CA schools already teaching gay history
As anti-gay groups lash out against a move to require California schools to teach students about LGBT history, school districts around the state are already adding gay-related lessons to the curriculum.
And the push to see the accomplishments of LGBT people be discussed in the classroom isn’t happening solely in gay-friendly urban districts such as in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Educators in more suburban areas such as Sacramento are also following suit.
The Sacramento City Unified School District is encouraging its teachers to talk to their pupils about the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, the state’s first out elected politician who was killed in office in 1978. The move follows the creation by state lawmakers of an unofficial state holiday each year on Milk’s birthday, May 22.
"This is new for this year," said Lawrence Shweky, a straight man who co-chairs the district’s LGBT Task Force.
Comprised of school district staff, administrators, teachers, community members, students and parents, the six-year-old task force recently emailed teachers a notification that it had assembled a set of educational materials about Milk recommended for grades 4-12. For now it is up to individual teachers to decide if they want to use them.
"These materials are available upon request to SCUSD teachers that wish to review and/or use them," wrote Shweky, who used to work at Washington High School in San Francisco.
In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Shweky said the district faced no opposition in its decision to encourage teachers to observe the second Milk Day observance this year.
"Right now we have had a great deal of support from every level of the school community here, from administrators to community members to board members," he said. "We have not had any complaints from parents. That is not to say we won’t as we roll it out. To date we haven’t had anything but unequivocal support."
The idea is to use Milk’s story, from his organizing of LGBT people in San Francisco’s Castro District in the mid-1970s to his electoral victory in 1977, as an inroad to discussing the broader LGBT community, said Shweky.
"It really is about appreciating diversity," he said.
One of the two books the school has purchased for teachers to use is In Celebration of Harvey Milk, a workbook about the gay rights leader written by Angela F. Luna. A lesbian and fourth grade teacher at San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, Luna self-published the book in January.
She had been looking for materials to use last year to educate her students about Milk and discovered the picture book The Harvey Milk Story by Kari Krakow. She then created her workbook so students could delve deeper into the subject and make their own comparisons between Milk and other historical leaders.
"I think that he definitely made long-lasting contributions to their state, and in the fourth grade we learn about California history. He is part of California history so it ties into the curriculum," explained Luna of why she wanted to incorporate a Milk lesson into her teaching. "If we are teaching about the whole community to the child, as we should be, we are teaching them about everybody, not just groups that are sanctioned by the powers that be. Everyone needs to be validated."
Last year, Luna believes she was the only teacher to discuss Milk at her school. And she only was allowed to do so after she agreed to her then-principal’s demand that she send home permission slips to the parents of her students.
"I had last year, remarkably, only 22 students. Eight parents opted out," recalled Luna, who only came out to her school last year.
This year the school has a new principal, and Luna said it was unclear if she would once again need to send home permission slips before teaching about Milk. She does expect other teachers will be talking about Milk to their classes.
"Last year, I was the only one to use the material. This year more people are using them," said Luna.
The Milk lesson plans could be a primer for other school districts to turn to if Governor Jerry Brown signs into law this year a bill that would require all of the state’s public schools to teach about historical LGBT figures.
State Senators last Thursday, April 14 passed by a 23-14 vote SB 48, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, authored by out Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). Known as the FAIR Act, it requires schools to teach about the LGBT community’s historic contributions in social science classes.
The bill would also add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s existing anti-discrimination protections that prohibit bias in school activities, instruction and instructional materials. The bill is co-sponsored by Equality California and Gay-Straight Alliance Network and now must be passed by the Assembly.
Similar legislation passed the Legislature before but then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. In a recent interview with the B.A.R. Leno expressed hope his legislation would meet a different fate now that Brown is in office.
"We will get that to the governor’s desk. I am hopeful he will see the wisdom of it," said Leno.
He said he sees the bill as a companion measure to AB 9 introduced this year by his colleague, gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). Known as Seth’s Law, it is aimed at addressing anti-gay bullying on school campuses.
In addition to strengthening school policies to safeguard students, Leno said it is just as important to educate them about not only LGBT people’s achievements but also the struggles they have had to overcome.
"It really addresses the tragic bullying and resulting suicides ... if students were to be better informed that our past struggle over many decades is a civil rights movement," said Leno. "I think they will have an inherent greater understanding and respect of their classmates who are different from them. It benefits not only the LGBT students but also their straight counterparts. It should bring a more welcoming learning environment."
Anti-gay groups voice objections
The same anti-gay groups that battled Leno over his pro-same-sex marriage bill are now trying to stop the FAIR Act from becoming law. They have couched their objections to the bill in arguments that parents have a right to know about, and control, what their children learn in the classroom.
"The legislative bill to force the inclusion of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender orientation into the California social science curriculum has moved one step closer to passage. Take a moment to imagine the confusion public school children will experience when they are introduced to different sexual orientations," wrote Ron Prentice, chief executive officer of the California Family Council, a day after the Senate passed the FAIR Act. "Unsuspecting parents may never know of this content, or its affect [sic] on their own children."
Yet educators respond that parents do not have veto power over teachers’ lesson plans when it comes to other subjects taught in schools.
"Teachers all the time bring material in from the news, from history. We don’t send letters home to parents to discuss the content on a daily basis. This is no different," said Shweky of the Milk materials.
Another objection voiced by parents opposed to the teaching of LGBT history is that it requires students to learn about gay sex. That concern was voiced recently by the mother of a student at a private boys school in San Francisco who objected to a second-grade field trip to the city’s Castro neighborhood.
Late last month Kathy Amendola, the operator of the Cruisin’ the Castro Tours, took 50 second-graders from the Town School for Boys in Pacific Heights, plus 14 teachers and parents, on a history tour about the LGBT district. Amendola said she tailored her talk so that it was age appropriate.
"It was one of the best tours I have ever given. It was really empowering," she said. "Because it is amazing how open these children have been to learning about civil rights and history. That is exactly what the tour was focused on."
She has taken various school-age groups on Castro tours over the years, said Amendola. And she hopes more schools begin educating students about LGBT history.
"Harvey Milk should be taught in school; it is about civil rights," she said. "Often the gay community is referred to as the invisible culture. We are everywhere, not just in a neighborhood."
One parent, though, opted to keep her son from going on the tour and then complained anonymously about the trip to a local television reporter. Her main complaint was she didn’t see how one could explain why a person is gay to a child without the conversation discussing sex.
But once again educators say those concerns are misguided, noting that teachers do not delve into the sexual relations of other historical figures they study.
"We are not here to talk about any kind of sex, whether it is between heterosexuals or homosexuals. We are here talking about his contributions to society," said Luna about her teaching about Milk.
Based on her experiences in the classroom, Luna said students aren’t thinking about intercourse during discussions about LGBT people. It is only the adults whose minds turn to the topic, she said.
"The reasons they think about sex is their issues with homosexuality. Their minds go to the bedroom," she said. "Really, it is about them. Children, their minds are not going to sex. It is the parents who are homophobic."
Shweky said the Sacramento district is leaving it up to teachers to determine how best to answer questions from their students on what being gay means. Nowadays, a majority of students already understand the term, he said.
"I think at every grade level there is a lot more awareness and knowledge. But there are also a lot more huge misconceptions. This allows the students to have an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about what it means to be L,G,B, or T," said Shweky. "It is a great opportunity for students to take some knowledge they have but to really expand that to a more true understanding."