Starting in kindergarten and in some cases pre-K, public school kids across the country are increasingly being taught about gender identities and gender fluidity. As they advance through middle school, they learn about gay and transgender intellectuals, entertainers and other social nonconformists who were often forced to live underground or in the closet.
In addition to learning about gay rights pioneers like Harvey Milk and literary giants such as James Baldwin, they are taught about the cross-dressing women who fought in the Civil War disguised as men; about socially accepted “Boston marriages” of suffragettes and early reformers; about “Two Spirit” Native Americans who embodied masculine and feminine characteristics; and about the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, in which federal agencies engaged in mass firings of an estimated 5,000 government employees suspected of homosexuality.
During “Equity Week” last month in schools serving the Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Skokie, pre-K and kindergarten kids read “I Am Jazz,” a picture book about a transgender girl, and “My Princess Boy,” a picture book about a gender-nonconforming boy who likes to dress in girls’ clothing. First-graders made “pride” flags and transgender flags, and practiced using gender-neutral pronouns, while second-graders were introduced to concepts like “gay,” “lesbian” and “non-binary.”
This year alone, four states – New Jersey, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon – enacted statewide policies requiring public schools to include the societal contributions of LGBTQ people, a subject that often touches on questions of sex and gender. The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and those who describe themselves as “queer” or are “questioning” their sexuality or gender identity.
The drive to include LGBTQ-related teaching material has gained tremendous momentum during the last few years but it has been percolating for decades, although not without pushback. On one level it reflects the nation’s recent embrace of gay marriage and transgender rights, which has emboldened corporations and local governments to publicly display pride flags, and straight people to express solidarity by announcing their preferred pronouns. The embrace of inclusive history mirrors a trend to revoke so-called “no promo homo” laws that forbid mentioning homosexuality in sex-ed classes. Arizona repealed its law this year and Utah did so in 2017, leaving a half-dozen states with such laws on the books. South Carolina’s statute, for example, says sex ed “may not include a discussion of alternative sexual lifestyles” and prohibits mentioning “homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases."
The latest statewide teaching mandates start going into effect next year. Curricula and textbooks are yet to be worked out, but some school districts are adopting the policies on their own. The Maryland State Department of Education is revising its history standards for high schools to include LGBTQ-related topics. And Massachusetts recommends K-12 reading material, such as “I Am Jazz” for elementary school students, and introduced an optional high school history unit last year.
Advocates say these reforms provide compelling benefits: They present a more truthful and realistic version of history while promoting an inclusive climate in which LGBTQ kids are less likely to be harassed or bullied. Medical experts say that social rejection, hostility and violence contribute to higher rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide among LGBTQ youth.
“What we’re trying to do is simply to correct what has been a willful omission until now and restore this content to its proper place in the curriculum,” said Don Romesburg, a Sonoma State University professor of women’s and gender studies. “History education becomes one tool for giving kids a conceptual vocabulary and a way of understanding that gender expansiveness has existed in many times and places.”
As schools adopt the curriculum, some parents have protested to their districts or tried to get their kids excused from class. They say public schools are encroaching on the sanctity of the family when they inculcate specific beliefs about gender and sexuality. They predict the new mandates will prompt a wave of parents to pull their kids out of public schools.
“We’ve gone from the party line of ‘What I do in my bedroom is my business,’ to now my 5-year-old has to learn about lesbians and ‘You must validate my sexual identity,’” said Jessica Hockett from Evanston, a self-described evangelical Christian who pulled her 8- and 12-year-old children out of class during Equity Week. “And that’s a pretty big leap.”
On a broader level, the recognition of LGBTQ history can be traced back to the 1960s push to include stigmatized groups in the curriculum. The study of marginalized voices – such as women's studies, African American studies, Chicano and Latinx studies, as well as queer studies – began entering the academic mainstream in the 1990s when graying professors from the Greatest Generation started retiring. These traditional academics who were steeped in the Western canon were replaced by Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s and saw scholarship as a means of advancing social justice and redressing historical wrongs. The new breed of activist scholars left a lasting imprint on their students, who are now the school teachers, administrators and elected officials embracing ethnic studies and LGBTQ history for the masses.
The impetus to teach LGBTQ history at the K-12 level as part of America’s shared history can be added to this growing list of unlikely victories. The movement scored a major victory in 2011, when California became the nation’s first state to adopt an LGBTQ-inclusive teaching policy. California has subsequently adopted a blueprint on how to teach the material, and also adopted a list of approved textbooks, creating a template for other states to follow.
“You’re going to see more states and more districts doing this work because now there are blueprints on how to do it,” said Romesburg, who advised advocates during the passage of California’s Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act in 2011 and advised scholars during the subsequent curriculum development phase. “Over time, this will become much less scary for educators to do and easier to implement without downsides for the school districts and states.”
But because the underlying nature of LGBTQ studies is connected to sex, the question of what to teach, and at what age, presents special challenges to educators and administrators, many of whom are sensitive to community norms. The debate also plays out in negotiations between school officials and textbook publishers on how to present the historical facts in a way that meets academic standards of accuracy and yet conforms to the requirements of state law.
To date, fewer than half of California’s school districts have implemented the state’s LGBTQ policy on teaching history and social studies, according to estimates by nonprofit Equality California.
In Illinois, parents in Evanston and Skokie such as Hockett found Equity Week so unsettling that they encouraged their kids to excuse themselves from class, or let their kids stay home for the entire week.
The negative reaction was an emotional blow for local school board member Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan, a diversity trainer and LGBTQ advocate.
“I know from my family and my kids, we’re so excited to have their experience centered for one week,” Lindsay-Ryan said at an Oct. 7 policy meeting in Evanston, during which school board members discussed how to handle parental frustration. “They put on their pride shirts on this morning, they were super jazzed. And the impact of watching their classmates walk out was brutal.”
Critics say some of the LGBTQ material amounts to state indoctrination of gender ideology, especially when taught in elementary school. The most vociferous opponents are conservative Christians and traditional-family groups that fought legalized gay marriage and endorse what they deem traditional values.
A common concern is that it’s not appropriate to discuss homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender identity with kids of elementary school age. But advocates say these ideas can be presented to youngsters in nonsexual ways to emphasize acceptance and respect.
In a 2011 hearing on the California legislation, child psychiatrist Miriam Grossman warned that children lack the cognitive development to process such ideas and could suffer harm.
“This is confusing and frightening to children,” Grossman said. “A child is not a miniature adult. It is our responsibility to protect children as best we can from exposure to facts and experiences they are not equipped to handle.”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently warned that the spread of these classes to the K-12 level is a dangerous infringement on the prerogatives of the family and a threat to religious liberty.
“Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional religious principles according to which parents are attempting to raise their children. They often do so without any opt-out for religious families,” Barr said last month in a speech at the University of Notre Dame. “Indeed, in some cases, the schools may not even warn parents about lessons they plan to teach on controversial subjects relating to sexual behavior and relationships.”
But even the harshest foes say that their opposition is not absolute. Dean Broyles, the founder and president of the National Center for Law & Policy in Escondido, Calif., said he doesn’t object to teaching legitimate history in high school and identifying historical figures, such as poet Walt Whitman as gay or otherwise, where it’s relevant. He cited such examples as the 1969 Stonewall Riots that gave rise to the LGBTQ rights movement, and key legislative actions and court decisions.
However, Broyles said that the California teaching materials unnecessarily focus on sex and sexuality, including trivial and salacious references to cross-dressers and other marginal figures who were generally not openly gay, bi or trans during their own lifetimes. One example in California textbooks aimed at 4th-graders that irks Broyles as gratuitous: Charley (née Charlotte) Parkhurst, the rough-and-tough stagecoach driver during California’s Gold Rush era, who was discovered after death to be anatomically female.
Some of the content, especially discussions of sex and gender with young children, is “too much, too soon,” he said.
“These hotly contested matters are extremely sensitive, especially when they involve young children and the need to make careful determinations as to what is age appropriate,” Broyles wrote in a legal memo two years ago. “Ironically, many of those same people who purportedly opposed the ‘legislation of morality’ are now, quite coercively, legislatively imposing their ‘new’ sexual ethics and morality on all Californians.”
While some schools may balk at the prospect of teaching the subject, others are pushing ahead with their own policies. Evanston/Skokie School District 65 rolled out Equity Week lessons in October for its 7,900 kids in grades K-8. The lessons, timed to honor National Coming Out Day, were based on resources from LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and GLSEN (formerly called Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), as well as the Anti-Defamation League.
District 65’s Equity Week is a foretaste of what parents and kids can expect on a yearlong basis when the new Illinois history standard goes into effect in July 2020.
Equity Week had something to offer for every grade level, according to lesson plans posted online and subsequently taken down at the end of the week. The concepts of lesbian and gay were introduced at the pre-K and kindergarten level and explained to kids, nonsexually, as two people who “love each other.”
In pre-K and kindergarten, kids read storybooks about nontraditional families with two daddies or two mommies. They also learned about “gender identity” and that it’s good to be an “ally” – that is, a friend and advocate – to people who are gender-nonconforming.
First-graders learned about gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they” and “ze,” which are preferred by some people who feel they don’t fit the standard gender binary. “The cool thing about gender neutral pronouns is that EVERYBODY can use gender neutral pronouns,” District 65 teacher prompts say. “Whatever pronouns you pick today, you can always change!”
Second- and third-graders deconstructed the Cinderella fairy tale for gender bias and rewrote the story in what was considered a non-biased way. Then they presented the gender-corrected story to first-graders.
Fourth- and fifth-graders examined masculinity, femininity and androgyny through the lens of advertising. By the end of this lesson, the teaching materials say, “students will notice which aspects of their identity match certain gender norms and start to discuss ‘breaking the binary.’”
In grades six through eight, students created an activism poster on an issue of importance to them. They also created an “identity map” and analyzed whether their identity traits “were developed organically or were forced upon them.”
“You may feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality with students,” the teaching materials say. “However, we inadvertently discuss sexuality/attraction in curriculum all the time when we reference married couples. … We are not discussing sex – we are simply representing people in the ways they deserve.”
One of the co-sponsors of the Illinois statute, Anna Moeller, said the law is open and broad, leaving it up to the school districts how to design a curriculum. Moeller, a Democrat from Elgin, applauded the approach taken in District 65.
“To me it sounds like all they’re teaching children is to be tolerant, kind and respectful of their classmates -- that’s the underlying intention,” she said. “We’re mandating that schools can no longer ignore or present info as if LGBTQ people never existed in history.”
District 65 spokesperson Melissa Messinger said a team of educators “spent many hours developing lessons and activities to ensure each lesson was age and developmentally appropriate.”
Evanston parent Donna Wang Su, whose second-grader and fifth-grader experienced Equity Week, said the program prompted discussion among children and parents. For example, her younger child asked her older sibling, “Are you non-binary?” The fifth-grader responded: “You know, that’s really none of your business.”
Su, who describes herself as cisgender (identifying with her sex at birth) and privileged, said she does not use gendered terms like son and daughter to describe her children, but instead uses their preferred pronouns: he/him/his and she/her/hers.
“Kids are exposed to so much these days,” she said. “I’m more comfortable that they’re learning from a teacher who has training and the appropriate responses. Is it the parents’ duty to educate the child why there’s a rainbow, or why on TV they may see a man kissing another man?”
Other kids also reflected upon what they learned during Equity Week, said Su, a District 65 PTA Council vice president who supports the school district’s equity efforts.
“I had one parent call me and said, ‘Oh, my son said that he wants to marry his best friend, but he has two best friends – one’s a boy and [the other is] a girl – so he must be bisexual,” Su recalled. “And she’s just, like, ‘What do I do about that?’ I told her, like, ‘I don’t know, let’s talk to the teacher.’”
As in Illinois, California school districts are free to design their own curriculum, but they have guidance from an 855-page History Social Science Framework updated in 2016, and from 10 textbooks that were approved the following year and include LGBTQ elements as early as first grade.
To fill the gap in teacher preparedness, advocacy groups supply teaching materials to schools and hold teacher training workshops. At least one organization, QEDU, or Queer Education, makes presentations directly to students in cases where teachers lack training or schools haven’t adopted a curriculum.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit’s "Queer History" presentations, posted online, cover such topics as the Native American Two-Spirit, sodomy laws, cross-dressing, banning homosexuality, early activism and the Stonewall Riots.
To alleviate anxieties about the subject, QEDU meets with parents and educators to address concerns before introducing the new curriculum to students, said Dominic Le Fort, the organization’s founder and executive director. At this time, QEDU offers LGBTQ history lessons only to high school students.
“We’ve taken an extremely gentle approach,” Le Fort said. “I just know that people are slow to change. Working with people’s capacity to change is really the way to create change.”
Reevaluating the past can lead to skirmishes not only over religious values and educational philosophy, but also over questions of historical accuracy and the rights of the deceased.
From Brady daguerreotype/Library of Congress/Wikimedia
California spent months reviewing textbooks for compliance with the FAIR Education Act, rejecting two titles from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt because they would have required substantial revisions. One of the sticking points was how to describe the sexual identities of such historical figures as stagecoach driver Parkhurst, writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, 15th U.S. President James Buchanan and social reformer Jane Adams.
Initially, the publisher omitted mention of sexuality. The textbook company contended that “HMH feels that the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer are contemporary terms that may not map well on past lives and experiences.”
In their editing comments, California textbook reviewers said that approach was discriminatory: “The absence of specific labels regarding sexual orientation creates an adverse reflection because the identity of these individuals is not honored and demeans their contributions to history.”
Rather than label these historical figures based on speculation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt suggested adding explanatory notes in teachers’ guides.
For President Buchanan, HMH suggested the following: “Many historians believe that Buchanan would identify as gay if he were alive today. … Buchanan formed a long-term, intimate friendship with William Rufus King, a senator from Alabama. For 15 years the two shared a room at a Washington, DC, boarding house. When King accepted a post as minister to France in 1844, Buchanan wrote of his sadness to a friend: ‘I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.’”
Such negotiations weren’t limited to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. State reviewers also asked McGraw-Hill to identify tennis star Billie Jean King as bisexual, poet Langston Hughes as gay, poet Nikki Giovani as a lesbian, gay rights activist Cleve Jones as a gay man, astronaut Sally Ride as the first lesbian American woman to travel in space, and comedian Ellen DeGeneres as a lesbian and a humanitarian.
The McGraw-Hill documents were not available online and McGraw-Hill and the California Department of Education did not respond to requests for the documents, but a spokesman for the publisher confirmed a 2017 EdSource news report on the proceedings as accurate.
According to EdSource, McGraw-Hill agreed to most of the corrections requested by California’s Instructional Quality Commission for a K-5 textbook. But the publisher warned that contemporary sexual labels, like gay or bi, “raise complex issues related to academic integrity” and “may require identifying individuals in a manner that does not reflect their self-identity.”
McGraw-Hill suggested using descriptions rather than labels, EdSource reported. For example, in first-grade materials, the textbook reviewers said DeGeneres should be identified as “a lesbian and humanitarian.” McGraw-Hill suggested this approach instead: “Ellen DeGeneres … works hard to help people. She and her wife want all citizens to be treated fairly and equally. …”
California education officials declined to consider most of McGraw-Hill’s suggestions.
Correction: Nov. 13, 2019, 11:15 AM, Eastern
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to study materials offered in Massachusetts public schools. They are history and literature offerings from the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, not history offerings of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.