Calif. Public Schools To Teach Gay History

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Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that would require public schools to teach gay history. For more, Robert Siegel talks to state Sen. Mark Leno, who authored the legislation.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A new law in California will require public schools in that state to teach gay and lesbian history. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law last week, making California the first state to adopt such a measure. Updated textbooks won't hit classrooms for a few more years, but the policy goes into effect in January. State Senator Mark Leno is the author of the bill.

MARK LENO: Our current education code requires that the role and contributions of African, Asian, Mexican, Native, European Americans, women and other traditionally overlooked communities be included in our school curriculum. All this bill does is adds that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Americans, along with those from the disability community, also have their roles and contributions included in our curriculum.

SIEGEL: Let's focus on gay and lesbian for a moment. Do you mean openly gay and lesbian, or is this a discussion of people in history who are now believed to have been homosexual, to use the old word.

LENO: I get that question asked often. In fact, this is not about outing historical figures. It's really about addressing and making sure that we don't further censor a very important chapter of civil rights history.

SIEGEL: And that's why you see a need for adding these groups of people.

LENO: Very much so. Very much so. You know, we're presently in the midst of a tragic and ever-growing phenomenon of school bullying that has reached such proportions that we've seen many, many students - 12, 13-year-old kids go home and hang themselves from the backyard tree or put a gun to their head - pulled the trigger.

In fact, in one case, in Ventura County, California, in 2008, a 12-year-old boy shot dead in his sixth grade classroom a fellow 12-year-old boy. And when the teacher asked the assailant why, the response was that his classmate was too girlie.

So what we're not teaching our straight students, as well as our LGBT students, is that, that girlie-looking boy is possibly part of a community, a community which has been historically demonized and discriminated against, and in recent decades, has had great success in fighting for its full civil rights and first- class citizenship.

SIEGEL: But I gather this is inserted into the curriculum starting in the fourth grade.

LENO: This is K through 12 education. Of course, all of it will be done in an age-appropriate fashion.

SIEGEL: What's an age-appropriate fashion for discussing transgendered individuals for, say, a fourth grader?

LENO: Sure. Well, that's not for me to decide. This will be decided for purposes of inclusion in our textbooks by the State Board of Education. And that's a multi-year, very thorough, comprehensive public process.

With regard to daily lesson plans, that will be left in the hands of the local elected school board, again, through public process, public comment. And I would imagine that the way it's taught in one school district in California may be different from the way it's taught in another school district.

SIEGEL: What are the few hours that should come out of the syllabus to make room for it? What are the things that shouldn't be taught instead?

LENO: Well, for example, we appropriately require that the teaching - that there was an African-American man by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King who fought valiantly for everyone's civil rights and was assassinated for his efforts. But there was also a gay American man by the name of Harvey Milk who also fought for everyone's civil rights and was assassinated for his efforts. We're currently teaching one, we're censoring the other.

SIEGEL: But - and I don't mean to be flippant about this, but if one, indeed, is adding time to the school year to learn about Harvey Milk and to learn about peoples with disabilities and other gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans and Californians, what comes out of it? What are the things that we have been teaching kids that we can throw overboard at this point?

LENO: Well, I'm not here to tell you I know exactly how much time. But even 30 minutes, 40 minutes out of an entire school year is probably there to be found. In fact, in school districts where this inclusion already exists, we know for fact that all levels of bullying and harassment are significantly decreased.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Leno, thank you very much for talking with us.

LENO: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's State Senator Mark Leno. He represents California's 3rd Senate District, and he spoke with us from San Francisco. He is the author of the new law in California that will require public schools there to teach gay and lesbian history.

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