Thanks to legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown, public schools in California are now required to include the roles LGBT individuals have played in U.S. history. While this is groundbreaking legislation, are laws like these addressing the problem, or merely the symptom?
Many of you have read about the unfortunately-more-than-just-an-Onion-headline “Don’t say gay” bill that made the rounds several months ago in the Tennessee legislature. The bill would have prohibited any discussion of non-heterosexual orientation in the elementary and middle school classroom. Though it wasn’t brought up for a vote, just the fact that some of the state’s representatives believe that even a mention of queer sexuality would be poisonous to children’s minds is infuriating.
The two bills promote opposing agendas–one literally erases the identity of queer students, and one attempts to redraw the lines. While reading the names and stories of LGBT individuals in the United States will hopefully reaffirm the identities of queer students, one cannot be sure if the legislation will ultimately do much to fight deeply ingrained prejudices on a societal level. Of course, education can be a vital tool in fighting these prejudices. In order for school to function as anything more than a machine of hegemonic indoctrination, however, the system needs a major overhaul.
Let’s start with textbooks. How, we should be asking ourselves, is it beneficial to assign marginalized groups material from books–many published half a century ago and rarely given more than a cosmetic facelift–with titles like Triumph of the American Nation, and The Great Republic? According to Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, in addition to their dry syntax and sometimes factless factoids, textbooks have long glossed over the more troubling episodes of our history. How many of us knew, from high school, that President Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist who adored Birth of a Nation? The fact that publishing companies are legally obligated to include LGBT individuals in the text is no guarantee that the information presented therein will be factually accurate, let alone revolutionary.
Many teachers, of course, are saddled with these antiquated books by the school system, which, in an age tarnished by No Child Left Behind, has a rather unhealthy relationship with standardized tests. These teachers, many of whom are doing the best they can, are underpaid and overworked, especially with state governments attacking their union benefits.
Forcing a broken system to acquiesce to the needs of a growing multicultural society may result in adherence to the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Textbooks aren’t known for their inclusion of primary sources (as James W. Loewen, the author of Lies, says, “What would we think of a course in poetry in which students never read a poem?”), and giving the publishing companies the power of structuring a queer narrative will likely result in a story so dry and lacking in personality, students may not even respond to it. The California legislation is a step, but society must go further. What effect would a genuine collection of LGBT voices have on students? A primary source, in its immediacy, can remove the barriers of time and space. Students need coursebooks and classrooms as interactive and enthralling as history actually is. If students had the opportunity to read about the struggles and triumphs of the LGBT community–and this goes for all marginalized groups–in their own words, they could see firsthand the humanity of all peoples, and history might not have to repeat itself.