August 12, 2019 at 8:37 am EST | by Philip Van Slooten
LGBT history lessons far from universal in U.S. public schools
LGBT history, gay news, Washington Blade
A Gay Liberation Front demonstration in Great Britain in the early ‘70s. LGBT history lessons in public schools in the U.S. has been a wrought issue. (Photo courtesy ImageLibrary via Wikimedia)

This fall more public school students could see LGBT content as states move toward mandating a more inclusive K-12 curriculum. However, publicly funded private schools continue to seek religious exemptions to anti-discriminatory measures.

In 2011 California passed its Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, and lawmakers in New Jersey, Illinois, Colorado and New York City have moved to follow suit. 

California’s FAIR Education Act mandates the inclusion of the political, economic and social contributions of LGBT people and persons with disabilities into educational textbooks across the state. It amends an existing educational code previously mandating inclusions based on race, ethnicity, nationality and gender.

Sen. Mark Leno, the state’s first openly gay state senator, sponsored the bill, stating the goal was to ensure the contributions of LGBT historical figures were “accurately and fairly portrayed in instructional materials.”

Similarly, Colorado State Representative Brianna Buentello, who co-sponsored their bill, said, “Our intent was to start teaching the history of everybody.”

In New York, the city council approved a 2019 budget that included $600,000 for LGBT-inclusive educational programming. Included are lessons about pioneers such as Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and others. Also included are opportunities to meet current history makers and view an interactive map of LGBT historic sites through the city.

Proponents state the inclusive measures were necessary to protect both LGBT students and faculty from bullying and other forms of discrimination.

Illinois State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview) said if their bill had been law 15 years ago, her brother would not have been harassed and denied tenure in a suburban Chicago school.

“My brother was teaching history,” Gong-Gershowitz said at the time. “And a student asked whether the historical figure, that was the subject of the lesson, was gay. He answered the truth.”

As a result, her brother was subject to hate mail and called into the principal’s office.

New Jersey also passed a law mandating LGBT-inclusive curriculum for middle and high school students. However, the mandate does not apply to private schools.

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Council, said these measures infringed on parents’ choices regarding teaching sexuality to their children, echoing concerns of conservative groups across the country.

Lauri Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute similarly said at a hearing on the matter, “The left’s motive is what it always is … to normalize homosexuality,” The Hill reports.

This concern about parental choice in education is at the heart of the school voucher movement championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. However, the program has its roots in a resistance to school integration efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.

According to the Center for American Progress, a progressive-leaning policy institute, in response to federal desegregation orders following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Prince Edward County, Virginia issued tuition grant vouchers for white students to attend segregated private schools. Then as now, these schools rely on significant levels of public funding to continue to operate.

While Title IX of the federal Education Amendment prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs receiving federal funds, the Obama administration’s inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in this definition remains controversial.

Still, some schools continue to submit religious exemption waivers to perceived Title IX mandates, permitting them to discriminate against out LGBT students or faculty with impunity.

Additionally, an investigation by Huffington Post found thousands of these schools use discriminatory evangelical Christian curriculum often purchased using public funds. 

As of 2017, 30 percent or more of the Christian (non-Catholic) schools participating in private school choice programs in Virginia and Maryland, and up to 10 percent in D.C., used textbooks from ultra-conservative publishers such as Bob Jones University Press.

Bob Jones University, submitted a Title IX religious exemption request in 2017 for permission to discriminate against LGBT students and faculty despite receiving public funds.

Students who attended programs using these discriminatory texts reported feeling ill-equipped to succeed in a diverse society and felt instilled with racist, sexist and intolerant views of the world. 

Capri Coleman, an educator in the D.C. area, says it’s important to take students’ feelings into account just as much as parental “choice” when considering curriculum.

“Parents are always going to have a choice in what they want their children to be exposed to,” she says. “But at the same time, children will always run into people who are not like them.”

This is why she felt it was important for parents and society to first “teach tolerance and understanding.”

Unfortunately, due to voucher programs and religious exemptions, the tolerance and understanding promised by LGBT-curriculum legislation is not reaching all students receiving publicly funded education.

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