Calif. Debates Place of Gay History in Textbooks

by Lisa Leff
Tuesday Apr 19, 2011

California conservatives were outraged in 1966 when the state Board of Education adopted a new junior high school history textbook. The book's inclusive treatment of the civil rights movement and influential black Americans would indoctrinate students, undermine religious values and politicize the curriculum, they said.

Forty-five years later, gay rights advocates say similar arguments are being advanced to defeat a bill that would make the state the first to require the teaching of gay history in public schools. The California Senate approved the landmark measure last week, but it needs to clear the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

Yet the debate about what children should learn about sexual orientation mirrors earlier disputes over whether groups such as 20th Century German immigrants, women, Muslims and Jews would have a place for their heroes and heartbreaks in the history books.

"It's fine to imagine we would have these expert educators deciding what history education should look like, but that's counter-historical in and of itself," said New York University history and education professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches a course in how culture wars play out in schools. "It's citizens groups who want to see themselves in the curriculum and see the curriculum as a rich, symbolic battlefield, which it is."

The legislation now under consideration in California would add lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the lengthy list of social and ethnic groups that schools must include in social studies lessons.

It also would require as soon as the 2013-2014 school year the California Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other teaching materials that cover the contributions and roles of sexual minorities.

The measure further would prohibit the adoption of any materials that "reflect adversely" on gays or particular religions. School districts would have flexibility in deciding what to include in the lessons and at what grades students would receive them.

Supporters contend that requiring instruction about gays in history would correct an obvious gap in the state's existing social studies framework and curb anti-gay stereotypes that make gay youth vulnerable to bullying and suicide.

California law already requires schools to teach about women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, entrepreneurs, Asian Americans, European Americans, American Indians and labor. The Legislature over the years also has prescribed specific lessons about the Irish potato famine and the Holocaust, among other topics.

"We are conspicuous in our absence. This corrects that," said the bill's openly gay author, Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, of San Francisco. "Should we delete the inclusion of all the groups that are currently in the statute? Why is that OK, not LGBT? That is discriminatory."

Opponents counter that such instruction would further burden an already crowded curriculum and expose students to a subject that some parents find objectionable.

Some churches and conservative family groups have encouraged their members to lobby against Leno's bill by saying that it would indoctrinate children to accept homosexuality.

During a hearing before the Senate Education Committee, Robert Evans, pastor of Christ Church in Pleasanton, Calif., questioned how schools would reconcile a twin mandate to use textbooks free of bias toward gay people while fairly representing religions that do not embrace homosexuality.

"How would one responsibly teach concerning a religion that holds a less than favorable view of homosexuality without such instruction, per se, reflecting adversely on that religion?" Evans asked.

Republican Sen. Doug La Malfa, of Butte, appealed to colleagues to defeat the measure, saying it promotes a selective approach to reduce school bullying, although it affects more than gay children.

"This, to me, is the final frontier of advancing this (gay rights) agenda into schools," La Malfa said. "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?"

Public schools never are far away from gay rights debates.

"And Tango Makes Three," a children's picture book about two male penguins raising an orphan penguin, last week again topped the American Library Association's annual list of most-challenged books.

During the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California, gay marriage opponents' most successful message was warning that schoolchildren would be taught about same-sex couples if they could marry.

The groups fighting Leno's bill also lobbied hard five years ago against a similar measure that was amended to simply disallow textbooks portraying gay people in a negative light. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it as unnecessary.

When new history texts were created for California in the 1980s, a range of groups attacked the series, recalled Gary Nash, director of the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools, who oversaw the effort.

While evangelicals complained the texts did not depict the Founding Fathers as devout Christians, gay rights activists pushed to have Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, John Maynard Keynes and Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged as one of their own, Nash said.

He thinks California students should be exposed to gay history but not before 11th grade, when they study the social movements of the mid-to-late 20th century.

NYU's Zimmerman has a different concern. He agrees with Leno that adding a gay lens to history could enrich children's' understanding of the world.

"I am 100 percent for adding gay and lesbian history. It's something everybody should know," he said. "But if you took it seriously, what it would force you to do is to ask really hard questions about how sexuality works in this country, who benefits and who is marginalized. That tells you a whole lot more about history than that Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman were gay."

For all the heat curriculum debates generate, it's not always clear that the changes trickle down to students, especially with teachers under pressure to improve test scores in reading and math, said Henry Der, a former California deputy state schools superintendent.

"As much as we respect a leader like Harvey Milk or Cesar Chavez, ... teachers aren't getting to teaching about the contributions of these individuals," Der said. "It really all comes down to what happens in the classroom and what principals and teachers deem to be important given the amount of time they have."

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  • Jonathan Lykes, 2011-04-27 12:14:54

    Is a half-truth a whole lie? When looking back over my 6 years elementary school, 3 years of middle school, and 4 years of high school, I realized that not once did my classes teach me about any gay or lesbian figure in history. As a matter of a fact, if it is public education’s job to teach about the realities of the world, they definitely failed on letting me know that there were gay people who existed in history that did great things. I’m not sure if I can call this homophobia, a better defining term for it is homo-nonexistence. You can’t be afraid of something that doesn’t exist. This is what I am labeling the great injustice of my childhood. This non-existence of gay people in my history books [while growing up] is another reason to why I was so insecure about my sexuality in middle school and much of high school. I remember being in 8th grade and thinking "what was wrong with me" or that I was the only gay person alive. I thought I was going to hell for the desires that I kept concealed in the innermost crevices of my mind. I know it is not random taxpayers’ job to make me secure in my sexuality, but I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that there was not one single individual in all of my history classes that let me know gay people could achieve just as much as straight people. In the thousands of pages in my "less-than-elite" grade school curriculum why would there not be one single instance that let me know gay people existed and lived productive lives? The first time in my life that I can remember recognizing that another gay person existed was when I was in the 6th grade. I was sitting on my living room floor of our 3-bedroom apartment and my step-mom was flipping through the television stations. She stopped at one station to see a clip of Elton John singing "It’s me that you need"-don’t ask me why I remember the name of the song. She quickly yelled "queer!" at the TV, and continued turning the stations. I turned to look at her for an explanation; she leaned in and sternly told me, "We don’t watch queers in this house." At 12 years old I didn’t even know the definition of queer, but somehow I understood that she meant Elton John was gay. Looking back at my childhood-and now attending a liberal university as an out gay black man-I now realize it is unfortunate for any young person to grow up in a less than tolerant household and society. To this day it’s hard for me to understand why oppressed groups look for others to oppress. But this experience of homophobia was not simply limited to my home life. I remember going to school and "gay" being used as a synonym for any negative actions that existed. If someone was "un-cool" they were "gay." If something looked ugly, it was "gay." If a situation in our very important elementary minded lives didn’t go as planned, somehow we were intelligent enough to associate that disappointment with the word "gay." I don’t know where or by who this trend was started, but I do know that it only added to the detrimental mindset I had began to have of myself and it made it that much harder to overcome the "secret" that was dooming me to hell. I am fortunate. I am fortunate that I found a solid group of friends that I eventually could come out to and be accepted by. I am fortunate that even in the mist of homophobia I learned to accept who I was. I am fortunate that I was able to read and study history for myself and find that there are numerous amounts of out and proud LGBT people in history who deserve to be taught about in schools. James Baldwin,Leonardo Da Vinci, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others. I heard all of these names in school but was never told the whole truth about their lives. I know in my heart, that many are not as fortunate as I was. I know that there are still confused students in red states roaming the halls of our public schools hoping for someone to tell them that "it’s ok, the thoughts you have don’t make you any less of a person." The gay rights movement has come along way in the past decade, and I know it will continue to push on-I’ll be on the front lines-but I also realize that we have a long way to go. We still live in a hetero-normative society where being gay in many communities is not normal. Maybe if people would tell the whole truth in our history classes and paint a picture of reality, it will be that much easier for the next generation of LGBT’s to accept who they are.

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