December 08, 2021
Local News

Glenbard West welcomes author after Wheaton school appearance was canceled due to book's LGBTQ content

GLEN ELLYN – "Dear CUSD 200, queer youth exist. Let us be heard."

That was the message Wheaton North High School junior Andy Phan wanted to share Nov. 20, the night of Canadian author Robin Stevenson's return to DuPage County. His simple statement appeared on a self-made T-shirt, which he hoped to get signed later during the meet-and-greet at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn.

"We're not going to just stay quiet," Phan said. "This isn't just a thing we're going to forget about, and we're going to keep talking about it because talking about it makes a difference."

In October, Stevenson was scheduled to talk about her newest book, "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood Champions of Change," at Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, as a part of her United States book tour. From civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to education advocate Malala Yousafzai, "Kid Activists" highlights the childhood stories of historical figures.

Among her 16 profiles, Stevenson included Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. And, on the book's cover, an illustration of a young Milk holding a pride flag appears next to MLK, Yousafzai, Hellen Keller, Nelson Mandela and others.

Milk was elected in 1977 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by Dan White, who was another city supervisor.

During his time in office, Milk sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill was signed into law by Moscone.

Stevenson's Oct. 2 visit to Longfellow, however, was cancelled following a parent complaint to the Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 School Board.

"The reason given was that a parent had complained because one of the activists included in the book is Harvey Milk," Stevenson wrote in an open letter to Community Unit School District 200 school board members and Superintendent Jeff Schuler earlier this month.

She said that the school's decision to rescind her invitation to Longfellow "sends a harmful to students, particularly students who are themselves LGBTQ+ or have family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community."

"It says that their lives can’t be talked about, that their very existence is seen as shameful or dangerous," she wrote. "It says that no matter how significant their accomplishments, or how much they contribute to the world, they can be erased and made invisible because of who they are."

State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, parents like Mindy Koechling and Anderson's Bookshop employees Angie Gull and Laura Evans rallied around Stevenson, expressing disappointment with District 200.

"I had this visceral knee-jerk reaction and said, 'This is not OK,'" said Koechling, who came to see Stevenson with her seven-year-old daughter, Emily. "And, I started sharing on social media with everyone I know and contacting our school district board and superintendent and letting them know how disappointing it was the stand they were taking."

Inside the Glenbard West High School theater, Stevenson appeared in front of a crowd full of families, educators and community members. The event was hosted by Howard, who preached respect and equality, "that we are more alike than we are different," and the schools' role to foster an environment of inclusivity.

"I drive around our communities, and I see so many signs say, 'In this house, hate has no home here,' 'love is love,' and 'all are welcome here,'" Howard said. "Know tonight, you're showing that the slogans that are yard signs are echoed in our hearts, and our actions speak louder than words."

During her speech, Stevenson called her appearance at Glenbard West a vital response to her fans, the ones who reached out to her personally after the Longfellow incident, have chosen to support her work by buying her books or have shared her open letter through social media to raise awareness about the matters at hand.

"I was hearing from young people in the district who were upset about this," Stevenson said, adding she was shocked "Kid Activists" grew into a controversy. "It matters to me as a writer, as a school presenter, as a former social worker and a counselor, as a parent and as a former student who was a part of the LGBTQ community. Schools have always been a place where the struggle for LGBTQ rights has been an uphill battle."

Stevenson stressed that representation–showing different types of families, individuals and sexualities–plays a significant part, especially for children. "A book maybe the first place where they see a positive representation," she said, noting these depictions are one of several steps that lead to acknowledging identity, history and community.

"It's not just important for our LGBTQ people," Stevenson said about her books, some of which offer an introduction or insight to gay rights, refugee issues and more. Topics like these are considered difficult to talk about, but Stevenson finds a way to address them according to her readers' ages. These books, then, become a resource for parents and their children to have honest, candid conversations.

"It's important for all of us because this is a shared collective history," she said.

As Stevenson's speech came to a close, Phan, who headed for the doorway to get back in line for the book signing, reflected on what he just witnessed. For him, just seeing Stevenson meant everything. It inspired him to join his school's Gay-Straight Alliance Club and to become more active in his community.

Nicole Kasper and Maisie Zink, Phan's friends and students at Wheaton North, echoed his sentiments. Stevenson's presence and her words of encouragement resonated with them. They felt that Stevenson, like "Kid Activists," was now a part of their history, and they felt stronger together.

"Knowing that you're not alone–if I had been told that even when I was younger–that would have felt so good," said Zink, a freshman.

To them, Stevenson was a sign of hope.

"You're important, and you're valid," Zink added, as a compliment to Phan's T-shirt. "Even if some people don't accept you, then they're not worth your time and your love, because the people who really care about you are going to accept you no matter what."