Saying more role models could help reduce the social estrangement and high suicide rates of gay and lesbian students, the state Senate voted Thursday to require that the historical contributions of homosexuals in the United States be taught in California schools.
Apparently the first of its kind nationwide, the measure passed with no Republican support. It must also be approved by the Assembly and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has taken no position on it. California’s Legislature last year became the first to authorize gay marriage, but Schwarzenegger vetoed the measure.
If passed, the textbook bill could have national implications. California is a huge portion of the textbook market, where it often sets trends, and many publishers put out a specific edition for the state that others can also use.
Textbooks meeting the bill’s requirements would not be incorporated into California classrooms until 2012. Social science courses would then include “an age-appropriate study” of the “role and contributions” that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have made to the “economic political and social development” of California and the United States.
Schools are already required to teach the historical and social roles of blacks, women, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups.
“Even though we passed an anti-harassment bill seven years ago, it’s still pretty obvious that there’s a hostile environment for kids who are gay or lesbian -- or even thought to be gay or lesbian,” said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the bill’s author and one of six openly gay legislators. “Part of that stems from the fact that nobody reads about any positive examples.”
Social conservatives responded harshly to the Senate’s action.
“Happy Mothers Day, California,” said a statement issued by Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families, a Sacramento group. “By passing SB 1437, Democrat politicians have declared war on mothers and fathers and their children.”
The bill passed the Senate 22 to 15, with all 14 Republicans opposed. Democrat Dean Florez of Shafter voted against the bill, and two of his colleagues, Michael Machado of Linden and Denise Ducheny of San Diego, abstained, which effectively count as “no” votes.
Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) called the bill “dangerous” and “insidious” because it lumps sexual orientation -- something he said was a “cultural or behavioral lifestyle” -- together with race and sex, which are biological. He also said there was no reason for a textbook to point out historical figures’ sexual orientation when “their contribution to history has nothing to do with their sexual proclivities.”
Kuehl’s bill would make the state Board of Education responsible for integrating the subject into curricula. The legislation does not specify what should be included or at what grade level the new material should be taught.
Advocates said subjects might include the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Geoffrey Kors, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality California, said textbooks might also specify the sexual orientation of well-known Americans such as writer Langston Hughes.
Kors said that when the state Board of Education approved the latest social science curriculum in 2003, his group asked unsuccessfully for gay issues to be included.
“If you’re teaching social movements in schools, and you talk about the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, and you talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, and you talk about the women’s suffrage movement, to leave out the gay rights movement seems glaring,” Kors said.
The state Board of Education reevaluates the social studies curriculum every six years. The next review is in 2009, and it takes three years for new books to reach classrooms.
The state board has no position on the Kuehl bill, said Roger Magyar, the board’s executive director.
“Until it actually is signed by the governor, from our standpoint it’s not law,” he said. “We find ourselves invested in enough controversy that we don’t have to go out and find more.”
Schwarzenegger aides had no comment.
Gay rights groups say homosexual students are two to three times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers, based on studies conducted by academics and state governments. However, most of those studies are at least a decade old.
A national survey conducted last year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in New York reported that 75% of homosexual students overheard derogatory remarks often at school, and 38% said they were physically harassed because of their sexual orientation.
The bill’s fate in the California Assembly is not clear. Because of its strong contingent of moderate Democrats, it traditionally has been more reluctant than the Legislature’s upper house to pass very liberal legislation.
But Kuehl noted: “If gay marriage could pass in the Assembly, this is nothing.”