Last November award-winning Canadian author Robin Stevenson planned to appear at Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton to promote her book Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change. At the last minute, her appearance was abruptly canceled.
Why? Stevenson learned that parents raised concerns about the chapter featuring LGBTQ+ activist Harvey Milk. The book’s cover features a cartoon of Milk holding a Pride flag. The next thing she knew, her colorful children’s book was a new front in the culture war.
Stevenson was surprised by the controversy despite facing criticism in the past.
“It addresses a wide range of social justice issues and a diverse group of activists,” she said. “It talks about the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, disability rights, women’s suffrage, labor rights, environmental activism.”
Stevenson talked about the controversy, her response to it, and why LGBTQ+ education is important on February 7 in the Brown Ballroom as the headline speaker of the History Teacher Symposium. The event, sponsored by Illinois State’s Department of History, featured sessions throughout the day in the Bone Student Center and Schroeder Hall.
As a queer teen in the ‘80s, Stevenson found little literature about people like her. In school, LGBTQ+ issues were never discussed academically. The only language she did hear related to LGBTQ+ were slurs. Robinson asked the crowd to reflect on their experiences with LGBTQ+ education when they were in school.
“Can I just get a show of hands if you felt your education was very inclusive and LGBTQ+ issues were well represented across the curriculum?”
Two hands from the approximately 300 people in the room went up.
“Do you remember the issue being touched on somewhat but not very adequately?”
About 15 hands went up.
“Can I get a show of hands if you remember nothing at all or only learning negative things?”
The rest of the hands in the room went up.
To ensure the current generation had access to queer literature, she started writing works of fiction featuring LGBTQ+ lead characters for children and teens in the mid-2000s. She released her first nonfiction book, Pride: Celebrating Diversity & Community, in 2016.
Pride tells the history of how Pride Day came to be and its importance to those who celebrate it. The book received many award nominations, including the 2017 Stonewall Honor. A prolific author, she has since started writing nonfiction books for children preschool-aged and younger.
“All of these books can make a huge difference,” she said. “For kids who are LGBTQ+ themselves or their parents are, it can let them see families like theirs, on the page, from preschool on.”
Thanks to writers such as Stevenson, there are more LGBTQ stories now than ever before. Still, she said the recent controversy at Longfellow Elementary illustrates why more representation is needed.
“I was shocked when the school canceled and I became even more concerned when I was contacted by a student in the district who was very upset about the message this sent,” she said. “This was a young student who said she had been thinking about coming out and was now feeling unsafe to do so because she was hearing very bigoted comments made by adults in her community.”
In response, Stevenson wrote an open letter to the school district, accusing it of sending a harmful message to LGBTQ+ students.
“It says their lives cannot be talked about,” she said. “That their very existence is seen as shameful or inappropriate or dangerous.”
After sending the letter Robinson received an outpouring of support from people who lived in the school district. Many of the messages came from LGBTQ+ youth and their parents. She was invited back to Illinois by State Rep. Terra Costa Howard and Equality Illinois. Robinson met many of those that supported her and were fighting for better LGBTQ+ education in schools.
Even though Robinson is still disappointed about what happened in Wheaton, she is happy to know so many people are passionate about equality in the classroom.
“I am here today really as a result of this attempt at censorship,” she said. “Which may seem ironic but it is, in fact, a pattern I have seen many, many times. Consistently, when I have received pushback for speaking about LGBTQ+ rights, that pushback has been met with an overwhelming wave of support. The people who want equality, who value human rights, and who expect public schools to be safe, supportive, inclusive places far outnumber those who do not.”