‘Letting it shine’: An Abington library is creating space for kids to talk about gender

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Connor holds a favorite book at the Abington Township Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Connor holds a favorite book at the Abington Township Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Abington Township Public Library’s newest program has it all: It’s got story time, conversation, art activities, and sometimes dancing.

It’s called Rainbow Connections and it bills itself as a child-centered safe space for LGBTQ+ kids and families to make friends and talk about topics like gender and pronouns.

“I think it’s so important for a program like this to be in place because young children in the LGBTQ+ community often feel isolated at school and are more likely to be bullied than their peers,” said Jessica Olzak, a children’s librarian and the program’s co-host.

The program launched virtually in November during Transgender Awareness Week with 19 families coming together over zoom to talk about questions of identity that, until now, have gone unexplored in many library communities. While most tuned in from the Philadelphia region, some participants zoomed in from other parts of the country. From as far away as Arizona, these families participated in discussions centered around books like “My Rainbow,” by DeShanna and Trinity Neal and “What Are Your Words?” by Katherine Locke.

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The library, which has a growing collection of LGBT books, offers other community-focused programming ranging from concerts during Pride Month to a teen group called The Q Crew. But Rainbow Connections is the first to work with youth in grades K-5.

An Abington parent, Shannon Collins, who is nonbinary, came up with the idea for the group. It grew out of Collins’ experience watching their own child explore their gender identity.

“In the summer, my 7-year-old kind of came into themself as nonbinary and expressed that they would love to find community with kids their age who are LGBTQ+, and that it would be important to them to just kind of meet people like them,” Collins said. They reached out to the library and Olzak, who had been also thinking about creating a program for younger kids, was on board. A partnership was formed.

Collins, who normally leads the discussion portion during the program, volunteers as a crisis counselor with The Trevor Project and photographs trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people as part of an ongoing photo series. They know from volunteering, as well as personal experience, the importance of validating a person’s identity.

“I can see how impactful it can be to just have one adult in your life, be affirming and use your pronouns,” said Collins. Helping to create a space like Rainbow Connections, where their child, Adelaide, who is seven, can thrive along with other children, is a motivating force. It affirms Collins too.

“Telling my child, ‘You can have whatever identity feels safe and good for you and we support you in it,’ it feels like I’m also talking to myself,” they said.

(From left) Librarian Jessica Olzak, Connor Fitzpatrick, and his mom, Rachel Fitzpatrick and Shannon Collins at the Abington Township Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘A wonderful, safe space’

Rachel Fitzpatrick is one of the parents who attended both of the group’s meetings so far. Fitzpatrick clicked into the online group with her 9-year-old gender-fluid child, Connor.

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“I was excited,” said Connor, who uses both she and he pronouns. “We do activities and we read books … I’ve been learning about different types of gender. And it has been very interesting to me.”

Connor is in the third grade, and when he’s not in school, enjoys listening to audiobooks and playing chess. The family has been accepting of Connor’s gender expressions, and his school has been “beyond supportive,” but even with all of the support, it can get tough.

“I do know it is hard for me in school, sometimes, interacting with people,” Connor said.

“​​Sometimes kids ask questions that are hard,” said Fitzpatrick. “Connor’s gender expression is feminine, but Connor chooses to use the boys bathroom.”

She said the group offered the family a chance to talk openly about gender in a lighter and affirming way.

Rachel Fitzpatrick and her child Connor outside the Abington Township Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 36-year-old mother of two said Rainbow Connections offered a unique support network.

“Just having other people say that ‘This is this is great, who you are’ and letting it shine in such a wonderful, safe space … is wonderful,” Fitzpatrick said.

For Connor, it’s about knowing that he isn’t alone.

“I learned that there is other people in the world that are just like me. And it’s OK to be who you are,” Connor said.

Connections in 2022

While a few people have reached out to the Abington library with concerns about the program, the overwhelming response has been positive. Olzak has heard from families from near and far who appreciate the opportunity to talk with their children about gender in a safe setting — and with books, too.

Recently, a parent emailed to say that she and her son were excited and nervous to attend a meeting because the child was being bullied in their kindergarten class.

The two participated in the December meeting. It was fun, they said.

“The mother emailed me a few days ago to tell me that her son has been asking her every day when the next meeting will be,” Olzak said.

Just like the kids involved, the program is still young. Right now, adults guide the conversation but the hope is to eventually follow the lead of the young people participating and shape the program around their ideas.

“It would just be really beautiful to see the group turn into a space where the adults are talking less and the kids are talking more,” said Collins.

Already, the group has compiled a list of resources for families that is available to everyone to use as they please.

The next Rainbow Connections meetup will take place virtually on Jan. 10, 2022.

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