Montgomery County Public Schools has added six LGBTQ-inclusive books to its supplemental curriculum for pre-K through fifth grade, with one new book for each grade level.
Each book has undergone robust evaluation as required by school guidelines, according to MCPS communications director Jessica Baxter. A textbook committee made up of five MCPS staff members evaluates each new book added to the curriculum.
Baxter said it was important to the evaluation committee that these books represent “joyful stories of folks who happen to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.” She said the books “celebrate and positively portray LGBTQ+ identities through an asset-based lens,” which is an approach that frames student diversity as an educational asset.
The committee must complete a comprehensive evaluation form for each new book. A content supervisor then reviews and approves the forms individually before the books are added to the curriculum and made available to teachers.
“These books […] have undergone a rigorous evaluation process,” Baxter said. “All the content within them is age and developmentally appropriate.”
The books include Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen, My Rainbow by DeShanna and Trinity Neal, and Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope by Jodie Patterson.
Baxter said MCPS does not require teachers to utilize any of the new materials.
“These books are not mandatory,” she said. “[They] are on the approved list of supplemental materials schools will have access to that align with our goal of providing more inclusive texts and resources in support of curriculum standards.”
A significant impact
Student advocate and MoCo Pride co-director Gretchen Gilmore, a junior at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School, works with MCPS youth at both the preschool and kindergarten levels.
Gilmore has volunteered on local political campaigns, led workshops and spoken at panels about LGBTQ+ student rights, and testified before County Council and the Board of Education.
She said she “absolutely adores” working with elementary school kids.
“Having the privilege to be a part of their early years is such a wonderful, meaningful thing,” she said.
Gilmore said having LGBTQ-inclusive books introduced to students at such a young age helps them to be “emotionally literate.”
“Having books with LGBTQ+ representation doesn’t make kids gay or trans,” she said, “but it helps them understand their feelings if they’re having feelings like that or understand that other kids are going to be different from them.”
She said this initiative is particularly special to her because when she came out in sixth grade, she felt very confused and alone.
“A book like that never would have touched a teacher’s desk,” she said. “I wasn’t given as much of an opportunity to see myself, and I feel like that could have been really helpful for me.”
Gilmore said she wants to be a part of a school system where students are raised with the ability to identify their feelings and given the opportunity to do so safely among peers. She added that she feels it’s important to include POC and disabled students in these discussions.
Mark Eckstein, an MCPS parent and vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ youth, said incorporating these books in the classroom will be “hugely impactful” — and not just for students.
Especially in elementary schools, he said, there exists “a lot of fear and hesitation for LGBTQ+ staff to fully be themselves in the school environment.”
He described this move as a “watershed moment” and said it will signal to LGBTQ+ teachers and staff that MCPS does not want them to feel pressured to hide their own identities from their students.
“One of the biggest impacts of this entire initiative will be felt by our staff,” he said.
A wealth of data
While no data exists to accurately quantify Montgomery County’s LGBTQ+ youth population, the Movement Advancement Project suggests between 7 to 9% of American youth identify as LGBTQ+. The Williams Institute published a 2020 report suggesting that the U.S. is home to approximately 3.2 million LGBTQ+ youth ages eight to 18.
“There really shouldn’t be any controversy here,” County Council member Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) said of the updated reading list. “We should all recognize that these people and family structures exist, and that is normal. And so of course they should appear in materials.”
She added: “When they don’t appear in materials, that should be strange. That’s deliberate exclusion.”
A 2022 national survey by The Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Children who described their school environment as LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempted suicide, according to the report.
Transgender and nonbinary youth face even greater disparities. They are almost four times more likely to experience bullying than their cisgender peers, according to a peer-reviewed 2018 study.
Using a child’s chosen name and pronouns, enacting gender-affirming school policies, training teachers on gender identity and expression, and ensuring access to gender-affirming medical care have all been shown to reduce school bullying and improve mental health outcomes.
“[This initiative] is going to make our schools a safer place,” Mink said. “We have a wealth of data and research supporting all of this.”
As a former MCPS teacher, Mink said she often used opportunities like warm-up questions, creative writing prompts and sample math problems to incorporate nonbinary pronouns and diverse family structures into her class lessons.
“It takes practice to get used to things you’re not used to,” she said.
The student response to her efforts at classroom inclusivity was overwhelmingly positive, Mink said. Over the years, she said several of her students felt safe enough to come out as nonbinary in class because of inclusive lessons and messaging.
Fear of the unknown
Silver Spring resident Rev. Rachel Cornwell is a fierce advocate for LGBTQ youth. As the parent of a young transgender child in MCPS, she said she’s thrilled to see the school system taking steps to make the classroom a safer space for children like her son.
“He transitioned in first grade, and at that time he didn’t know any other transgender kids at his school,” she said. “He felt very alone. Being able to read books that reflected the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and trans people was one way he could see himself in the world.”
Cornwell said in her experience, she’s found elementary-age children to be very accepting and open to new concepts. She described discrimination as a learned belief and said young children are “not primed to be prejudiced.”
“When they hear a story about a trans child or an LGBTQ+ person, they relate to that experience on a personal level,” she said. “They don’t see it as something ‘other’ or outside of the norm.”
Schools across the country are facing mounting pressure from conservatives to keep LGBTQ+ representation away from students. In response, some schools have pulled LGBTQ+ books off their shelves.
Cornwell said she believes any backlash to MCPS’ efforts at school inclusivity is rooted in fear.
“The idea of opening people’s minds and perspectives is scary to some people,” she said. “There’s a reason why books have always been banned.”
While students and parents alike are encouraged by curriculum additions that more accurately reflect the county’s diversity, Eckstein said at the end of the day these are only six books out of thousands in the school system. He said this move is “just a drop in the bucket” when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion.