I have blogged in the past about California’s controversial new law which requires its public schools to teach all students, of every grade starting in kindergarten, about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans in history classes. The issue these schools face is two-fold: how do you fit this into the current history curriculum, and how early should such instruction begin?
Donald Wilson, an openly gay principal from Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, where his teachers talk about diverse families, and the library houses books on homosexual authors, admits, “At this point, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Yet, by January, according to Education Week, teachers across the state will have to formulate a plan for how and when their students will learn about LGBT Americans due to this state’s landmark law.
Paul Boneberg, executive director at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, expressed similar concerns, saying, “I’m not sure how we plug it into the curriculum at the grade school level, if at all.”
Adding to frustration is the fact that all adoptions of instructional material through eighth grade have been curtailed until 2015 in order to save money, and the earliest California schools would have access to new textbooks with LGBT content is 2019, according to a state Education Department spokeswoman.
The Los Angeles Unified district has been a pioneer in LGBT education since 1988, when its school board passed a resolution which directed both students and staff members of this district to refrain from slurs regarding sexual orientation. And in 2003, accusations that staff members were involved in bullying LGBT students compelled the district to improve its efforts to educate students about this sensitive subject, according to Judy Chiasson who is the coordinator for human relations, diversity, and equity.
The nation’s first chapter on LGBT issues appeared in a high school health textbook in 2005, in L.A. Unified. Issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, struggles LGBT individuals face, and anti-LGBT bias were addressed in this book, as well as a statement that caused religious conservatives grave displeasure; the book stated that sexual orientation is not a choice.
An educational support group for LGBT youth, the Safe Schools Coalition, has stated that at the elementary level, these topics would be inappropriate. Rather, they maintain that at this level students should only be exposed to curriculum regarding family diversity, gender stereotypes, and anti-bullying.
This is what the teachers at Wonderland have decided as well, where their emphasis is on the simple fact that families come in all different configurations. “The issue is never going to move beyond the diversity of family,” Principal Wilson said. “If it were to move beyond that, we would address it as a breach of developmentally appropriate instruction.”
But the middle and high schools are a different story. In California, sex education begins at fifth-grade, so more specific LGBT instruction would be suitable, and some experts even say, necessary because these are the years where bullying really starts to increase.
In 2005, at Downtown Magnets High School, a lesbian student was beaten up on a school bus. The school responded to this intolerance by creating a Gay-Straight Alliance club, providing staff sessions focused on being inclusive, and a concerted effort by some teachers to integrate these issues into their instruction. As a result of these changes, students say that their school has a safe and nurturing environment.
David Columbus is a senior and the president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, and he knows what it’s like to grow up bullied and teased for being gay. There was even a time when he wished he were dead. But he says that at school he has thrived due to the support he has felt there.
Jennifer Vanegas, a straight member of the club, said, “This law’s going to educate kids about LGBT people, and once you get education, you’ll respect them, and nobody’s going to bully them anymore.”
But this new law faces some stiff opposition in the community just 60 miles east of Wonderland, where the evangelical Calvary Chapel Corona members are so opposed that at least seven of its families have pulled their children from public schools in protest.
One of those who pulled his children, Bryan Breuer, stated, “This law teaches children that it’s OK to be gay, and that’s not my Christian values. I don’t understand trying to force this on my children.”
And conservative Christians aren’t the only ones who are opposed to the implementation of this law. Some teachers, like Grace R. Callaway who is a public school teacher near Yuba City, said she will not teach LGBT issues to her fifth-graders and sixth-graders because she feels homosexuality is a “destructive lifestyle.”
This raises the question, how will administrators deal with teachers who refuse, due to religious or personal beliefs, to teach this curriculum when it is mandated that they do so?
As teachers and principals throughout the state of California have already begun to meet to decide when they will introduce LGBT lessons into their curriculum, and how to make it fit naturally, I can only wish them luck. This is a sensitive issue which can bring out the best and the worst in people.
I do not envy the difficult task which lies ahead for these schools to create just the right balance at just the right time.