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Could California lead nation in teaching of gay history in schools?

By a 49-to-25 vote, the California Assembly approved a law requiring schools to include the contributions of gay Americans in their curriculum. Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he would sign the bill.

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California is poised to become the first state to require school districts to include the contributions of gay Americans in their social studies curriculum.

On Tuesday the Democrat-controlled state Assembly passed the FAIR Education Act – SB 48 – by a 49-to-25 vote, largely along party lines.

If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) approves the bill, the large state’s influence over textbooks could mean that students in other states would eventually find in their lessons references to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) figures in US history.

Supporters are hailing the bill as a way to counter the invisibility of the LGBT community in many textbooks and classrooms. They also say it’s an important step toward preventing bullying against students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Opponents include religious groups who object to homosexuality or simply want parents to be the only ones teaching children about sexuality, as well as lawmakers who say the state is mandating too many details in schools.

“To the extent that this law would ensure that curricular materials accurately depict the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to American life, that would be a real sea change in thinking about the fuller picture of our historical reality,” says Eliza Byard, a historian and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in New York.

She said she hopes the bill will improve teaching and impart “an ability to look at the past without ideological blinders on about who was present and who was involved in the shaping of our country.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights group in Washington, seven conservative states – among them Alabama and Oklahoma – have a variety of laws that in effect prevent teachers from discussing LGBT people or issues in a positive light.

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SB 48 passed the state Senate in April. Support in the Senate and Assembly came primarily from Democrats, including John Pérez, the first openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly.

Sen. Mark Leno (D), who introduced the bill, says it will lead to higher self-esteem for LGBT kids. But it’s just as important, he says, “for the straight students, who at a young age recognize that the kid at the next desk is somehow different and need to understand that that different kid is a part of a community, a community historically demonized and discriminated against and which has been fighting for its civil rights.”

The law leaves it up to districts to decide how to implement the new requirements.

Some parts of the law would only kick in as districts or the state consider adopting new textbooks, which could be years away.

California already requires that when school districts adopt instructional materials, they seek to ensure that Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans are accurately portrayed. The new bill would add not only LGBT to that list, but also people with disabilities and Pacific Islanders.

It also would prevent districts from adopting materials that reflect adversely on groups based on various characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender.

“I don't think this helps the teaching of history.... I think it's a distraction,” said Assemblyman Chris Norby (R), according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A former high school history and government teacher, he said it amounted to micromanaging instruction, and also wondered how history teachers can know the sexual orientation of many figures who lived at a time when people weren’t open about it, the newspaper reported.

The 325,000-member California Teachers Association supports SB 48. “We believe that school curriculum materials should adequately portray the diversity of our society ... [and the bill] doesn’t impose an undue burden,” says spokesperson Mike Myslinski.

In a commentary in The Tidings, a Catholic weekly, Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez said the bill “amounts to the government rewriting history books based on pressure-group politics ... [and] interfering with parents’ rights to be their children’s primary educators.”

“Sexual brainwashing,” is how the bill was summed up in an online statement by Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting “moral virtues for the common good.”

“May this brash attack upon children's innocence finally motivate parents to remove their children from the government school system, and get them into the safe havens of church schooling and home schooling,” Mr. Thomasson said.

Some lawmakers who support the bill say it’s important in part because of the bullying taking place in schools. Last year, 13-year-old Seth Walsh committed suicide after years of anti-gay bullying in the Tehachapi Unified School District. His mother recently sued the district, several days after the US Departments of Education and Justice ruled that it had not done enough to respond to complaints about Walsh’s experience.

Several years ago a California student killed another student in class because he was, as the killer said, "too girly," Senator Leno says. “We are failing our students when we don’t better inform them, and there are tragic consequences,” he says.

SB 48 will become law if Governor Brown signs it within the 12 days of receiving it or lets it go through without his signature. An effort to pass a similar bill failed in 2006 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened a veto.

Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.

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