One for the Books

California may become the first state to legally mandate public schools teach gay history. This week, the state assembly will vote on the bill mandating such, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act (SB 48), sponsored by state Senator Mark Leno (D- Calif.).

And it’s about time. Last fall’s wave of LGBT teen suicides — five in the span of three weeks — brought homophobic bullying to the national stage. In light of these recent tragedies, it’s become increasingly clear that the gay community’s struggle against oppression is vital to any modern social sciences curriculum.

A 2003 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network National School Climate Survey claims that a full 64 percent of LGBT students do not feel safe at school. Another study done by GLSEN found that LGBT students experience anti-gay bullying at least 25 times a day and that teachers fail to respond 97 percent of the time.

While the bill won’t eradicate homophobic bullying altogether, its attempts to educate students are a positive step in the right direction at a time when it’s become inarguably clear how much LGBT youth need to be protected.

According to Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, studies have shown that including course material on LGBT history lowers rates of bullying and a creates a greater sense of security for gay students.

The LGBT community has a history of political activism far predating Prop 8, from the Stonewall Riots of 1969 (during which the New York City gay community and its allies rioted in response to police brutality) to the Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (which ruled that homosexual acts are protected under the right to privacy). It’s only right that the community’s history be documented alongside that of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and American Indians — groups whose histories constitute required curriculum in social studies classes statewide.

Some California school districts — San Francisco and Los Angeles included — have long included gay history in their social studies syllabi. Though the bill doesn’t prescribe one set curriculum, it does state that social studies classes must include a section on contributions of gay activists; what that section looks like, in practice, will be left to the determination of individual school districts.

If the bill is passed, it will also be up to the districts to decide at what grade level the material should be introduced. Though there will be plenty of controversy over which age is most appropriate, it is important that this material be introduced early in a student’s academic career — educating students at an early age will hopefully curb homophobia down the line.

In a best-case scenario, providing students with a greater knowledge of LGBT rights could be a proactive way of equipping students with a greater knowledge of the community’s history of adversity. At the very least, it should act as a preemptive measure against hateful ignorance.

A similar bill (SB 1437) prohibiting teachers from using materials that would reflect negatively on the LGBT community was rejected by former Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006. Supporters of the FAIR Education Act have high hopes that the bill will pass through the Democrat-controlled Assembly. It has swept the state Senate with a strong 23-14 vote. And despite vocal religious opposition, the bill has an ally in the governor’s office, as Gov. Jerry Brown (D- Calif.) is a longtime gay rights advocate.

Opponents, such as conservative activist Craig De Luz, have decried the bill on the outrageous grounds that it accepts the LGBT community as a minority, not just people who choose a particular lifestyle. Others still believe that the teaching of gay history — or rather, any mention of homosexuality at all — should be left to parental discretion. Teaching children allegedly controversial material at such an early age, they argue, leaves little room in an already crowded history curriculum.

The purpose of the bill, of course, is not to impose any person’s life choices on the student body or promote a certain lifestyle.

It is meant to educate students on a crucial part of American history omitted from most textbooks: the gay community’s ongoing struggle for equal rights. The addition could even, for many students, represent an important first step toward eliminating homophobic ignorance.

Jennet Liaw/Guardian