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LGBT History Month: LGBT History Curriculum Choices Expand

by Matthew S. Bajko

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected in California
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected in California  (Source:Daniel Nicoletta)

Many public school children in California likely know that the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was the first out elected LGBT leader in the state due to his winning his board seat 40 years ago this November 8.

Numerous schools throughout the Golden State teach about the pioneering LGBT rights activist every year on or near May 22, which was Milk's birthday and is now an unofficial state holiday in California. Ever since 2010 the sitting governor declares the date Harvey Milk Day, due to state lawmakers eight years ago designating it a day of special significance.

With schools in session when May 22 falls on a weekday, the annual commemoration of Milk allows schoolteachers an opportunity to bring an LGBT history lesson into their classrooms. Various educational materials about Milk have been created to assist teachers who do.

Over the last decade, as more and more educators have sought to teach LGBT history lessons, their curriculum choices have expanded. Their efforts received a significant boost from the passage in 2011 of the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, a California law that requires K-12 history and social science classes to include historical contributions of LGBT and disabled people.

"Overwhelmingly teachers want to make sure they are covering this curriculum and want to make sure they are doing it not only because the state education code says they must do it, but because this is a much more complete, relevant, and recognizable way to teach history and the related social sciences," said Beth Slutsky, Ph.D., a program coordinator at the California History-Social Science Project Statewide Office at UC Davis, where she also teaches history.

Her office was contracted by the state to assist with incorporating the provisions of the FAIR Act into what the state's public schools are teaching. Its work resulted in the state's Board of Education last summer updating the History-Social Science Framework that sets out what children are to be taught in kindergarten through 12th grade. LGBT subject matter is now expected to be presented in the second, fourth, fifth, eighth, 11th, and 12th grades.

The topics run the gamut from LGBT people who have made significant contributions to society, like Milk and lesbian social worker Jane Addams, who in 1931 was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to broader subjects like the state's role in the fight for marriage rights for same-sex couples and how gender identity has been viewed differently by various cultures.

Last month, the statewide education board's Instructional Quality Commission approved nine history-social science K-8 textbooks that incorporate the LGBT subject material after a strong advocacy push by LGBT leaders and educators. The FAIR Education Act Implementation Coalition continues to call for revisions to a 10th textbook the commission approved that omits some of the required LGBT history lessons.

The state Board of Education is expected to adopt the new textbooks when it meets in early November. Schools statewide will then be able to purchase the textbooks once they are approved for purchase.

"As early as next academic year we could see the textbooks in classrooms," said Don Romesburg, a gay San Francisco resident who is an associate professor and chair in the Sonoma State University Women's and Gender Studies Department and the lead scholar of the FAIR ACT coalition. "The textbooks are a great starting point and a great base from which to jump off from teaching about LGBT history."

More Materials Needed

Despite the inclusion of the LGBT history lessons in the textbooks, supplemental materials will still be needed to give students more in-depth instruction on specific topics. Asked if there were enough lesson plans currently available on LGBT issues, Slutsky replied "yes and no" depending on the subject matter.

"It is easier to build lessons around modern topics because the resources are digitized and students can access them pretty easily," she explained.

For instance, in 11th grade modern U.S. history, students can readily find a wealth of material about the LGBT rights movement. Harder to find, noted Slutsky, are "credible and readable" primary and secondary sources about Native American two spirits, which students in fourth and eighth grades are expected to study.

"Certain topics have terrific lessons and other topics I know all sorts of community groups and educational groups are working to create resources about right now," she said. "There is a huge focus for libraries and schools around the state to create these lessons."

Oral historian Glenne McElhinney, a lesbian who focuses on LGBT history, is working with the state Department of Education to create four short documentaries about various LGBT historic subjects for use in California classrooms. The videos should be released sometime in 2018.

While she is keeping three of the films' topics under wraps for now, she has disclosed that one will focus on the LGBT community's successful fight in 1977 and 1978 to defeat the Briggs initiative. The ballot measure would have banned gays and lesbians from working as teachers in California's public schools, and its demise marked a turning point not only for the LGBT community in the state but across the country.

In addition to the film, McElhinney and the other members of the Victory Over Briggs Commemoration 2018 committee are working with San Francisco State University's history department to create a website that can serve as an online repository to house scholarship about and ephemera from the fight against the Briggs initiative. It is a part of LGBT history few students today learn about in school.

"Looking back now it's amazing how influential those two years were yet how underreported and unrecognized they are," said McElhinney. "A big reason we are doing this Victory Over Briggs Commemoration is we hope to get young scholars to look at these years and their influence."

This summer Slutsky compiled a list of different LGBT history lesson plans that have already been created for teachers to use in their classrooms for a blog post she wrote about the FAIR Act that can be found at

One link she included is for a 28-page lesson plan the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project created last year about Charley Parkhurst, one of the most famous of the state's stagecoach drivers who lived as a man but was born female with the given name of Charlotte. He is one of the people students are now expected to learn about in fourth grade.

Another site included in the list is, which has separate pages listing various lesson plans on LGBT topics by grade level. The LGBT-focused nonprofit Our Family Coalition compiled the materials and maintains the site.

The UC Davis program has partnered with the California Historical Society to create a website called Teaching California that will include lesson plans tailored to the new educational framework created in partnership with archives, libraries, and historical societies around the state.

"The idea is to make it a California story, so whatever topic a teacher is covering California is front and center," said Slutsky. "It is a way to really bring local LGBT history into a broader narrative in the course of study."

All of these educational materials combined with the updated textbooks will result in "a huge step forward," Romesburg said, in seeing schools fully implement the provisions of the FAIR Act as teachers will feel they have the information they need to teach LGBT history.

"I really imagine in the next couple of years, with the framework, with the law, with the textbooks, and with these developed lesson plans there is going to be a really robust way for teachers to find what they need to really implement LGBT history education across the state," predicted Romesburg, who explains the FAIR ACT requirements for teachers at seminars held by the UC Davis program.


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