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California debates place of gay history in textbooks

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- California conservatives were outraged in 1966 when the state Board of Education adopted a new junior high school history textbook. The book's inclusive treatment of the civil rights movement and influential black Americans would indoctrinate students, undermine religious values and politicize the curriculum, they said.

Forty-five years later, gay rights advocates say similar arguments are being advanced to defeat a bill that would make the state the first to require the teaching of gay history in public schools. The California Senate approved the landmark measure last week, but it needs to clear the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

Yet the debate about what children should learn about sexual orientation mirrors earlier disputes over whether groups such as 20th Century German immigrants, women, Muslims and Jews would have a place for their heroes and heartbreaks in the history books.

"It's fine to imagine we would have these expert educators deciding what history education should look like, but that's counter-historical in and of itself," said New York University history and education professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches a course in how culture wars play out in schools. "It's citizens groups who want to see themselves in the curriculum and see the curriculum as a rich, symbolic battlefield, which it is."

The legislation now under consideration in California would add lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the lengthy list of social and ethnic groups that schools must include in social studies lessons.

It also would require as soon as the 2013-2014 school year the California Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other teaching materials that cover the contributions and roles of sexual minorities.

The measure further would prohibit the adoption of any materials that "reflect adversely" on gays or particular religions. School districts would have flexibility in deciding what to include in the lessons and at what grades students would receive them.

Supporters contend that requiring instruction about gays in history would correct an obvious gap in the state's existing social studies framework and curb anti-gay stereotypes that make gay youth vulnerable to bullying and suicide.

California law already requires schools to teach about women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, entrepreneurs, Asian Americans, European Americans, American Indians and labor. The Legislature over the years also has prescribed specific lessons about the Irish potato famine and the Holocaust, among other topics.

"We are conspicuous in our absence. This corrects that," said the bill's openly gay author, Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, of San Francisco. "Should we delete the inclusion of all the groups that are currently in the statute? Why is that OK, not LGBT? That is discriminatory."

Opponents counter that such instruction would further burden an already crowded curriculum and expose students to a subject that some parents find objectionable.

Some churches and conservative family groups have encouraged their members to lobby against Leno's bill by saying that it would indoctrinate children to accept homosexuality.

During a hearing before the Senate Education Committee, Robert Evans, pastor of Christ Church in Pleasanton, Calif., questioned how schools would reconcile a twin mandate to use textbooks free of bias toward gay people while fairly representing religions that do not embrace homosexuality.

"How would one responsibly teach concerning a religion that holds a less than favorable view of homosexuality without such instruction, per se, reflecting adversely on that religion?" Evans asked.

Republican Sen. Doug La Malfa, of Butte, appealed to colleagues to defeat the measure, saying it promotes a selective approach to reduce school bullying, although it affects more than gay children.

"This, to me, is the final frontier of advancing this (gay rights) agenda into schools," La Malfa said. "What are we going to take out of the curriculum to get this type of curriculum in? Are we going to take Winston Churchill out?"

Public schools never are far away from gay rights debates.

"And Tango Makes Three," a children's picture book about two male penguins raising an orphan penguin, last week again topped the American Library Association's annual list of most-challenged books.

During the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California, gay marriage opponents' most successful message was warning that schoolchildren would be taught about same-sex couples if they could marry.

The groups fighting Leno's bill also lobbied hard five years ago against a similar measure that was amended to simply disallow textbooks portraying gay people in a negative light. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it as unnecessary.

When new history texts were created for California in the 1980s, a range of groups attacked the series, recalled Gary Nash, director of the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools, who oversaw the effort.

While evangelicals complained the texts did not depict the Founding Fathers as devout Christians, gay rights activists pushed to have Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, John Maynard Keynes and Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged as one of their own, Nash said.

He thinks California students should be exposed to gay history but not before 11th grade, when they study the social movements of the mid-to-late 20th century.

NYU's Zimmerman has a different concern. He agrees with Leno that adding a gay lens to history could enrich children's' understanding of the world.

"I am 100 percent for adding gay and lesbian history. It's something everybody should know," he said. "But if you took it seriously, what it would force you to do is to ask really hard questions about how sexuality works in this country, who benefits and who is marginalized. That tells you a whole lot more about history than that Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman were gay."

For all the heat curriculum debates generate, it's not always clear that the changes trickle down to students, especially with teachers under pressure to improve test scores in reading and math, said Henry Der, a former California deputy state schools superintendent.

"As much as we respect a leader like Harvey Milk or Cesar Chavez, ... teachers aren't getting to teaching about the contributions of these individuals," Der said. "It really all comes down to what happens in the classroom and what principals and teachers deem to be important given the amount of time they have."

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