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For Teachers, Much Gray if Curriculum Adds Gays

Times Staff Writers

Would the state of California “out” Abe Lincoln, now that a controversial biography has suggested that he not only changed the course of a nation but also shared a bed with men?

Would Eleanor Roosevelt be singled out not just for her seminal work pursuing the New Deal and fighting for human rights, but for her relationship with a woman?

Would Renee Richards, the tennis player who underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1975 and fought successfully to compete as a woman, merit mention in a history book?

On Friday, a day after the state Senate voted to require that the historical contributions of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people be taught in California schools, the weight of practicality -- how would it be accomplished? -- settled in.

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Many educators and activists found themselves in a briar patch of confusion -- even those who believe that folding the concept of sexual orientation into the school curriculum would lead to greater levels of tolerance and acceptance.

The bill, which still needs the approval of the Assembly and the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would require schools to incorporate, in about six years, studies of the “role and contributions” made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the “economic political and social development” of California and the United States.

The legislation would require the state Board of Education to integrate the subject matter into the curriculum.

It does not say, however, how that should happen -- what form the instruction might take, what material it might include or at what grade level the new material should be taught.

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“How far do we have to go?” asked James Berger, who retired last year after a 35-year teaching career and is now a “coach” of local history teachers. “I read one time that [Nazi leader] Hermann Goering liked to wear dresses. Is that important to note? Because he was also a murderer, and that seems to be the essence of what he was about.”

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the author of the bill, and her legislative director, Jennifer Richard, acknowledge that questions remain about how the proposal would be implemented but said that critics should trust in the typical restraint of historical study.

Textbook manufacturers, they say, would require far more documentation and confirmation than, say, “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” the biography that raised the issue of Lincoln’s sexual orientation, which was seen by some historians as slipshod and irresponsible.

Supporters say that bulking up the curriculum dealing with gays is more likely to mean the inclusion of the Stonewall Rebellion, the 1969 gay rights struggle in New York, in the context of America’s other civil rights movements.

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Or, they say, it could mean expanding the discussion of AIDS to note that gays were not only some of the most prominent victims of the disease, but the most prominent people fighting it.

“The only way that gay and lesbian kids can see themselves in schoolbooks now is in the context of the AIDS epidemic or wearing pink triangles during the Holocaust,” said David Holladay, executive director of the nonprofit Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Los Angeles. “It doesn’t mean there has to be a huge categorical insert of some kind” into the text, he said. “That’s the picture that [critics are] painting -- that there’s going to 10 pink pages at the end of each chapter.”

California schools are already required to teach about the historical and social contributions of blacks, women, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups. The addition of homosexuals to the list raises complex issues, say some of the educators who have concerns about the measure.

The historic and social role of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was defined by his race. Susan B. Anthony’s fight for women’s suffrage was informed by the fact that she was a woman, and there are parallel examples in the arena of gay rights.

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Proponents of the bill cite gay rights leader Harvey Milk as an example of someone who would be included in the proposed curriculum. Milk, a San Francisco supervisor, was shot and killed along with Mayor George Moscone by a former supervisor in 1978. The fact that Milk was gay is clearly relevant in any discussion of his historic role.

But what about Billie Jean King, the great tennis champion who became a feminist icon when she defeated avowed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes”? King had a romantic relationship with her secretary, a woman, in the 1970s while she was married. Should King be remembered as a tennis champion? A feminist icon? A lesbian?

The answer is yes to all three questions, said Richard, Kuehl’s legislative director.

When it comes to measuring historic significance, Richard said, King’s sexual orientation should not be viewed any differently than the fact that Jackie Robinson was a very good baseball player and an African American.

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“That is an important part of Jackie Robinson’s story,” Richard said. “It is also an important part of Billie Jean King’s story, that she was the first openly lesbian athletic star. There are gray areas we have to make decisions about all the time in history, and not just about aspects of sexual orientation. I imagine that filtering process will take place with this as well.”

Kuehl said her bill would play a vital role by expounding on what she called history’s “crossover” roles -- people who were members of more than one minority group.

She cited, for instance, Bayard Rustin, an African American civil rights leader, a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a top lieutenant of the Rev. King.

“He was also gay,” Kuehl said. “If that fact were simply mentioned [in a classroom], it could go a long way toward helping children understand that people are not one ‘thing’ or another and that sometimes gay people also contributed to the black civil rights movement or to La Raza.”

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That is a perilous path, said Carol Hogan, spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, the public policy office of California’s Catholic bishops.

Unless a person’s gender, race or ethnicity played a central role in that person’s historical significance, it should not be discussed, Hogan said -- and neither should his or her sexual orientation.

David Tokofsky, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, said that while he supports the idea behind the bill, he fears it could backfire by reducing gays and lesbians to another item on a “checklist” that textbook manufacturers and teachers use in an age of standardized testing.

“They are not asking for a sophisticated history or something that causes thinking,” he said. “These things kind of get debased.”

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