Teachable Moments

BY Stuart Beigel

March 10 2011 5:00 AM ET

 In my work on this topic over the past decade, I have sought to build upon the pioneering research of many groups in this arena, expanding on the strengthening of the curriculum that has occurred in both public and private educational settings. The following principles can inform the policy decisions of those seeking to upgrade their course content to reflect the existence of LGBT people in society:

• LGBT-related curriculum changes do not have to be mandatory in order to be beneficial. Given the tension regarding these issues that still exists in so many school communities, permissive policies that do not require change but encourage collaborative exploration of possible curricular adjustments at the local level often stand the best chance of succeeding.

• Including information about LGBT persons and their achievements, trials, and tribulations does not constitute the promotion of homosexuality. The study of the arts and the social sciences is typically filled with detailed information about the lives and pursuits of noteworthy persons and groups. And while these various pursuits might be attractive to some and run counter to the values of others, disagreements regarding these matters do not preclude teaching about them.

• Age-appropriate, LGBT-related material in the K-12 curriculum can range from lessons linked specifically to antibullying initiatives to social studies units on civil rights movements, legal studies units focusing on First Amendment topics such as the recent antigay T-shirt controversies, urban planning units that include an analysis of how gays and lesbians have transformed neighborhoods in various parts of the country, and units regarding larger-than-life figures—gay and straight—in literature, music, and art.

• It’s not possible to address problems without being able to talk about them. To fully and effectively combat the LGBT-related harassment that persists in schools, all members of the school community must be able to discuss the topic openly, in a courteous, respectful, and professional manner, and in all possible settings. Including LGBT topics in the curriculum would be a key component of such openness.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, I began introducing LGBT content in all my courses in 2003 and soon began presenting this material in conferences throughout the state and across the country. In recent years I have been focusing directly on the controversy over curricular policy and have found that a majority of K-12 educators still have never discussed LGBT issues openly in professional settings. When I raise these issues with them, they may be very hesitant to say anything at first. But once the conversation begins, people start to open up and a productive dialogue invariably ensues.

Interestingly, among the most common objections raised by educational professionals to any mention of the sexual orientation or gender identity of people studied in school is the persistent view that what great historical figures “might have done in their bedrooms” is beyond the scope of what should be taught. Among the most compelling arguments in response, however, is that literature anthologies, for example, always add blurbs about authors’ lives, including the relationships that might have influenced their work. LGBT authors have been similarly influenced, and it’s equally appropriate to include such key historical facts.

Educators must continue to move away from seeing gay as unmentionable in school settings. Indeed, the assumption that the word is not currently mentioned is a misconception. It’s in fact mentioned in schools all the time, but often only in a negative way. Bottom line: The simple mention of words describing LGBT people in a neutral fashion—during classroom discussions, faculty meetings, and extracurricular activities—can play a big part in countering antigay sentiment and enabling our public schools to help point the way toward a better future for everyone.












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