Curriculum Wars

A California State Senator wants to help public schools catch up with history

John Ireland

California State Senator Sheila Kuehl (left) is battling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over whether public school textbooks should study the role of gays in society.

Cal­i­for­nia State Sen. Sheila Kuehl knows the pit­falls of being young and gay first­hand. At 17, she was a tele­vi­sion star, play­ing the role of Zel­da Gilroy, in the week­ly tele­vi­sion sit­com, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. She was good enough that CBS filmed four episodes of a spin-off titled Zel­da, only to be shelved when net­work exec­u­tives began to sus­pect that their lead actress might be les­bian. She was also expelled from her soror­i­ty at UCLA after some of her sis­ters dis­cov­ered a let­ter from her girlfriend.

Sheila took her indig­na­tion to Har­vard Law School, then into a suc­cess­ful law career and final­ly to the state house. She was the first open­ly gay mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture and has cham­pi­oned issues affect­ing its cit­i­zens as an assem­bly­woman and now a sen­a­tor. In Feb­ru­ary, she intro­duced a Sen­ate bill (SB 1437), hop­ing to help to mit­i­gate the alien­ation that gay teens face in pub­lic schools.

Cal­i­for­nia law cur­rent­ly requires K‑12 social sci­ence instruc­tion to include a study of the role and con­tri­bu­tions of both men and women, Black Amer­i­cans, Amer­i­can Indi­ans, Mex­i­cans, Asians, Pacif­ic Islanders, and oth­er eth­nic groups, with a par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on por­tray­ing the role of these groups in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. It pro­hibits text­book con­tent, instruc­tion or school-spon­sored activ­i­ties that reflect adverse­ly on race or eth­nic­i­ty, dis­abil­i­ty, nation­al­i­ty and reli­gion. Sim­ply put, SB 1437 adds sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der to that list, spec­i­fy­ing that the infor­ma­tion be pre­sent­ed in an age-appro­pri­ate man­ner. The bill passed the Sen­ate and is head­ed to a vote in the Assem­bly some­time this summer.

The bill is draw­ing Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger into a debate that will pit his social­ly pro­gres­sive views against the social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive dog­ma of his polit­i­cal base. Nation­al­ly, it pos­es the ques­tion of whether pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum can catch up with pop­u­lar culture.

Accord­ing to David Hol­la­day, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Los Ange­les chap­ter of the non­prof­it Gay, Les­bian and Straight Edu­ca­tion Net­work (GLSEN), the only way that gay and les­bian kids can see them­selves in school­books now is in the con­text of the AIDS epi­dem­ic or wear­ing pink tri­an­gles dur­ing the Holo­caust.” A 2003 GLSEN sur­vey found that 76.2 per­cent of youth report­ed that les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al and trans­gen­der issues were rarely addressed or dis­cussed in school. The sur­vey fur­ther found that silence and biased mes­sages pro­mote neg­a­tive stereo­types, which can lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion, harass­ment and vio­lence. But when these issues are dis­cussed, gay stu­dents report that they feel safer.

In 2002, GLSEN con­duct­ed a study of 13 texts used in schools around the coun­try. Four texts direct­ly dis­cuss gay and les­bian themes. Two of those four pro­vid­ed pho­to­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of gay and les­bian themes. And only two ref­er­ence Gays and Les­bians” and Gays and Les­bian Rights” in their index or table of contents.

The study’s author, GLSEN’s Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion Scott Hirschfeld, asks, What are stu­dents to infer, for exam­ple, from a book that defines HIV/AIDS as some­thing that hap­pened to Rock Hud­son dur­ing the Rea­gan years?” (p. 886, Amer­i­can Odyssey: The Unit­ed States in the 20th Cen­tu­ry, 1999). Of 12,530 total pages of text, an aggre­gate of less than one page direct­ly address­es LGBT issues, a shock­ing­ly low .007 per­cent of the total text­book material.

Eliz­a­beth Sevil­la, a high school Eng­lish teacher in Comp­ton, says, If this bill pass­es, my job gets eas­i­er. Kids gig­gle when the word gay’ is spo­ken in class, because it is taboo. This dis­tracts from my teach­ing, because I have to stop and chal­lenge the igno­rance. Many of them use it in a neg­a­tive way, mean­ing stu­pid’ – You’re so gay’ – and this makes any­one who might be gay or have a gay fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend uncom­fort­able. But when the kids learn, for instance, that Langston Hugh­es, one of the great poets of the Harlem Renais­sance was gay, they stop using the word as a weapon against one another.”

Indeed, it’s not just Langston Hugh­es. If SB 1437 becomes law, stu­dents could learn more about the role Bayard Rustin, a top lieu­tenant of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., played as prin­ci­pal orga­niz­er of the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton. Many believe that he stayed behind the scenes to avoid polit­i­cal back­lash from the rev­e­la­tion that he was gay. High school teach­ers could explain the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Green­wich Vil­lage, or the 1978 mur­der of San Fran­cis­co Super­vi­sor Har­vey Milk.

On May 25, two weeks after the Sen­ate passed SB 1437 but before the Assem­bly con­sid­ered it, Schwarzenegger’s office broke its rule of reserv­ing com­ment on bills until they arrive for his sig­na­ture. Direc­tor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Adam Mendel­sohn announced that the gov­er­nor would veto the bill. The tim­ing is note­wor­thy, with the announce­ment com­ing just days before the begin­ning of Gay Pride month. While the veto announce­ment may lessen the expec­ta­tions for the leg­is­la­tion, it could also gal­va­nize its sup­port­ers, lead­ing increased pres­sure on Schwarzenegger.

Mona Passig­nano, states issues ana­lyst of Focus on the Fam­i­ly, is heart­ened by the stance announced by the governor’s office, but not entire­ly sat­is­fied. I real­ly want to hear it straight from him,” she says.

Mean­while, the bill’s spon­sor, Kuehl, is not accus­tomed to tak­ing no” for an answer. He hasn’t made up his mind, I don’t care what some under­ling might have said,” she says. When it gets to the floor, I expect to talk to the gov­er­nor and I expect to get it through. … There’s noth­ing con­tro­ver­sial about it … once peo­ple under­stand what it real­ly does.”

John Ire­land cov­ers pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and social dynam­ics in the Unit­ed States, explor­ing democ­ra­cy in action.” He has been pub­lished in numer­ous peri­od­i­cals, includ­ing Newsweek, the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, the Bal­ti­more Sun and the Advo­cate.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue