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LGBTQ leaders need to be at the table as FAIR Act is implemented

by Gary Waddell

California is leading the way in implementing LGBTQ-inclusive textbooks in public schools. Senate Bill 48, the FAIR Education Act, authored by gay then-state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) went into effect January 1, 2012. The act requires that California's public schools provide fair, accurate, inclusive, and respectful representations of LGBTQ Americans, as well as people with disabilities in history and social studies curriculum.

It has become apparent that LGBTQ leaders need to be at the table to inform implementation. Already, some early missteps have occurred with textbook publishers who struggled with how to frame the work of LGBTQ individuals who were not openly gay.

The requirement that textbook publishers include, and schools teach, our stories in California's schools is both significant and trend-setting for the nation. California has the opportunity to lead the way in honoring and teaching about the contributions of LGBTQ Americans. The California State Board of Education and California Department of Education have stepped up to the plate to move forward instructional materials that are responsive to the FAIR Education Act. Our community needs to step up and be at the table to inform, educate, and guide the implementation of this act - both in how we are represented in textbooks, but also in how our stories are taught in schools across the Golden State.

So here's the thing. Understanding what it means to be LGBTQ doesn't happen in a historical vacuum. It is critical to understand the historical context in which these individuals lived and what it meant to be LGBTQ - and to be out - in the context in which these individuals lived. Those of us in the LGBTQ community know only too well that these are not academic arguments and that the context of these stories are as important to tell as the contributions themselves.

In "History is a Weapon" (1979) Audre Lorde opined that "Those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference ... know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish."

I think that Lorde got it right. One cannot understand the contributions of LGBTQ individuals without also understanding what it meant to be openly gay. In the words of Lorde, this was (and in many cases/places, still is) not an academic skill and the challenges that LGBTQ individuals are made is all the more significant because of the context in which they lived.

Our community leaders and LGBTQ educators need to be at the table as these nuanced conversations occur. The moral imperative to include our stories, now enshrined in California statute, requires that our contributions be fairly reflected in our history and social science materials and that materials that adversely reflect our community are not adopted by any governing board for use in classrooms. The opportunity along the way is to better tell our stories and to educate our youth toward a more open and inclusive society - one that respects, nurtures, and honors LGBTQ youth and community members.

Our leaders need to stay active and engaged in this conversation to ensure that the significant contributions of our community are understood in the deep context of what it meant for these individuals to do what they did - often at great personal risk. It is this critical context that helps all Californians understand what it means to be LGBTQ and how the absence of these stories in the past has diminished us all.

Gary Waddell, Ph.D., is a gay man who is deputy superintendent of the San Mateo County Office of Education. He is a candidate for San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools and is the former chair of California's statewide Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee.

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