Teachable Moments

By Stuart Beigel

Originally published on Advocate.com March 10 2011 5:00 AM ET

 It’s an irrational fear, but one entrenched among many Americans: Introduce LGBT content into the public school curriculum, and you “promote” homosexuality.

The research, however, shows a different reality. Scholars have found overwhelmingly that an inclusive curriculum reflecting the existence of diverse communities in our pluralistic society benefits everyone and hurts no one. A gay-inclusive curriculum not only helps create a welcoming and supportive environment for all students but has particularly important benefits for gay and gender-nonconforming youth, the children of LGBT parents, and the friends and family of LGBT students in education settings.

These benefits are not speculative. LGBT-related content is already being addressed in an age-appropriate manner throughout the country, and material documenting both the structure and the results of this work is readily available. From an academic perspective, this content often fits within state curriculum frameworks and is aligned with mandatory state standards. From an emotional development perspective, it’s been shown to aid in the personal growth and well-being of gay and gender-nonconforming students, while at the same time fostering collaboration and helping to create a safer campus environment for all students, gay and straight. A laudable goal for any educator, given what we all have seen can happen when gay teens are marginalized and harassed for who they are.

Parents who challenge the inclusion of what they view to be objectionable content in school often raise arguments based on religious or political values, concerns about indoctrination, and the fear that particular material might lead students to experiment with such things as religion, drugs, sex, or weapons. Yet children are never at the mercy of the curriculum. Who might be teaching the content and how it is being presented should not be overlooked.

The controversy over this issue hasn’t dissuaded advocates for change. In 2006, California state senator Sheila Kuehl generated extensive dialogue on these curriculum issues when she introduced a bill that would have added LGBT people to the state Education Code’s list of groups whose accomplishments should be addressed and whose identities should not be denigrated. A modified version of the bill was vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Undeterred, Kuehl introduced a different version, one prohibiting “instruction” or activities in K-12 schools that “promote a discriminatory bias” against people based on protected characteristics such as sexual orientation. The bill was passed and signed into law, and although it didn’t have all the components of the earlier legislation, it was a significant step forward nonetheless.

Now, over the past six months, there’s evidence to suggest we’ve reached a tipping point on the issue. Rhetoric from groups opposed to antibullying initiatives is increasingly viewed as distasteful by the mainstream media and by an American public that recognizes the link between bullying and the large number of reported teen suicides. Harsh comments by 2010 New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino to the effect that he didn’t want young people to be “brainwashed” into thinking that being gay was an “equally valid option” were met with rousing condemnation across the political spectrum and were seen as contributing to his defeat. And most recently, the venerable Southern Poverty Law Center greatly expanded the number of antigay groups, including organizations that essentially oppose any mention of gays and transgender persons in public schools—unless it’s accompanied by condemnation—in its most current listing of hate groups. The inclusion was a scathing and unprecedented denunciation of such organizations by one of the most respected and admired watchdog groups in the country. 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.