September 9, 2020 at 11:47 am EDT | by Philip Van Slooten
LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum laws take effect in N.J., Ill.
inclusive curricula, Frederick County School Board, transgender students, gay news, Washington Blade

New Jersey and Illinois’ LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum laws go into effect this academic year.

Five states, as well as counties in Maryland and Virginia have already enacted such laws. GLSEN notes six states currently ban LGBTQ-specific content in the classroom.

“We’re excited that LGBTQ students across the state are now guaranteed the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the classroom,” said Ashley Chiappano, the safe schools and community education manager for Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group in New Jersey, in an email to the Washington Blade. “Creating a more inclusive school environment.”

Illinois’ Inclusion Curriculum Law that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed last year is being implemented this school year. Equality Illinois, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, is among the organizations that support the law.

New Jersey and Illinois join California, Colorado and Oregon in requiring LBGTQ-inclusive curriculum content. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have various restrictions.

The Blade last year reported Maryland’s State Department of Education said it was in the process of developing new standards to include LGBTQ and disabled communities. The Montgomery County School Board in May approved an LGBTQ history elective for juniors and seniors to begin next spring.

New Jersey’s law, signed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in 2019, was implemented in stages this year by Garden State Equality and Make it Better for Youth, another advocacy group. They rolled out a pilot program in 12 public schools from January to June to test out teaching materials prior to the law taking effect this month, according to NBC News.

Samuel Garrett-Pate, the communications director for Equality California, told the Blade the organization assisted New Jersey and other states by sharing lessons learned in California, which in 2011 became the first state to mandate LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.

“We started this effort back in 2006,” Garrett-Pate said, explaining challenges advocates faced, which dovetailed with the fight for marriage equality. “This was only a few years after Prop 8 passed in California and one of the big arguments against marriage equality was kids would be taught about gay couples in school. In three years we were trying to pass legislation to ensure LGBT people would be fairly represented in our curriculum. It was not easy to get done.”

Garrett-Pate said activists knew at the time it was important for California to be the first state because of its size.

“Because California is so large, if we require textbooks, it requires textbook companies to come up with new ones for such a large market,” he explained. “It makes it easier for other states to adopt textbooks that are LGBT-inclusive.”

But it took six years after the law passed for the materials to be implemented and even then there were problems.

According to Equality California’s website and other news sources, when the textbooks and materials were rolled out in the fall of 2017, they were “nothing to be proud of” and advocates protested their use.

“Half of them were failing in significant ways in meeting the requirements of the Fair Education Act,” said Equality California’s Executive Director Rick Zbur in an interview posted to their website. “Many of them didn’t have any content related to significant LGBTQ historical figures as part of the history curriculum.”

Advocates fought and continue to fight to have relevant content in the curriculum, and have it implemented in more school districts, which meets the intent of the law. Garrett-Pate stated this is particularly important for LGBTQ youth who often do not have LGBTQ parents at home to pass down their history in an affirming way.

“This is about making sure LGBTQ students have role models throughout history,” he explained. “So that they learn that LGBTQ people are like anyone else and that they understand the context of their history. The bottom line of all of this is that history needs to be taught accurately and fairly. What conservative parents who opposed this are arguing is to rewrite history and we are arguing to teach history as it happened.”

Garrett-Pate said it is not just up to politicians and nonprofits to fight for inclusive curriculum, but for LGBTQ parents and students to hold their schools and teachers accountable for their education as well.

“It takes time and it takes work,” Garrett-Pate said. “But it is also the right thing to do.”

Similarly, C.P. Hoffman, the legal director for FreeState Justice, Maryland’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, stated they look forward to seeing the new state curriculum when it rolls out, “but in the meantime there’s nothing stopping individual school districts and teachers from working queer history and queer issues into their classes.”

“With more students identifying as LGBTQIA+ than ever before, it’s crucial that they be able to see themselves reflected in their school work,” said Hoffman.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, told the Blade there “are many issues that still need to be addressed before Virginia is a safe and inclusive state for all LGBTQ people.” They said their organization over the summer conducted a survey that found “many Virginians are interested in prioritizing a statewide LGBTQ-inclusive Family Life Education curriculum.”

“LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum teaches students about the historical contributions of LGBTQ members of our society and shouldn’t be controversial — it’s simply fact,” said Lamneck. “We applaud the efforts of other states who are providing a more comprehensive and accurate teaching of our shared history.”

Lamneck conceded LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum would face opposition in Virginia. They nevertheless specifically applauded Montgomery County officials’ efforts “to affirm the dignity and historical accomplishments of LGBTQ individuals.”

“LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum creates a more welcoming, tolerant, and safe environment for all students,” Lamneck told the Blade.

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