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LGBT history lessons far from universal in U.S. public schools

Religious exemption wavers, anti-LGBT curriculum publishers wrinkle progress

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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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Arts & Entertainment

After COVID hiatus, John Waters resumes touring schedule

‘Every single thing is different after COVID’

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John Watersis on the road again. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time in nearly two years, writer and filmmaker John Waters will be appearing on stage this fall before live audiences in the Baltimore-Washington area, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Waters, who lives in Baltimore, is scheduled to bring his spoken-word holiday show, “A John Waters Christmas,” to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Dec. 15, and Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 21. He’ll also be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Nov. 29 and The Vermont Hollywood on Dec. 2.

Waters’ holiday shows were cancelled in 2020 due to the theater closings and travel restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some book signings for fans were converted to Zoom sessions. He last toured the country in November and December of 2019.

This year, with vaccinations on the rise, Waters has made a few in-person appearances, including a concert with gay country crooner Orville Peck in Colorado in July, where he was “special guest host”; a Q&A session with fans in Provincetown in August and a music festival last weekend in Oakland, Calif. He’s scheduled to visit another 18 cities between now and the end of the year, including a weekend in Wroclaw, Poland, where he’ll be honored during the American Film Festival there in November.

Waters said he has completely rewritten his spoken-word shows to reflect changes brought about by the COVID pandemic. “I haven’t done it in a year and a half,” he said in an interview with Town & Country magazine. “Every single thing is different after COVID. You cannot do the same show. Nothing’s the same.”

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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