Two years ago, a South Carolina fourth grader wrote an essay about transgender rights that was censored by her school principal. After the principal refused to include the paragraph in a collection of fourth grade essays, the student’s mother sued the school for violating her daughter’s First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, earlier this month a federal appeals court ruled against the student on the ground that schools had the leeway to limit student speech for the betterment of the school community.
I recently wrote about how this is a real example of censorship. Or, in the words of the current conservative obsession, this student was an actual victim of cancel culture, unlike recent changes regarding Dr. Seuss, Potato Head, or the Muppets, who were all part of simple corporate marketing decisions. The reasons conservatives didn’t say a word about this student’s case? They don’t care about trans rights. The reason they are making a stink about these corporate decisions? They do care about being able to be racist and sexist. It’s that simple.
After the article was published, I received a surprise message — from the mom in the case. She told me that her daughter had, to this point, been identified only by her initials in the case and had not spoken to the media about it. However, after reading my piece, she and her daughter wanted to be public for the first time and tell their story.
So, I talked with Rumeur (pronounced like the word “rumor”) — who was 10, and in fourth grade at the time but is now 12 years old and in sixth grade — about her experience being an elementary school activist who was censored by her public school for her LGBTQ rights advocacy. Rumeur’s mother, Hannah Robertson, joined the interview as well.
Why did you write your fourth-grade essay about transgender rights?
Rumeur: I was thinking of my grandfather, who’s gay, and my Auntie, who is transgender. I know other LGBT people, too. Some people think my family is disgusting and gross, but they’re normal human beings, just different in some ways. I wanted to write about that. I wanted everybody to hear about how other people are being treated.
I wanted to write about this situation that’s going on in the world, so everybody can know what’s going on and fix it. People say things like “being transgender is disgusting” and other mean things about people just living their life and trying to be free. It’s so horrible how people think that.
What was your reaction when your principal told you she wouldn’t include your essay in the fourth-grade brochure?
Rumeur: I thought I could write anything. What’s inappropriate about my writing? When she said that it was just very upsetting.
Hannah: They censored her completely. That’s exactly what they did. They took her words out and wanted to plug in other words about bullying that completely miss the whole point.
Were you surprised you got this negative reaction?
Rumeur: I was surprised because I thought they’d publish it if it was good. Then I was scared. Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble? I thought I was going to go to detention or something like that because they were saying I wasn’t supposed to write about that. I was scared there was going to be a consequence for it.
Hannah: When she got in the car that day after school, I had no idea about any of this. I didn’t even know about the paper before that day. She was furious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so upset before. The teacher had no problem with the assignment. But the principal, I could not believe the things that she said to me. She said the school doesn’t support lesbian, gay, and transgender people and that publishing it would create an undesirable situation that they did not need at the school. Then the superintendent said he hadn’t been aware of the situation. But he didn’t apologize and said he was going to agree with the school’s decision.
What has it been like being part of a court case challenging your school for censoring you?
Rumeur: I’m kind of nervous. It’s been stressful. Sometimes at school kids are saying insane stuff about that kid who wrote about trans people in her essay, and I say, “I did. I wrote it!” Some of the teachers ignore me, like I’m not there. It’s like they don’t like me because they don’t agree with what I wrote about. I try to say hello to them, but they don’t say anything. They act like I’m a ghost, not there.
Hannah: We’ve had threats. We’ve been told we’re pedophiles. We’ve been told child services should come get our kids. We tried to have a cupcake party at school to support LGBT rights, and the front office allowed it. Then, at the last minute, they canceled it. We also tried to have a day where everyone wore purple to support Rumeur. Many teachers didn’t wear purple but wore the school T-shirt instead, to show support for the school. This was definitely intimidation.
But you told me some good has come of this too, right?
Rumeur: Right after this happened, so many kids and other people in my school came out. I was so happy for them. I like that I helped these kids not hide in the dark and come out. Some people’s parents don’t agree with them, but they still came out. I thought I didn’t do anything really important with my essay, but I actually did.
Are you going to keep speaking up about these issues, even after what happened?
Rumeur: I do want to keep doing things for other people, keep speaking up, and helping other people out. I raised money for other kids who couldn’t go on a field trip to the Barrier Islands. I don’t think that’s fair, so I reached out to these amazing drag queens. They’re awesome. I love them so much, and they helped me raise money for the other kids.
Are you going to appeal this to the Supreme Court?
Hannah: Yes, we are.