California Puts LGBT People in the History Books

California just passed a law mandating that schools teach LGBT history. Will this help the next generation dissolve homophobia?

California's assembly just passed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, which mandates teaching the contributions of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco said the legislation is meant in part to protect kids against bulllying. It passed by a comfortable margin in the California Senate back in April (23-14), and has just passed the assembly 49-25, without a single vote from Republicans. Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has not commented on the bill publicly, has 12 days to sign it into law or veto it. If he does nothing, the measure would become law automatically.

The California vote is significant, and not just because we shouldn't ignore the accomplishments of gay and lesbian people. It’s making legal what countless polls have been hinting at—that the next generation is much more tolerant about LGBT issues. Six states and the majority of Americans already support gay marriage. Studies show that number is much larger for twentysomethings. This law will serve to normalize LGBT lifestyles even more than they already have been.

It's worth noting that, in the short term, this will probably only affect written history from the last half-century or so, when the labels "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "trans" have been commonly used. Even historical figures like Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, who were widely believed to be gay, remained closeted throughout their careers and aren't referred to as such in textbooks. It's one thing if a historical figure's sexuality is central to the story; Alan Turing, for instance, a codebreaker who helped win World War II for the UK, was sentenced to chemical castration for being gay. But outing Abe Lincoln might not be on California's agenda for a while, even as homophobia recedes.

Of course, homophobia (along with sexism and racism) aren’t just a result of what’s taught in schools. Parents, peers and media probably have more to do with a kid’s attitudes than anything else. But mandated textbooks and lesson plans can say a lot about what a state wants for their future. Arizona, for instance, recently banned all ethnic studies programs. Texas also made hundreds of tweaks to their textbooks last year—changes that give equal weight to creationism and Darwinian theory, replace Thomas Jefferson with John Calvin, and erase little details that made conservatives look bad. Even if teachers don’t explicitly outline certain worldviews, they’re still dictating whose history matters.

photo (cc) by Flickr user Fritz Liess

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