Social Studies

Four States Now Require Schools to Teach LGBT History

By Sarah Schwartz — August 12, 2019 3 min read
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Starting next school year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history will be part of the curriculum in Illinois public schools.

Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker signed House Bill 246 into law Aug. 9, making Illinois the fourth state to mandate teaching LGBT history, after California, New Jersey, and Colorado. The Illinois legislation takes effect in July 2020.

The law mandates that history classes in public schools “include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this State.” Any textbooks bought with state funding must cover “the roles and contributions” of LGBT people, and can’t include content that is discriminatory to any particular gender or sexual orientation.

Nationwide, LGBT history often doesn’t make it into the curriculum. Just under a quarter of students say that they have learned about LGBT-related topics in their classes, according to 2016 research from GLSEN, a national advocacy group for LGBTQ students.

In some states, teachers face restrictions on how they can discuss issues of gender and sexuality in the classroom. Six states have anti-LGBT curriculum laws that apply to sexual health education. Advocates say that the way these laws are written leaves room for them to be misapplied to other parts of school life, including curriculum in other classes or extracurricular activities, like a Gay-Straight Alliance.

Recently, though, some states have moved in the opposite direction. In April, Arizona repealed a law that banned teachers from delivering any instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.” New Jersey and Colorado’s laws, requiring schools to teach LGBT history, were both passed this year. In June, The 74 wrote that “the tide is turning” when it comes to LGBT-inclusive curriculum.

Still, these laws have seen some pushback. The mayor of Barnegat, N.J., Alfonso Cirulli, criticized the state’s new legislation at a township committee meeting last week. “The government has no right to teach our kids morality,” Cirulli, a former assistant principal, said, according to the local Ashbury Park Press.

Implementation Questions

While the new Illinois law mandates the teaching of LGBT-inclusive content, it doesn’t specify exactly what that content should be.

In this respect, the state isn’t alone. Though California passed its law mandating LGBT history in 2012, the state’s education department didn’t create standards for the subject until 2016. My colleague Stephen Sawchuk covered the state’s slow implementation process in 2017, as history and social studies teachers were still trying to figure out how to integrate the new topics into their classes.

Similar challenges may be on the horizon for districts in the states that passed legislation this year.

New Jersey’s law leaves it up to individual schools and districts to decide what to teach, and how. School boards will individually update their social studies standards in advance of the 2020-21 school year, when the law takes effect, the North Jersey Record reported.

Illinois’ schools and districts will also implement the law locally, said Jackie Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, in an emailed statement.

“ISBE does not endorse certain textbooks or curricular programs over others,” she said. “However, ISBE will work with partners to ensure that curricular and content resources are available and that public schools and districts have an opportunity to review and search curricula that best meets their needs.”

In the Prairie State, LGBT rights organization Equality Illinois suggested potential topics of focus in a past statement. The group, which supported the bill, named social worker Jane Addams and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as famous LGBT Illinoisans and noted that the nation’s first gay rights organization was founded in Chicago.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.