When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago this spring, the city’s school district put together a lesson guide with ideas and resources for teaching about her inauguration — without explicitly referencing her sexual orientation.
“Chicago made history by electing our first African-American woman to serve as Mayor,” the document began.
Under a new Illinois law taking effect next year, similar guides might mention another way Chicago made history: by electing its first openly gay mayor.
The Inclusive Curriculum Law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 9, mandates that by the time students finish eighth grade, public schools must teach them about contributions to state and U.S. history made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“This law will give more young people the opportunity to see themselves in those who came before us and recognize they are not alone,” Lightfoot said in a statement to the Tribune.
That includes students like Michelle Vallet’s transgender son, who is now also more likely to learn about the civil rights struggles that led to milestones such as marriage equality and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Vallet, of Chicago, and other parents of LGBTQ students have pushed for curricula that show children like theirs the types of professionals they could become. To them, the law is a progressive, if vague, step forward. But some detractors see the state forcing local districts to promote an agenda that conflicts with their personal or religious beliefs.
Beyond including the contributions of LGBTQ people to arts, sciences and social movements — as some classes already do — it remains largely up to teachers and local school administrators to navigate when and how to bring up the gender identity or orientation of figures such as artist Frida Kahlo, astronaut Sally Ride and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. At what age will kids understand the weight of the Stonewall riots? Is it enough to simply mention Lightfoot’s wife?
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Anna Moeller, an Elgin Democrat, said the mandate is “not prescriptive” and though various groups are working on guidance for how schools can start incorporating information into classrooms, the state does not plan to issue any more formal guidelines.
Helping compile resources for schools to draw from is Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Klaisner said he wishes the requirement had more structure but hopes his office can be a conduit of information.
The law says merely that the teaching of U.S. and Illinois history in public schools “shall include a study of the roles and contributions of” LGBT people.
“Being that vague could mean a simple unit or a few lessons at one grade level in the school, which I think is insufficient,” Klaisner said. “On the other hand, we don’t want (state officials) to be too heavy-handed when they tell exactly what’s going to be said.”
Though LGBTQ rights are often equated with other civil rights such as racial and gender equality, advocates still face opposition from conservative groups and in the state legislature, where the bill passed 60-42 in the House and 37-17 in the Senate.
Rep. Margo McDermed said she voted against the measure not because of its content but because it’s another state-imposed mandate on schools.
“It’s not … that it’s not a good cause,” said McDermed, a Republican from Mokena. “It’s about our poor, beleaguered taxpayers.”
As far as McDermed is concerned, the state should erase all its mandates for schools and give districts “a clean slate,” with the possible exception of physical education requirements, she said.
“As a matter of financial principle, I don’t think these mandates are useful or helpful to our schools,” McDermed said. “I vote against mandates no matter how worthy the topic may be, and of course this is a worthy topic, but how many mandates are there? … There’s a list on the (Illinois State Board of Education) website. You, you just look at it and your eyes just roll back in your head.”
McDermed said more trust should go to teachers and school boards to teach children appropriately.
Moeller, however, said the mandate should not come at a cost to schools. Many advocacy and education groups already have relevant curriculum materials free online, and sponsors are trying to work with school districts and the State Board of Education on providing information, she said. A provision says that when schools spend money on new textbooks, they must be nondiscriminatory and include all people protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act.
“In the way schools have become required to teach about African Americans, Latinos, women, other marginalized communities, now they’ll also be required to include some mention, some discussion of LGBT,” Moeller said.
Lawmakers have tried before to enact similar legislation, and though passing the law reflects an advancement in civil rights, more still needs to be done, Moeller said. LGBTQ students are still more likely to be bullied, to report feeling isolated in schools and to attempt suicide, she said.
Less than a quarter of LGBTQ students in Illinois said they’d been taught positive lessons about LGBTQ people, according to the 2017 School Climate Survey by GLSEN, a national group that promotes inclusion in schools.
In some classrooms, nothing new
Illinois is the fifth state to pass this kind of measure, according to the advocacy group Equality Illinois. Colorado, New Jersey and Oregon passed similar laws this year, following the lead of California in 2011.
But LGBTQ contributions are already featured in Leslie Schock’s Advanced Placement U.S. history classes at Palatine High School, where she began her 17th year of teaching this month. It’s helped students make important connections, she said.
Inclusive curricula became more of a central focus in the past four years, after students started an equality club. The legalization of same-sex marriage, as well as the controversy over bathroom access for transgender students at Palatine High’s Township High School District 211 — the subject of a highly publicized ruling by the U.S. Department of Education and at least two lawsuits against the district — also accelerated the conversation, Schock said.
“I also work with a school that’s incredibly diverse and dedicated to making a place that’s inclusive so our students who have been marginalized can see themselves in the curriculum,” Schock said. “It’s important for students to find a connection with what they’re learning.”
In a unit called “Change Comes to America,” her class covers the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, commonly heralded as the beginning of the gay rights movement. Students also learn about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and how the government responded.
“We cover a ton of ground,” Schock said. “I don’t know if we focus on the sexuality of every person involved in the movement, but more, everyone should have equal protection of law.”
Parents have been supportive, but resistance among less diverse communities wouldn’t surprise her, she said.
“That’s what happens whenever there is change or progress,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the more comfortable students can feel in our classrooms who are not part of the white, straight narrative of history, the more included they feel in that discussion, the better it’s going to be for everybody.”
Teachers do tend to push back against the government determining what’s taught in classrooms, Schock said. She thinks more resources should be available, but not mandated.
Though the law mentions roles and contributions to history, it’s relevant to other subject areas, where such lessons have already found their way into schools. Bryan Meeker, who teaches biology at Garcia High School, a Chicago charter school, said he emphasizes female scientists and their discoveries and wants to include more LGBTQ contributions.
Along those lines, Meeker said he’d also love to see students in English classes reading works by Harvey Milk, a San Francisco politician and one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States before his assassination in 1978.
“I think anything that is going to include the achievements and work of LGBTQ individuals and women and minorities is a positive step for our schools,” Meeker said. “Students do better when they can see themselves, they can see this is something they can do. That representation is incredible. If you are a young gay kid and you learn about events in the civil rights movement that were led by gay folks, that’s huge.”
He’s been trying to work in more people each year, such as Ride, the astronaut, who is often taught about without any mention that she was lesbian. “The work she did up in space, it had nothing to do with her sexuality, it was about her competency, her achievements,” Meeker said. But he does bring up sexual orientation, especially in units on gender and sexuality.
“I want to build this cultural competency in my students,” Meeker said. “I feel like I have a responsibility to not just give them the narrative they’ve been taught.”
A year is a good amount of time to give educators to incorporate or add even more inclusive lessons, he said.
For younger students, it may make sense to introduce names and fewer details, and wait until around third grade to mention someone identified as gay or transgender, said Klaisner, of the regional superintendents group. Younger children tend to be more accepting but might not understand those labels, he said.
Because gender identity is separate from sexuality, Vallet said she doesn’t think it’s ever too early to bring up. The same way schools address race, they should talk about the LGBTQ experience, she said.
“The more we talk about what’s appropriate, the more we make these things shameful,” Vallet said. “You can make everything age-appropriate. … Normalizing these identities early is key, and I think the longer we wait, the more shame is attached.”
Parents can always supplement classroom education with their own beliefs, Klaisner said.
“I think it’s important for children as they’re growing up to learn about diversity, complexity, but more importantly about compassion and about inclusion and empathy,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to agree with somebody to still understand them.”
Klaisner also cautioned that it’s important to consider the pros and cons of using labels, which can sometimes lead to stereotyping.
“If we are going to use labels, we recognize those and find ways to (look) past those to the person, to the soul, to the identity of who that person is beyond the label,” he said.
Two of Betsey Zemke’s children, an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, identify as nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. One attends a private school in Chicago, while the other is in a public school in Skokie.
Zemke said she’s excited about the law, and for children to see a fuller picture of history.
Both Zemke and Vallet said they had become used to opposition.
“I think that a lot of parents and a lot of community members who haven’t considered the issue tend to overcomplicate it, and it really doesn’t take that much time to say, ‘This historical figure identified as gay … or didn’t conform to gender norms,'” Zemke said. “I think people are afraid of answering the questions that come up as a result of that. … I think they’re afraid of tackling that complexity and don’t want to explain that this person didn’t have what they would consider to be a normal, heterosexual life, and they have to give airtime to that.”
In Chicago, public school officials have already been addressing the issue in the Curriculum Equity Initiative, which will be implemented in phases starting this fall.
It calls for all curriculum to be “free from bias; fair across race, religion, ethnicity and gender; and culturally relevant with the mindful integration of diverse communities, cultures, histories and contributions. This includes attention to African-American, Latinx, Asian, indigenous people, women, LGBTQ, religious minorities (including Muslims), working class people and youth,” according to a presentation to the school board in May.
Lightfoot said she got where she is today because of others before her who fought to expand rights, opened doors and “refused to accept ‘no’ for an answer.”
“As mayor but also as a mother, I strongly support teaching LGBTQ+ history in classrooms,” Lightfoot said. “Many notable figures who identified as LGBTQ+ have moved our society forward in countless ways, but our curriculums and textbooks failed to include their names and neglected their contributions. The LGBTQ+ movement strengthened social justice in America and contains countless stories of struggle and sacrifice. It is past time our children know the names of LGBTQ+ pioneers and learn how they shaped history.”
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