Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Lily Freeman’s struggles in 5th grade. She was revealing her gender identity to her family that year, not making a social transition.
When Lily Freeman was in 5th grade in the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, she was revealing her gender identity to her family. When her parents told her teacher about Lily’s struggle, the teacher suggested Alex Gino’s book Melissa (previously called George), an award-winning novel about a trans 4th grader, as a resource for Lily and her family.
The gesture and the visibility the book provided was valuable to the family, said Lily’s mom, Mindy Freeman. Two years later, Lily’s social studies teacher offered books about LGBTQ people on his classroom shelves, making it easier for Lily’s classmates to learn about her experience and that of her community, Mindy Freeman said.
“We were working with the school district to help them understand trans identities, and the difference between orientation and gender identity, because Lily was bullied in elementary school, before she had socially transitioned,” she said. “So she wanted to help the younger generation of kids, so that they didn’t have to go through what she went through. The school wasn’t perfect, but before the pandemic, more people were listening.”
However, this year, after parents complained against commonly banned books about LGBTQ characters or people of color, such as Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and new school board members were elected, the school environment became much worse for LGBTQ and specifically trans students, including Lily, who is now 16.
In the last few months, Bucks County passed two vaguely worded policies about library books and instructional materials banning “sexual content.” The policies were passed in response to parents complaints’ about books like Gender Queer and The Bluest Eye.
That’s just one part of what the American Civil Liberties Union describes as a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students in the Central Bucks school district according to a lawsuit filed last week that alleges the district has violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The district has issued directives to remove Pride flags from classrooms, according to the lawsuit. Some school administrators have directed their staff to only use students’ names and pronouns as they appear in the school databases and to reach out to parents if students ask to be identified differently and have punished employees who have supported LGBTQ students and spoken out against the anti-LGBTQ environment the district is creating, according to the lawsuit.
District disputes allegations
The Central Bucks district issued a statement on its website saying its library policy was mischaracterized. The district argues that the policy is not designed to remove books from libraries, should not be construed as a book ban, and that all books containing sexual content will not automatically be removed.
“It’s important to emphasize at the outset that the board, alongside administration, faculty, and staff, begins its work in all cases with the premise that every single student in Central Bucks Schools deserves to be seen, heard, cared for, included, accepted, respected, loved and, most especially, educated,” the statement by Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh and Board of Directors President Dana Hunter says.
“Our students also deserve access to the great diversity of ideas that are part of the human experience,” the statement goes on. “That is a tremendous responsibility—one that we deeply embrace and share with the parents of the district, and one that extends to our school libraries.”
Hunter also addressed the ACLU lawsuit at the Oct. 11 board meeting, calling on the organization to release the redacted names of the teachers, students, and parents who shared their stories about Bucks County in the lawsuit, saying the anonymity “makes it impossible for our administrators, school counselors, and teachers to do the critical work of connecting with these unnamed individuals to intervene and address any possible bullying or problematic situations, to activate support and resources, and to implement corrective actions with the goal of bringing about positive change.”
But because of these policies, teachers have been self-censoring and removing books from their classroom libraries preemptively to avoid punitive action, Lily said. The ACLU lawsuit also describes several instances of teachers being told to or deciding on their own to remove classroom library materials after the policies were passed.
As these policies have been unveiled at school board meetings, Lily has been speaking out at press conferences and meetings against book bans and other anti-trans measures for months, but she doesn’t feel like her voice is being heard by the district anymore.
“Students have been speaking at school board meetings for so long now, being against this policy” Lily said. “And still they have put it into effect and are continuing to put scary policies into effect.”
Lily has started an Instagram page called Project Uncensored, where she argues that these books bring positivity to LGBTQ students’ lives. Through the account, she shares videos and stories from other students who are also advocating against censorship in school libraries.
“These books are mirrors, [LGBTQ students] can see themselves and they can find comfort, but also for other people, they can be windows into and other people’s lives and experiences,” Lily said. “And I really think that education is so key, because if you’re not educated about this stuff, then that leads to hate.”
She also wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, explaining she feels less safe at school in light of these policies and bemoans the lack of student allyship.
LGBTQ students elsewhere take a stand
“She shouldn’t have to be focusing her time fending off these bigoted attacks on her right to see herself in a book in her school library,” said Michael Rady, senior education programs manager of GLSEN, a national advocacy group.
“When students’ existence is challenged in schools, many students will take it upon themselves,” he said, “to defend their own rights and to share their own stories.”
LGBTQ students in particular have become more involved in activism as states and districts have passed policies prohibiting them from using their chosen pronouns and restrooms aligned with their gender identity, having access to books about LGBTQ characters, and participating on school sports teams matched to their gender identities, Rady said. In states that have passed laws or taken other statewide action against LGBTQ students, such as what opponents have termed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and Virginia’s anti-trans model policy, students have staged walkouts, led protests, and spoken at board meetings in opposition.
Student involvement and testimony often do have an impact on reversing book bans and walking back bans on Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, Rady said. But the simpler solution would be to avoid “taking up these toxic policies that marginalize, exclude and isolate students, especially BIPOC and trans students,” he said.
Meanwhile, parent groups and associations such as the American Library Association; PEN America, a free speech advocacy group; and Red Wine and Blue, a group of suburban parents, are tracking the scope of book bans and organizing to fight against them. Their success is variable, but Mindy Freeman said it’s important to keep fighting.
“It’s up to the allies to take the burden off,” she said. “The fight is personal because if you can’t read about different people, if they’re taking away that knowledge, this education, then it’s just going to increase the bullying.”
Mindy Freeman testified at a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing against book banning in April, telling her family’s story to show why books about LGBTQ people are essential for students like her daughter. She’s also involved in parent groups fighting against discrimination in Bucks County, and hopes more student allies get involved just as parents have.
“We’re not getting enough kids that are allies to stand up,” she said. “Lily could use that, and other kids like her could use that.”