The authors of what has become the most talked about book in Charlotte – “Jacob’s New Dress” – have a message for the conservative groups that have labeled their children’s story a threat to “traditional family values.”
“The idea that a book can turn someone gay or transgender is bizarre to us. Reading a book can’t turn you gay,” said Sarah Hoffman, who wrote the book with her husband, Ian Hoffman.
“If a white kid reads a book about Martin Luther King Jr., will they become black? This book is about a little boy who wears a dress, something outside of traditional gender roles, much like the idea of a girl wearing pants was 100 years ago. It’s about following your heart.”
The couple have watched with dismay from the sidelines this week as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials bowed to conservative outrage and reversed plans to use the book in all first-grade classes. Much of the opposition came from Republicans in the state General Assembly, who see the book as having an agenda: promoting acceptance of transgender people.
The Hoffmans, who live in California, suspect few of the opponents have actually read the book, first published in 2014.
“Jacob’s New Dress” is a picture book about a boy who likes to dress like a girl. The idea, the authors say, is to discourage bullying of children who are different than their peers.
The Hoffmans say they find it ironic that a book about “love and acceptance” is being met with “a message of hate and discrimination.”
“North Carolina seems like a very divided state. And I sense a lot of fear,” says Sarah Hoffman. “We like that this conversation is being had. It’s why we wrote the book. In this case, it’s a forced conversation.”
Adds Ian Hoffman: “Some of the code being used (by critics) is confusing to me. All this talk about ‘privacy.’ But I think they are using the ‘slippery slope’ argument: If boys are allowed to do something outside the boy gender box, it is the next step to becoming gay.”
The Hoffman’s say the subject of “Jacob’s New Dress” is one they have personal experience with, having raised a son who used to storm around the house at age 4 “wearing a sparkly princess dress and carrying a (replica) battle ax.”
“Now, he’s 14, and into recreational math,” says Ian Hoffman.
The couple of 18 years say their book has met with community controversy only one other time, in 2015. That was in Lancaster, Pa., where some parents objected to the fact that they did not get prior notice before it was read to a kindergarten class.
“It’s not about a little boy wearing a dress. And it’s not about banning books being read,” Pastor Jamie Mitchell was quoted saying in Lancasteronline.com. “I just want the opportunity to know the book is being read...I don't want to be surprised as a parent.”
In North Carolina, opposition to the book has become a fundraising tool for groups like the NC Values Coalition, which has called the book “privacy-invading political correctness.”
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools...seeks to indoctrinate students in the school district by normalizing transgender behavior,” said a statement from the N.C. Values Coalition. “The purpose of our elementary schools is to teach writing, reading and arithmetic, not to encourage boys to wear dresses...These lessons found in the book, Jacob's New Dress...are not appropriate for any child whose parents support traditional family values.”
The controversy comes just a year after the state legislature passed House Bill 2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” which, among other things, forbids cities from passing laws that extend civil rights protections to lesbian, gay and transgender people.
Conservatives and some religious groups supported the bill because they felt extending rights to transgender men would violate personal privacy of women in public restrooms. The resulting debate has drawn a worldwide audience.
The Hoffmans are aware of the ongoing HB2 controversy and what it has done to North Carolina’s reputation.
“It tells us our book is needed there,” says Ian Hoffman. “Our hope in writing this book was that it would one day be considered quaint. This controversy (in North Carolina) tells us there is more work to do.”