A controversial California bill signed into law on July 14, 2011, will require that all social studies curricula in the state include lessons on the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people to the history of California and the United States. The legislation, known as the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, is intended to address the current exclusion of LGBT history from social studies curricula and textbooks, combat negative stereotypes of LGBT people, and reduce bullying and violence against LGBT students. The act also requires curricula to include the role and contributions of Americans with disabilities.
Current California law already requires that social studies instruction include the historical contributions of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups; the FAIR Education Act will add LGBT people to this list. Schools will also be prohibited from using any educational materials that promote discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Supporters name Harvey Milk, once a member of the California Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, and Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., as examples of Americans whose contributions may be taught under the new legislation. The act goes into effect in January, but new textbooks will not be available until 2015.
After signing the bill, Governor Jerry Brown stated, “History should be honest. This bill revises existing laws that prohibit discrimination in education and ensures that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books.” Supporters also hope that the inclusion of LGBT individuals in public schools will promote respect and eliminate violence toward LGBT students. Mario Guerrero of Equality California commented, “Studies have shown that LGBT inclusion in curriculum is linked to greater student safety and lower rates of bullying.” Anti-LGBT bullying has a significant impact not only in California, but also nationwide; a 2009 survey of 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students found that 84.6% were verbally harassed, 40.1% were physically harassed, and 18.8% were physically assaulted at school in the past year. Students in schools with inclusive curricula were more likely to report that their classmates were somewhat or very accepting of LGBT people than students in schools without such curricula (61.2% vs. 37.3%). Furthermore, students in schools with inclusive curricula heard fewer homophobic remarks and were less likely to feel unsafe.
The bill has provoked intense criticism from political conservatives and religious groups, some of which went so far as to claim that teaching LGBT history would constitute “sexual brainwashing.” The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman and founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, says the act will allow “homosexual activists to indoctrinate the minds of California’s youth . . . [and] textbooks and instructional materials will all become pro-homosexual promotion tools.” The California Family Council says the act’s purpose is to impose “blatant pro-homosexual history curricula on innocent young children.” Some parents claim they will start homeschooling their children because of this new curriculum standard. Efforts to repeal the new law are already underway; if the group Stop SB48 can collect 504,760 signatures by October 12, the law will be put to a referendum, leaving its fate to voters in the next election.
Much of the criticism has relied on misinformation about the law. Larry E. Schweikart, an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton, noted that “basically what [the law]’s going to require is that you have certain number of lines, literally, certain number of words, dedicated to gays and lesbians at all points in history.” However, the law does not mandate a certain number of words; it only requires that the historical contributions of LGBT people be included. Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly claimed that “if you are a teacher . . . you’re not going to be able to say bad things about [convicted murderer] Jeffrey Dahmer,” because Dahmer was “a gay cannibal.” However, this is also inconsistent with the law’s text; it does not say that teachers cannot say anything negative aboutany LGBT person, but that they can’t say anything negative about someone based on their sexual orientation. One organization, the Protect Kids Foundation, even claims, “In language lessons, children would be required to act as homosexuals when they are role-playing to practice vocabulary.” The new law, however, only applies to teaching LGBT Americans’ historical contributions specifically in social studies classes, and all details regarding how much time to spend on LGBT history, which individuals and events should be taught, and at what grade level to begin teaching these topics are left to local school boards.