Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Inside the uproar over New Jersey’s LGBT education law

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Story at a glance

  • Jersey Shore mayor calls the law “an affront to almighty God.”
  • New Jersey is one of four states with a law that mandates teachers include discussion of contributions by LGBTQ people in the curriculum.
  • The law has been met by vocal opposition.
  • Supporters say the law helps reduce bullying and inspires all students.

In August, a small coastal New Jersey town made headlines when its mayor made controversial comments in calling for a repeal of the state’s new law mandating LGBT and disability-inclusive education. During his mayor’s report, he declared the legislation an affront to almighty God.”  

The controversy carried into September when hundreds of residents packed Barnegat’s Town Hall for a contentious two-hour public comment session. 

In a Sept. 12 public letter posted on the township website, Mayor Alfonso Cirulli reiterated his views, saying, “Our children need to be protected from the special interests whose individuals hold views contrary to what the vast majority in our community embrace.” He believes that parents, not the government, should be the ones “to guide their children in regards to sexual matters.” 

The law, the second in the nation, requires districts to “include instruction on the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, in an appropriate place in the curriculum of middle school and high school students as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.”

California has had such a law on the books since 2012, though the curriculum didn’t appear in schools until the state approved teaching materials in 2017. Conservative groups attempted to stop the law, but failed to get enough signatures to force a referendum.

This year, Colorado and Illinois added laws with text similar to that of New Jersey; Colorado’s law included funding for the 2019-20 school year; Illinois’s is set to go into effect July 1. New York City just implemented its own LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum this fall (where little backlash has been reported), and the state has a bill currently in committee. Six states (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina) prohibit teachers from any discussions about LGBT issues.

In part, the New Jersey law was passed to reduce the incidence of bullying in schools. According to the 2017 National School Climate Survey, almost 80 percent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation, causing them to miss school and avoid school bathrooms and locker rooms. About a third regularly hear homophobic and anti-transgender comments (both from other students and school staff) and more than half report being sexually harassed at school.

Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership at nonprofit advocacy group Garden State Equality, points out that schools that have already instituted inclusive curricula “found the rates of harassment, intimidation and bullying across the board declined, both verbal and physical [and] improved attendance in schools, not just for LGBT communities but for all students.” 

“We see this as building a more inclusive and affirming environment where students, no matter who they are, how they identify, or what they look like, are welcome and represented in schools and feel that there is a place for them,” he adds.

“The truth of the matter is that a lot of what happens is a lack of understanding,” says Ashley Chiappano, safe schools and community education manager at Garden State Equality and parent to a transgender child. In her role as education manager, last year, she provided LGBTQ-inclusive professional development training to educators at Barnegat High School, where she found little resistance. 

“I showed up at a school district who welcomed Garden State Equality with open arms and said, ‘We do need to learn this. We do want to support our students, and we are happy to have you here,’ ” she says.

Beyond bullying

Advocates see the law as being about more than bullying. 

“I feel that when you [see] yourself in what you are reading, what you are learning about, you feel that you have a seat at that table,” says Steven Koumoulis, board member of GLSEN, an organization that supports 4,000-plus Gay & Straight Alliance organizations nationwide. “To know that your group has been around since the dawn of time and played a role, gives you a sense of pride.” 

He explains that just as Martin Luther King Jr. is inspiring to African Americans, Harvey Milk is inspiring to those who identify as LGBT.  

Mandating inclusive curricula is not new. It took passage of New Jersey’s 2002 Amistad Law to get African American history in schools. Chiappano acknowledges that the reception will be mixed. 

“Some folks are going to see this curriculum as negative or agenda-based,” she says. However, young people have access to so much information today, “we want to make sure the information they are getting is robust and provides some level of pedagogical connection. The goal is not to change someone’s religious or cultural beliefs. It’s to help students understand the people around them who have contributed to what our country looks like today.”

In January, 12 New Jersey schools will pilot a curriculum provided by Garden State Equality. When the law goes in effect next fall, districts may opt to use these materials or choose their own, perhaps using resources such as those on GLSEN’s website

Chiappano explains that the piloted curriculum, which Garden State Equality has not yet finalized, will be available on an online platform. It will include lessons as well as background materials to help educators who may be unfamiliar with the topic or those who want to customize the lesson for their students. 

“Every pilot school will have one to two parent education workshops for parents to come in and view the curriculum and ask questions or provide feedback,” she says.

Some LGBT history is likely already part of lessons, says Koumoulis. 

“As a history teacher, I don’t know if you can adequately do your job without mentioning the plight of certain groups,” he says. 

Koumoulis currently teaches world history but has taught U.S. history in the past. He says that he and his colleagues all mention Stonewall in discussions on the civil rights movement and that this law will enhance those discussions, envisioning lessons beyond “saying ‘Oh, Leonardo da Vinci was supposedly gay’ or speaking about gender roles in very basic terms.”

Deeper discussions

Koumoulis sees opportunities for deeper discussion. 

For example, “In ‘The Great Gatsby,’ there’s a whole group of critics that believe that Nick was gay,” he says. “Why does that drive that story forward, and what does that tell you about his character?” Classes also might discuss how Walt Whitman’s sexuality influenced his writing. 

He says it’s important to look at “how the time period and the acceptance and nonacceptance of this group drove history forward.”

“There’s nothing controversial here,” Oliveira insists. “We’re talking about real people who have contributed or who are contributing to history. To hide or gloss over their contributions to society is misrepresenting history. We have an openly gay man who is running for president. [If] he becomes elected, are we just going to gloss over the fact that he has a husband? We talk in our lectures every day in school that [past presidents] accomplished a lot in their lives because of the women standing beside them.”

Today’s students are exposed to many more outside forces than their parents were. 

“The kids, by far, are more worldly than their parents. Parents don’t know what their kids are really looking at on the computer. The kids, by far, are more knowledgeable about this topic than their parents are. Because of the anti-bullying law, because of the climate that schools have set, particularly lately, the kids are more apt to accept than their parents,” Koumoulis says. 

“It goes back to the idea of representation and visibility,” Koumoulis adds. “It’s knowing that these people played a role in history. It’s acknowledging that this group was and continues to be discriminated against. The African American community [is] constantly being discriminated against, even though people think that they’re accepted. [It’s] the same with immigrants and with other groups. Yeah, we’re accepting. Yeah, we welcome everybody in America. But we don’t.

“When you’re a teacher, the most important thing is to make a connection with your students. When that acceptance is there and it’s understood, things work better.”