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History in the Un-making

news1_harvey_milk‘Gay textbook bill’ faces public veto as communities react to looming history curriculm

Less than two weeks after Governor Jerry Brown signed California’s “gay textbook bill” into law, opponents of the FAIR Education Act (SB 48) proposed a veto referendum.

Approved by Secretary of State Debra Bowen at the end of July, the referendum must now receive 505,000 supporting signatures before it can be placed on the June 2012 ballot. If approved by voters, the referendum will overturn the first law in the nation requiring teachers to discuss the role of gay citizens in history.

The controversy has left people on all sides of the debate wondering what curriculum changes the law might spur.

 

Opponents fear that teaching about LGBT historical figures will promote the gay lifestyle. “Parents are worried that teachers will use this as an opportunity to highlight and affirm gay role models,” says Brad Dacus, president of the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, which drafted the referendum. “This kind of a policy is very intolerant to the wishes of a wide variety of parents.”

When asked if history books promote practices like slavery by teaching about the founding fathers—many of whom held slaves—Dacus says, “The legislation says only positive things can be taught about the homosexual lifestyle.”

This is a gross misinterpretation of the law, according to Sonoma State University professor Don Romesburg, who helped compile information on LGBT historical figures for the San Francisco-based Gay Straight Alliance Network, which co-sponsored the bill. “To my knowledge, as long as people are not openly discriminatory in their approach, there is no reason why a teacher couldn’t critique a gay politician or artist’s work,” he says.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-3rd District) authored the bill in an attempt to end the censure of LGBT historical figures from classrooms. “Education at its core is to teach students of our differences so we can best coexist in a respectful passion,” Leno says.

The law is an attempt to talk about factual events, says Cynthia Hawthorne, president of the Santa Cruz City School Board. “Talking about a historical figure doesn’t mean that we promote their personal lives,” she says.

Last spring Hawthorne and her fellow board members voted unanimously to support SB 48. “People like the bill because it lets local school boards choose the age groups these conversations are appropriate for,” she adds.

Indefinite Histories

The law is generally broad and makes no specific curriculum requirements. For better or worse, it is also not designed to “out” historical figures, contrary to certain media coverage.

Schools will not be asked to re-visit Eleanor Roosevelt, who some speculate may have maintained a lesbian relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. The bill also doesn’t ask that poet Walt Whitman or playwright Orson Wilder be called homosexual.

“Most historians and scholars are not concerned with questions of who is gay and who isn’t,” says Romesburg. “The term homosexuality wasn’t even used during Whitman’s time.”

Instead, Romesburg suggests textbooks include The Lavender Scare, which transformed the nation’s concept of homosexuality and gender during the Cold War. After President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, federal employees could be fired if found guilty of “sexual perversion.” Rumors spread through every tier of government; tests were given to determine homosexuality, and those investigated were encouraged to turn in other colleagues. Ten thousand government employees lost their jobs after being accused of effeminate or gay behavior.

“It’s incredible that high school students don’t know about this,” says Romesburg.

“Along with being considered mentally ill, homosexuals were considered a security risk because they were thought more susceptible to blackmail. Whether or not you agree with homosexuality, these stories are a part of our national history.”

Another possible example for the textbooks is California’s Briggs Initiative of 1978, which sought to prevent gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, organized a statewide campaign that helped defeat the ballot initiative. Milk also championed housing rights and an ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. His murder, committed by fellow Supervisor Dan White, sparked riots.

Stories like this depict a violent civil rights process, and illustrate how our concepts of gender and sexuality are woven into the political fabric. “It’s a reality that members of the LGBT community have struggled for their civil liberties, and we can’t censure these stories because of moral or religious conflicts with homosexuality,” says Romesburg.

Yet whether the law is strong enough to curtail censorship remains to be seen. As local school boards can reject new textbooks or skip over controversial paragraphs, they may find ways to sidestep the new requirement. Teachers must include LGBT history, but the law does not say that the full stories should be told. For example, will students learn that gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia, or will the focus instead be placed on the failure of Proposition 8 in California?

According to Sen. Leno, these issues are beyond the scope of the legislation. “We just added LGBT Americans and those from the disability community to an existing statute,” he says. State law already requires the contributions of African Americans, women and other overlooked communities to be included in social science classes. The new law extends this inclusion.

Who Will Make History?

The task of revising curriculum will fall to the Office of Education’s Curriculum Commission—that is, if it once again becomes functional. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deficit spending bill stripped funding from the Commission, which also reviews new textbooks, and submits these items to the Board of Education for a vote. Funding was originally stripped until 2013, but the freeze has since been extended to 2015.

“2015 is the earliest point at which work will start at the state level, so it’s way too early to say what changes will be made,” says Tom Adams, director of the California Office of Education. “Don’t get me wrong, the bill will have an effect. But it’s too early to say whether there will be dramatic revisions.”

After the curriculum is updated, state policy requires a lengthy public review process. There will also be a 30-month delay before the Commission can suggest new materials for adoption. This makes it unlikely that new textbooks will be approved before 2019.

Hawthorne, from SCCS, says the delays are frustrating, but she anticipates students will see changes in the classroom long before the statewide curriculum is revised. “The law will go into effect in January, and, until the state revises the curriculum, districts will have to compile their own instructional materials and find ways to start having these conversations,” she says.

This local effort may be cheaper and more effective, says Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Gary Bloom. “We support the changes,” he says. “They will probably reduce the hazing and harassment directed towards gay students. But textbooks are expensive.”

The law does not require that schools buy new books, and as most districts upgrade every five to 10 years, they may not be able to spend money until long after the revised textbooks have been published. This means supplementary materials compiled by historical societies, advocacy groups and local teachers may get the most use. These can be tailored to individual communities, and will not need state approval.

“It will be interesting to see what materials and stories take the spotlight,” says Hawthorne. “I think this is what people are wondering—what is this actually going to look like? Our teachers and staff will be reading newspapers and history books for ideas, and we are excited to be opening the doors to a more accurate and inclusive history.”

Photo Credit: Harvey Milk in the 1978 Pride Parade on Hollywood Blvd. By Pat Rocco, courtesy of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

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