Illinois can learn from California's LGBTQ education lessons

Illinois can learn from California's LGBTQ education lessons
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During the 2020-21 school year, thanks to the recent passage of the Inclusive Curriculum Law by state legislators, students in Illinois public schools will learn about LGBTQ history and this group’s contributions to our world. 

Illinois will follow in the steps of California, the first state to enact LGBTQ curriculums in public schools and one that reaped the benefits of its residents wielding a greater understanding of diverse cultures. Discrimination and hate crimes certainly haven’t evaporated from California, but its LGBTQ education initiatives are fundamental in addressing and removing the intolerance and bias that fuel such acts to begin with.

As Illinois leaders — and other states in the future — devise these curriculums, they can take heed from these lessons and advice from California.

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First, any successful LGBTQ curriculum starts by addressing intolerance among teachers themselves. Within California, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of teachers who were or are not familiar with LGBTQ history and conflicts. Nor have they received any sort of formalized education on these subjects throughout their lives and careers. 

As a result, teachers may hold implicit and explicit biases toward LGBTQ individuals, including students. Even if instructors align themselves with these individuals and other progressive causes, they still might use homophobic language without realizing it is offensive, or unintentionally trivialize issues that afflict the LGBTQ community.

These instructors can impede the larger LGBTQ education process and its goals. They can project their biases and misconceptions onto students, and instead of awareness and acceptance blossoming from the classroom, it can become a place where diverse personalities and perspectives wither.

But teachers who hold unacknowledged biases or prejudices towards LGBTQ individuals are not a lost cause. Through comprehensive training about this culture and community, educators can broaden their viewpoints, challenge their belief systems and guide their students down the path of acceptance, inclusion and pride.

Once teachers fully appreciate the scope and impact of LGBTQ culture and history, Illinois schools and districts need to make sure their curriculum encompasses all students, even those in elementary schools. This may seem counterintuitive, and can cause some to wonder, “How could a teacher possibly explain complicated concepts such as gender identity to a second-grader?”

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But consider that within high schools, “gay” remains a popular term for students to verbally insult and harass one another, even in 2019. These students are more intellectually mature, more physically developed than their elementary school counterparts, but have lessened their tolerance to LGBTQ persons. Making children aware of LGBTQ topics from the beginning of their education, in a manner that is appropriate for their age, will help instill a lifelong understanding and acceptance of this community. 

Regardless of a student’s age, it is crucial that states make LGBTQ education in public schools mandatory. For topics such as sexual education or reproductive health, schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia give parents the ability to opt their children out of the lesson.

Some families likely would object to mandatory education about LGBTQ history. But it is important to note that such instruction is not associated with sexual or reproductive topics. Parents should be made aware of what subjects and events would be covered in class, but providing the ability to opt out will reduce the positive impact these lessons would have on the community as a whole. 

Finally, LGBTQ education cannot be just a means of distributing information about historic events and struggles this community has faced. A primary factor behind the marginalization of LGBTQ individuals is a lack of empathy and emotional awareness from those not a part of this community.

Educators and administrators need to ensure that LGBTQ education is human-focused, that children understand these are real individuals who share in our world, not just names in a textbook. An effective way to accomplish this is by incorporating personal stories to promote meaningful learning. Not only do stories help convey ideas and concepts more clearly, they personalize events and topics in a manner that resonates with students, regardless of age, location or identity.

Victoria Forrester is an assistant adjunct professor in the Online Master’s in Educational Leadership program at Mills College, Oakland, Calif.