This blog was written by Tristen Appel-Bernstein, the Welcoming Schools program’s summer intern
The LGBTQ+ community, especially LGBTQ+ youth and students, is experiencing a blatant attempt of having its history erased through book banning and educational content censorship.
That is why the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program recently distributed 500 books to schools nationwide as part of the “In Attendance” campaign, promoting inclusive classrooms and combating the effects of discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ youth. The English and Spanish-language books distributed highlight the experiences of gender-expansive children, those navigating intersecting marginalized identities and diverse family structures. The books were allocated to schools that have continuously demonstrated their commitment to upholding a welcoming and affirming school community as well as those most in need of economic support.
As the nation’s most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program, the Welcoming Schools program promotes inclusive and welcoming classroom environments through LGBTQ+ inclusive book lists, lesson plans and professional development trainings in all 50 states. Trainings on topics such as intersectionality, bias-based bullying, gender inclusivity, and embracing all families equip educators with the knowledge and tools to support their students’ personal and academic growth. Welcoming Schools ensures that their services benefit under-resourced schools and students who face the impacts of hostile policy through efforts such as the distribution of LGBTQ+ inclusive books.
Welcoming Schools Senior Director Cheryl Greene said that the kind of books that were distributed “can provide a pathway for students to learn about topics and people that are different from themselves."
The findings in the Human Right Campaign Foundation’s 2023 Youth Report suggest that 46.1% of LGBTQ+ youth feel unsafe in at least one school setting with 53.9% of transgender and gender-expansive youth feeling unsafe.
Building supportive relationships with schools and school districts that strive to sustain their welcoming environments is integral as policies seek to limit the self-discovery and self-expression of young Americans. States across the country have implemented book bans that prohibit schools from carrying books that include topics such as racism, LGBTQ+ identities and Black history. This is occurring at a time when discriminatory policies have attempted to limit transgender children’s right to play sports, safely disclose their identity to their teachers and use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. Through these laws, schools can increasingly become a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ children.
Book bans and educational censorship restrict young people’s access to and engagement with diverse characters and representation, which is instrumental to their growth and overall well-being. This is particularly true for those raised in conservative environments. Reading these stories allows students to know they are accepted and celebrated for who they are. For many queer, BIPOC, disabled, and otherwise marginalized young people, books are a mirror through which they can better understand themselves and their experience in the social world.
Exploring the world through literature with the support of a teacher or librarian gives many children hope for what joy is possible in their future.
Seaton Elementary, a school located in Washington, D.C. which received the Welcoming Schools’ Seal of Excellence, a recognition given to schools take complete all of the program’s trainings, received some of the books. Karen Janka, the head librarian at Seaton Elementary, said that inclusive books help to “provide additional support for our LGBTQ families and students,” having already established partnership with the Welcoming School program.
“The Welcoming Schools trainings worked its way through our entire social-emotional-learning program,” said Janka. “The read aloud lesson plans are an easy-to-use resource for teachers to use to generate discussions around inclusion, friendship, bullying, cultures, and also various gender identities. The support we received helped us bring our community together."
Under political and social pressure, many schools retain a fervent commitment to preparing their staff to approach every student’s unique experience with informed acceptance. Although current book bans prevent the distribution of books into the most impacted states, Welcoming Schools stands firm in its commitment to equipping youth-serving professionals with resources and tools to affirm all students and families.
Among the communities recognized through Welcoming Schools’ book distribution are schools that have earned a Seal of Excellence for meeting LGBTQ+-inclusivity benchmarks. These benchmarks include completing professional development trainings, implementing LGBTQ+-inclusive policies and lesson plans, and making available books from the Welcoming Schools booklists. Nearly all of the recipient schools are classified as Title 1, qualified to receive federal financial support due to their high enrollment of low-income students. Welcoming Schools is proud to support healthy educational environments for students who may not otherwise have access to a rich array of resources.
Inclusive books transport readers into other worlds, allowing children to understand their identities and envision a world where everyone is encouraged to be themselves. Getting inclusive materials into the hands of educators and students prepares the next generation to face hostility with knowledge and empathy. Welcoming Schools’ gifted books and professional development materials will ensure that at-risk students are properly educated on the beauty of diversity and acceptance.