Should schools teach history of gay rights in America?

An Atlanta firefighter waves a Rainbow Flag while standing on a fire truck at the start of the Atlanta Pride Parade in 2016.
An Atlanta firefighter waves a Rainbow Flag while standing on a fire truck at the start of the Atlanta Pride Parade in 2016.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

California led effort to include LGBTQ history in its schools. Other states have followed but not Georgia.

Should students know what led to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969?

Should they recognize the name of ex nun Jean O'Leary who became a gay rights activist and co-founded National Coming Out Day?

Four states think so, and have enacted laws calling for schools to include LGBTQ movements and leaders in their history and social science classes. Georgia is not one of them.

The latest state is Illinois where the governor signed House Bill 246 in August. The Illinois law states that in "the teaching of history of the United States shall include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this state."

In a statement following passage, the bill sponsor, state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, said, “This legislation will ensure that our schools are providing a more comprehensive and accurate teaching of history and creates a more welcoming, tolerant, and safe environment for all of our students in Illinois. It also affirms the dignity and contributions of LGBTQ individuals and the movements that have shaped the world we live in today.”

A reader asked me whether I thought Georgia would ever consider such a law.

Not any time soon.

In fact, I think it’s more likely we would see a Georgia lawmaker attempt to follow Alabama’s example and ban mention of homosexuality in schools. I don’t think such a law would pass, but I do think it would be proposed as a way to make clear Georgia was not ready to highlight LGBTQ history in its classrooms.

Alabama is among six states that have passed what is sometimes called “no promo homo” laws. The other states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network:

Laws prohibiting the "promotion of homosexuality" are local or state education laws that expressly forbid teachers of health/sexuality education from discussing lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) people or topics in a positive light – if at all. Some laws even require that teachers actively portray LGB people in a negative or inaccurate way.

Not only do these laws prevent LGBTQ young people from learning critical information about their health, but they also serve to further stigmatize LGBTQ students by providing K-12 students false, misleading, or incomplete information about LGBTQ people.

According to GLSEN, the Alabama law applies to sexual health education where classes “must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

In South Carolina, health education “may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.”

But there is a move away from such laws, according to GLSEN:

For example, North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, and several other states repealed existing "no promo homo" provisions in the process of revising their larger sexual health education laws. At the district level, the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota revised their Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, a similar law that applied to all school curriculum, after being sued by several students who claimed the school did little to address rampant bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Nationally, repealing these laws is politically popular, especially as current trends push sexual education in the direction of mandating factually and scientifically accurate content around HIV and AIDS.

New Jersey and Colorado also passed laws last year calling for the inclusion of LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups in education standards.

Under the New Jersey law, schools must teach about the political, economic and social contributions of gay and transgender people, as well as those with disabiities.

The Colorado bill requires students to learn the "the history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups, the contributions and persecution of religious minorities, and the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities.”

The governor who signed the Colorado bill into law could become part of the state's new history lessons. When he took office a year ago, Jared Polis was the first openly gay man elected governor in American history. Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon is the first openly bisexual governor in the United States, (His sexual orientation was never an issue in the campaign with Polis telling The New York times there were more anti-Semitic attacks because he's also Colorado's first Jewish governor.)

In 2011, California became the first state to legally require the representation of LGBTQ people in the state's history and social sciences curriculum. But it took six years for the California State Board of Education to approve K-8 textbooks that do so.

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