Read author's letter to Wheaton Warrenville District 200 after her school visit was canceled

Author Robin Stevenson wrote an open letter to Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 after officials canceled her school visit. Here's what it said, edited for newspaper style:

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, I was scheduled to do an author visit at a District 200 school - Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton - as part of a U.S. tour for the launch of my newest book, "Kid Activists."

This book is the latest in the "Kid Legends" series published by Quirk Books, and it tells the childhood stories of 16 important activists, from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to indigenous water protector Autumn Peltier.

The night before my talk, my publisher contacted me to let me know the school district had canceled my visit. The reason given was that a parent had complained because one of the activists included in the book is Harvey Milk.

This action sends a very harmful message to students, particularly students who are themselves LGBTQ+ or have family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It says their lives can't be talked about, that their very existence is seen as shameful or dangerous. 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. It reinforces ignorance and bigotry. It undermines the school's efforts to encourage all students to act with empathy and understanding. It perpetuates homophobia and promotes silencing, shaming and discrimination.

The impact of your decision is real, immediate and distressing: students in your district have been hurt by your actions.

Two weeks after this happened, one of them reached out to me. They wrote that they had been thinking about finally coming out, but as a result of homophobic comments made by adults in their community regarding my book and canceled visit, they are now feeling apprehensive and afraid to do so. I hope this concerns you as much as it does me.

It is my understanding that, beginning next year, Illinois public schools will be required to teach history lessons that include the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in U.S. history. But schools should not need to be legislated to be inclusive. Many schools are already working hard to provide a safe and supportive environment for students to be themselves and to encourage all students to respect diversity and human rights. School districts should support them in this work and not undermine their efforts.

In choosing to cancel the presentation, you denied 175 students the opportunity to hear a presentation from an award-winning children's author. You legitimized a concern rooted in homophobia, gave this priority over the wishes of the school administration and staff who had requested the visit, and made the climate in the school less safe for LGBTQ+ staff and students.

There are other ways you could have chosen to respond. You could have told this parent that Harvey Milk is an important American historical figure who is widely recognized for his service and his significant contributions to the country before his assassination at the age of 48. In fact, numerous streets in several states, an airport terminal, and a U.S. Navy ship are named for him, as are at least two schools.

You could have explained that an inclusive curriculum is important and shared research findings from GLSEN that support this. You could have talked about why human rights, diversity and activism are essential issues for students to learn about. And you could have, of course, reminded the parent that they were free to opt their own child out of the talk if they disagreed.

I hope you will consider these concerns, and I look forward to your response.

Robin Stevenson

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