In middle school and grade school, our history classes spend a lot of time discussing the injustices that people faced and how they banded together, revolted and helped to create a more equal, less oppressive society. We learn about the American Revolution, where we broke away from the British and fought for liberty. We learn about the abolishment of slavery and the Civil Rights movement that gave black citizens the right to vote. We learn about the struggle for Women’s Suffrage.
But what about the LGBT rights movement? Did you learn about that in your high school history class?
That’s what a Californian Senator, Mark Leno, is aiming for with the introduction of his new bill, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act, into the state legislature. The bill, co-sponsored and –written by Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, would ensure that textbooks and history classes fairly and accurately communicate information about LGBT people and their role in history. Similar legislation passed both houses of the state legislature in 2006, but it died after a veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In a press release, Leno said, “Most textbooks don’t include any historical information about the LGBT movement, which has great significance to both California and U.S. history. Our collective silence on this issue perpetuates negative stereotypes of LGBT people and leads to increased bullying of young people. We can’t simultaneously tell youth that it’s OK to be yourself and live an honest, open life when we aren’t even teaching students about historical LGBT figures or the LGBT equal rights movement.”
The bill has been criticized as pushing a “pro-gay agenda,” largely by right-wing pundits, including, expectantly, Fox News, whose Tucker Carlson said, “You don’t need to be anti-gay to be against this … There are two problems with this: one, it’s propaganda, and two, it’s blackmail. …There isn’t social science that demonstrates that teaching children about the glories of the gay rights movement will reduce bullying. That’s not the purpose of school. The purpose of school is to educate children, and this not only differs from that aim, it gets in the way of it.”
I fully support the bill’s message: LGBT people are a part of history, so why do so few instructional materials reflect their presence? When students learn about the Red Scare, they should also learn about the similarly-extreme Lavender Scare, which targeted homosexual citizens as threats to national security, causing many to lose their jobs and prompting some to commit suicide. Lessons about Harvey Milk, same-sex marriage struggles and other developments of the sexual equality movement should also be considered.
However, I think the approach that Leno and other advocates are taking is the wrong way to pitch the FAIR Education Act. Leno’s press release and Internet commentators are discussing the bill as if it is the role of textbooks to advocate for an end to bullying. That isn’t the argument that should accompany this bill.
Rather, we should be arguing that history is supposed to be an objective look at what has happened in our country, and as most textbooks stand now, they are skirting over crucial elements of history—namely, almost everything that has to do with LGBT people. Textbook writers should not be mandated to portray gay people in a positive way. But they should be mandated to tell the truth and disseminate facts. This includes informing grade school students about the gay rights movement, not treating it like it doesn’t deserve a place right next to America’s other historical fights against oppression.