Equity & Diversity

Calif. May Mandate Inclusion of Gay History in Curricula

By Erik W. Robelen — April 22, 2011 3 min read
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Public schools in California would be required to incorporate the history of homosexuals into social studies classes if the state Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown embrace a plan approved by the Senate.

Some advocates say they are optimistic it will become law this year, though a spokesman for Gov. Brown, a Democrat, said the state’s leader does not take a stance on legislation before it reaches his desk.

“We are censoring the history and contributions of LGBT Americans from our school curricula,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat and lead sponsor of the measure, approved April 14 on a party-line vote of 23-14. “The oppositional arguments are nearly identical to ones we heard a few decades ago when the idea of black studies and women’s studies was first raised, that this would end civilization as we know it.”

In addition, Sen. Leno argues that promoting awareness would curb anti-gay stereotypes and thereby reduce bullying of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

The bill would add such Americans—as well as persons with disabilities—to the list of groups whose roles and contributions must be “accurately portrayed” in social-science instruction and instructional materials. In addition, it would prohibit the state or school districts from adopting textbooks or other instructional materials that “reflect adversely” on a person’s sexual orientation.

In contrast with the California proposal, a Tennessee Senate committee last week advanced a measure to bar discussion of homosexuality in K-8 classrooms.

California Sen. Doug La Malfa, a Republican who was among those voting no on his state’s bill, argued that it would crowd out other content students need to know.

“This, to me, is the final frontier of advancing this [gay-rights] agenda into schools,” he said during the Senate floor debate. “What are we going to take out of the curriculum to get this type of curriculum in? Are we going to take Winston Churchill out?”

Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant and a senior U.S. Department of Education official under President George H.W. Bush, said that leaving aside questions of the content, he worries any time a state expands mandates for what content should be covered.

“When you get these additional requirements, it may fly in the face of how you’re going to have a coherent, structured set of standards,” he said, “no matter what the issue.”

Teaching Harvey Milk

The Senate bill is backed by the California Teachers Association, as well as at least two school districts: the systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We feel it is inherently unethical to exclude a segment of our school population from our curriculum,” Virginia Strom-Martin, a legislative advocate for the 678,000-student Los Angeles district, wrote in an email. “Inclusive curriculum supports all students. It helps families feel acknowledged, and it promotes cultural fluency.”

Since 2007, she said, the district has included the study of issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in health classes to address “facts and misconceptions about sexual orientation.”

Sen. Leno said the new legislation would lead districts, for example, to include slain San Francisco councilman and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in classroom lessons on civil rights.

“The state education code in California for the past 35 years has required the inclusion of the role and contributions of women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, European Americans, but we are conspicuous in denying students the history of LGBT Americans, and the civil rights struggle” [they’ve been part of],’ he said.

The measure has generated intense opposition from some quarters. For example, the Traditional Values Coalition issued a call to fight the bill and disputed the argument about bullying, suggesting it was simply an effort to “cloud the debate and the real objectives” of the bill’s proponents.

“They will not rest until the state forcibly institutes widespread acceptance of the homosexual, bisexual, and transgender lifestyles,” the coalition declared on its website.

But Carolyn Laub, who leads the San Francisco-based Gay-Straight Alliance Network, said the bill, if enacted, would make schools safer for gay students.

“Largely, what students report is that LGBT individuals are invisible and they’re ignored [in the curriculum],” she said. “In that absence, their peers are only learning stereotypes, and that’s fueling the climate of bullying and harassment and intimidation and physical assaults.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as Calif. May Mandate Inclusion of Gay History in Curricula

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