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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Students Should Learn About Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, and Barbara Gittings

By Michael Jones -

Harvey Milk. Alan Turing. Jane Addams. Natalie Clifford Barney. Bayard Rustin. Barbara Gittings.

Those are just a few prominent LGBT names in history that, more often than not, never make their way into America's classrooms. But legislation in California could change that, and ensure that the contributions of LGBT people in history are included in the education system.
S.B. 48 -- otherwise known as the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act -- is authored by State Sen. Mark Leno, and received its first committee hearing late last month. If passed, the Act would revise social science curricula in California so that the contributions made by LGBT people in history would be covered. As Sen. Leno put it, part of the goal behind this bill is to help LGBT youth feel less isolated, by showing that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have made significant contributions to both American and world history.
"In light of the ongoing and ever-threatening phenomenon of bullying and the tragic result of suicides, it seems to me that better informed students might be more welcoming in their approach to differences among their classmates," Leno told the Los Angeles Times. "Students would better understand that we are talking about a civil rights movement."
Seems to make perfect sense, right? When students learn that (a) LGBT people have existed throughout time, and (b) they've made some major contributions to our world, they might be less apt to engage in the kind of homophobic bullying and harassment that exemplifies so many school climates these days. There's even real world evidence that teaching LGBT history actually curbs bullying. Take a look at a piece that's Dana Rudolph wrote last October, chronicling a school in London that uses lessons in LGBT history to combat anti-gay violence and rhetoric.
Yet despite the fact that SB 48 would make California schools safer, anti-gay actors are out in full force trying to stop this bill from becoming law. More than 40 opponents of the measure came to the first hearing, telling lawmakers that homosexuality "was an abnormal medical condition," and that historical LGBT figures should not be part of school curricula because it would "normalize" a "deviant behavior." These same opponents have even launched a new campaign to try and stop SB 48, calling the bill "the worst school sexual indoctrination ever."
Really? Teaching kids about Alan Turing, who helped defeat Nazis during World War II by breaking a computer code, somehow "sexually indoctrinates" children? Or teaching kids about Jane Addams, who committed her life to helping those living in poverty, sends our children an "immoral" message?
Ridiculous. Don't let these voices drown out the majority of folks who want to keep kids safer, and want to make sure our history curricula is truly inclusive of all voices. Join with Equality California, and send a message to California lawmakers that SB 48 should become law. There's a couple weeks until the next committee hearing, followed by a vote on the floor. Now's the time to ratchet up pressure.
And lest we think this is just a California issue, think again. Because as the Los Angeles Times notes, California is a major buyer of textbooks. If those textbooks are required to include the contributions of LGBT historical figures, that could have major ramifications for school curricula around the country. And that's a very good thing for the issue of safe and inclusive schools.

Michael Jones is a Editor. He has worked in the field of human rights communications for a decade, most recently for Harvard Law School. 

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