sure who contacted the organization, the Human Rights Campaign paid for Herthel’s plane ticket, donated 40 copies of “I Am Jazz” and sent an HRC staff member to the event to explain how schools can be more welcoming to LGBT students.

The library also worked with police officers to ensure the event remained peaceful.

“The library board and I were concerned with making sure we had security here and that it was going to be a safe event,” said Williams. “That was at the forefront of everybody’s mind.”

Williams reports that the library has received nothing but positive feedback from the village, which has a population of 7,000. She said she even received a call from an Arizona woman claiming the Mount Horeb community “renewed her faith in human nature.”

“I think it just made everyone in this community feel tighter,” said Williams. “I saw a lot of Facebook posts about how people were so proud to call Mount Horeb their home.”

This sentiment seemed to be reciprocated in a letter from the transgender student’s family. Williams said she's not sure if the student and her family were present at the event because she doesn't know who they are, and she explained that the community is protecting their privacy. Lyle read the family’s statement to the packed library.

“Many of you may not even know who we are, but have stepped up to do a truly amazing thing and show us that you are behind us 100 percent,” the letter stated.