Students of all ages chat about Roblox and the spring musical as they filter into an after school meeting about transgender rights in the Mount Lebanon School District.
They’re working hard to change their community, and becoming friends in the process. They host meetings at each other's houses over pizza, and gather in cafes as their parents sit at tables nearby. The students are responding to a growing movement in their district led by people who call themselves parental rights advocates. Proponents argue that, as parents, only they can know what is appropriate for their children and should be involved in what is taught day-to-day.
These kids disagree.
The conflict began in March 2022 after first-grade teacher Megan Williams read Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story About Gender and Friendship on Trans Day of Visibility. The book chronicles the relationship between a boy and his teddy bear, who one day tells him, “In my heart, I've always known that I'm a girl Teddy, not a boy Teddy.” It is recommended by the American Library Association for children ages 3-6. It is also a frequently banned book.
During a school board meeting on April 11, 2022, parents expressed outrage that they did not receive a notice from the school before the book was read, or get a chance to opt their children out. Many said that they felt “blindsided” and “betrayed.” Shortly after, they mounted a lawsuit against Williams and the school district.
Gretchen Melten is one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and her child was in Williams’ class. During the April school board meeting, Melten said she respects “everyone’s choice to live the way they want to live” except “when you start involving my child.” She believes the book undermined her role as a parent.
“We are responsible for teaching the values that we think are correct,” she said.
Many speakers criticizing William’s choice of materials that night insisted their concerns were not homophobic or transphobic. “I don’t think that anybody is saying ‘transgenderism’ is wrong or evil or any of that,” attendee Lynn Crogan said. “I think the issue is more with the teacher and the principal and the administration, that this was able to happen behind parents’ backs.”
Months of this bitter public debate brought together queer and trans students from across the district after senior student Janet Montgomery launched an online petition. Now, they’re fighting for representation and inclusivity in their curriculum, and safety in their schools.
“Our work continues in showing the world that LGBTQIA+ people have the right to exist as valid and equal human beings, and we carry the responsibility to begin that work in the most important of spaces: the classroom,” Montgomery wrote in the June 2022 petition.
Everyone in the group, from the elementary students to the high school seniors, shares a common goal — to get the school board to pass policies that make all students feel safe, and guarantee inclusivity in their curriculum.
Lexi Byrom, 18, says she often hears homophobic slurs in the hallways at school, and sees anti-trans posts created by other students online. “There was a Snapchat story that was like, we need to stop letting girls into the boys bathroom and boys into the girls bathroom,” she tells Pittsburgh City Paper.
Byrom’s mom, Stephanie Fedro-Byrom, says comments like Crogan’s were painful for Byrom and her friends to hear. “Adding an ‘ism’ to transgender makes being transgender an ideology, not a state of existence,” she says. “It is only used in a derogatory way and always in anti-trans rhetoric. If something is an -ism, then you can be against it. It's a side you can take, The term intentionally strips away one's humanity."
In affluent communities across Pennsylvania, national groups like Moms for Liberty are mobilizing to take over school boards and implement policies that censor teachers and appease parents.
On the other side of the state, Central Bucks County shares common demographics with Mt. Lebanon as one of the wealthiest and whitest school districts in the Philadelphia area. Its school board has so far removed two books from school libraries while reviewing a slate of 65 volumes for possible bans. All those under review appear on lists created by Moms for Liberty.
Rachel Stein of educational advocacy group Campaign for Our Shared Future says that Allegheny County could be next in the “parental rights” wave. “In other parts of the state, we've seen anti-equity candidates elected to school boards and implement very restrictive curriculum censorship policies, remove books from classrooms and libraries, and create a hostile learning environment,” Stein tells City Paper.
Moms for Liberty, a national consortium of conservative parent groups, recently established a chapter in Allegheny County, and their homepage says they are “dedicated to the survival of America.”
“The general election happening in November will have an enormous impact on the future of our public schools in Western Pennsylvania,” Stein says.
A common theme across the public comments at the April 2022 school board meeting was that kids are too young to learn about trans individuals and gender identity. Parents said things like “first grade kids still believe in Santa Claus” and “why make it so confusing at such a young age?”
“I would like to suggest that any topic like this that seems questionable should be something that the parents are warned about,” Crogan said.
Some went further in characterizing trans children as the result of bad parenting or medical misdirection.
“This is what I took away from that book: your parents don’t know what they’re doing. They might have made a mistake,” Melten said. “The doctor might have made a mistake telling you what gender you were.”
Byrom thinks that, in these meetings, LGBTQ representation is portrayed as threatening, or even scary. She wants parents to know what a positive impact inclusivity has on kids like her.
“I’d like them to just be able to come and sit in at one of the meetings and see how joyful everyone is,” she says. “It’s a space where these young people feel safe and comfortable being themselves for perhaps the only time that day.”
Fedro-Byrom says she’s loved watching kids in the group open up with one another.
“One of the students, they told their mom, ‘I'll pay you $10 If I have anything to say,’ and by the end they couldn't stop talking. It's been really cool to watch them develop and find their voice,” she shares, chuckling.
The group's demands were drafted into policy with the help of Beth Sondel, a state organizer for Campaign for Our Shared Future. The policy — if adopted — will apply to the 10 schools in the district. It establishes consistent protection for LGBTQ students with procedures to address harassment and bullying, designate gender neutral bathrooms at every school, and create guidelines for names and pronoun usage.
The policy also sets up protections for teachers so actions like the lawsuit last year are less likely to occur.
In an email included in court records, one parent wrote to the principal, “I send my child to school to be a kid and to learn the fundamentals of reading, writing, arithmetic, and socializing; not to have my child told that he can wear dresses, make-up etc.” The lawsuit uses the phrase “gender dysphoria” over 60 times.
Byrom says the language in the lawsuit and comments at the school board meeting reveal people’s lack of understanding about the LGBTQ community.
“I think that was so indicative of the mindset that these parents are in, it's like, they really think that this is a danger to children,” she says. “And I'm not entirely sure how to change their minds on that. Maybe it's like exposure and saying, ‘Hey, I'm trans, let's talk.’”
Byrom and the rest of the group spent the first weeks of 2023 preparing to present their policy at a school board meeting on Feb. 11. They did not expect the outpouring of public support that ensued.
“It was amazing,” she tells CP. “We had, like, 70 people from the community show up. It was a little conference room, and we just packed it. I was really excited for all the students that were giving speeches to have that crowd behind them.”
Byrom was the first student to speak.
“Behind me, I have a group of students that all have stories about being queer in Mt. Lebanon,” she said. She introduced the student-informed policy and urged the board to enact it swiftly. The next commenter was a parent who defined terms such as “queer” and “cishet” ahead of the students’ speeches.
Other students spoke out about the problems they’ve witnessed in school.
Oliver, a fifth grader, said that he has heard teachers say homophobic things. Amber, a seventh-grader, said she was called slurs when she started wearing girls’ clothing, and her bullies were never disciplined.
Sophia, a second grader, said that when a transgender student was being bullied, she had to be the one to check on them despite a teacher witnessing it. They all demanded change from the school board. After each student spoke, the room erupted into applause.
In a statement to CP, President Jacob Wyland says the school board is “committed to ensuring that all of our students feel safe, welcome and included,” and that it’s “actively working to update our policies and procedures to better reflect our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
“We are actively working to update our policies and procedures to better reflect our commitment to diversity and inclusion. Last month, we held a joint DEI and policy committee meeting to work collaboratively on changes to these, while ensuring the opportunity for input from all voices,” the statement continues.
Byrom says the group is still working to get the policy passed as the end of the school year nears, but she’s optimistic about the board’s reception of the bill. She will be graduating and going to college for nursing, but she assures CP that won’t hinder her advocacy. “So in the near future, hopefully, we'll still be showing up to board meetings, putting the pressure on getting them to pass this,” she says. “If they don't, and I go to college, I will be making the 20-minute drive back for all the board meetings.”CORRECTION: A previous version of this story wrongly stated that some recent school board candidates were bankrolled by Moms for Liberty. The claim has been removed from this version but remains in print.