A teacher in Austin, Texas, came under fire for reading a children's book about a transgender boy to her fourth grade class, prompting the district to call the book inappropriate and offer counseling to students who listened.
Transgender allies defended the teacher and the book, "Call Me Max," by Stonewall Award-winning author Kyle Lukoff. It features a transgender child explaining his identity, and is aimed at children in early elementary school.
Several parents wrote letters complaining to Forest Trail Elementary, with some calling for the teacher to be fired. In response, Eanes Independent School District's chief learning officer, Susan Fambrough, explained in an email to parents that "Call Me Max" had been included on a list of diverse books circulated among teachers but was "not appropriate to be read aloud to an entire elementary-age class."
"Counselors were made available to support students, and the school administration worked with families to provide an explanation and reassurances," she wrote.
Other parents and transgender advocates called the district's response "a terrible message" for transgender children.
"It tells them that they must be invisible, that they can't talk about who they are, that they are unworthy," Jo Ivester, whose transgender son, Jeremy, attended Eanes schools from kindergarten through graduation, told TODAY Parents.
Ivester said reading a book like "Call Me Max" would have been "life-changing" for Jeremy.
District Superintendent Tom Leonard acknowledged there are transgender students in his schools and said the district is invested in diversity, equity and inclusion, but hasn't adopted a curriculum for it yet. He said any book that is shared with students must connect to Texas standards or an approved local curriculum, and under Texas law, parents must be given a chance to opt out for "moral or religious reasons."
As for the email calling the book inappropriate, he said, "I understand why that phrase would upset some people. I get it."
Lukoff, the book's author, compared offering counselors to students to what a school might do after a major disaster.
"Do you believe that a read-aloud about a transgender child is an equivalent trauma?" he asked in a letter to the school posted on Twitter. "How do you think transgender people in your community felt having their identities treated like a disaster?"
Leonard said counseling is routine if kids are upset for any reason — even if they're simply upset because their parents are unhappy.
"I’m not concerned sometimes what a kid is upset about," he said. "If a kid’s upset, it’s going to interfere with their learning and their well-being."
As for a transgender child hearing that other students need to be counseled about the book? "That would be tough," he acknowledged.
It wasn't the first time Lukoff's book created controversy. Earlier this year, a school district in Murray City, Utah, canceled a diverse reading program after a third grader brought a copy of "Call Me Max" to class.
A group of Lukoff's former students wrote a letter condemning the Utah school board's action, saying it taught transgender students that the schools don't value them. "That is a lesson that no child should have to learn."
Lukoff said the controversy hit home as a former elementary school librarian and transgender man.
"The underlying message is that the books are not appropriate to be read to children. And if the books are not appropriate, then an actual, living, breathing flesh-and-blood trans person must also not be appropriate," he told TODAY.
As an educator, Lukoff said he carried the fear that people might think he had no business working with children, "that my very self, my entire self, is not a person who belongs in schools."
"That has always been scary and upsetting," he said, "and these kinds of controversies make that message clear to kids, to families, to other trans teachers, that we’re not welcome as our full selves."
One transgender student who graduated from the district in 2020 and asked to remain anonymous said they were angry about the response — but not surprised. They described being a target of homophobia and feeling unsafe at school, and being brushed off by school administrators.
"One of the reasons I never came out as trans at school is because I knew the school wouldn’t protect me if I needed protecting," they said. "This whole situation is sending that same message to every trans kid in the district today."