California Leads the Way Teaching LGBT History to Schoolchildren

California has approved 10 textbooks for use in K-8 classrooms that include covering the contributions of LGBT people to American history. Cue predictable outrage.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

As goes California, so goes the nation—at least, that’s what LGBT advocates in the Golden State are hoping when it comes to a set of new, inclusive K-8 history textbooks.

As first reported by The Advocate, the California State Board of Education approved 10 textbooks last week for use in K-8 classrooms that cover the contributions of LGBT people and people with disabilities to American history. The road to this point has been six years long: In 2011, the California state legislature passed Sen. Mark Leno’s Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, which required classroom instruction in the state to include information about the contributions of a wide range of Americans, including Native Americans, LGBT people, and people with disabilities. 

Last July, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a framework to begin implementing these provisions in history and social science curricula. And now, those LGBT-inclusive history textbooks have become a reality.

California isn’t just the first state to do something like this; it’s the only one. In fact, some states still expressly prohibit any positive discussion of LGBT issues under “no promo homo” laws.

“California tends to be the first state to pass a lot of progressive laws and— mainly because of our diversity—a lot of inclusive laws,” said Renata Moreira, executive director of the San Francisco-based LGBT organization Our Family Coalition, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I think in other states folks are still looking to California to see how the inclusion is going to be rolled out. So there’s some hesitancy and frankly lack of leadership in other states to see that people with disabilities and LGBT people are included in history.”

Indeed, by forging out ahead of the country on this issue, California has earned the ire of anti-LGBT voices who see the FAIR Act as a matter of cultural indoctrination.

When the FAIR Act first passed, for example, the chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition said that it was “an outrage that Governor Jerry Brown has opened the classroom door for homosexual activists to indoctrinate the minds of California’s youth.” 

The LGBT-inclusive legislation generated the predictable round of inflammatory headlines on far-right websites, which decried how early these LGBT history lessons would begin—a retread of the same tired controversies that seem to erupt every time a gay-themed book gets read in a public school

Indeed, in a country where 10 million adults—or 4 percent of the population—now identify as LGBT, leaving out the LGBT community’s role in American history is becoming an increasingly noticeable omission—especially when younger generations are identifying as LGBT at even higher rates than the general population.

As loath as opponents of equality may be to admit it, LGBT adults and young adults were once LGBT kids—and those kids rarely see themselves reflected in school curricula. (According to the Guttmacher Institute, for example, only nine states even require inclusive discussion of sexual orientation in sexual education classes.)

What LGBT kids are exposed to in public schools are omnipresent anti-gay slurs and transphobic remarks. 

According to the LGBT organization GLSEN’s 2015 school climate survey, 98.1 percent of LGBTQ students had heard the word “gay” used in a negative way, 95.8 percent had heard slurs like “dyke” or “faggot,” and 85.7 percent had heard anti-transgender slurs like “tranny.” 

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In the absence of inclusive curricula, it seems, the hallways deliver their own unwelcoming education.

But making LGBT-inclusive history textbooks for K-8 kids isn’t just about helping LGBT children in those classrooms or mitigating bullying, Moreira says, it’s about accurately representing the diversity of our country to all students.

“It’s about full inclusion and really raising students—not only LGBT students but also straight students that might have LGBT families, and straight-identified students—to understand the diverse populations that they live and grow and work with,” she told The Daily Beast. 

According to 2017 data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 7 in 10 Americans report having a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian and 1 in 5 say they have a close friend or family member who is transgender—numbers that are on the rise across the board. Not only that, but LGBT history is being written around us daily, with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, and major advances in transgender equality—like the election of incoming Virginia Delegate Danica Roem—happening as recently as last week. These advances have moved from the edges of society to the mainstream.

As writer James Michael Nichols observed last year, five decades of LGBT history have passed since Stonewall and yet “public school children still often go through school without ever once learning about the riots” or hearing about figures like Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, or Christine Jorgensen.

“So why, half a century into this highly visible fight for rights and survival, have LGBT people not been given a place in textbooks alongside the histories of other marginalized groups?” Nichols wondered.

Indeed, Moreira says that the most convincing argument in favor of these textbooks—both in California and elsewhere—is the simple, factual one that LGBT people undeniably exist and have shaped the history of this country.

“Sometimes we have had to deal with some pushback in different states—and still here in California,” she said. “The way we’re addressing that is really to rectify the historical exclusion of LGBT Americans and not promote a particular agenda, but to teach all students about facts and the populations that you’re going to grow up with.”