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Will Teaching about LGBT in California Elementary Schools Lead to Cyber-bullying?

Unintended Consequences of Teaching Kids about LGBT Lifestyle

On July 14, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a measure requiring California public schools to teach the historical contributions of gay Americans. Supporters of the new law believe teaching gay history will help to foster tolerance on campus. UC Berkeley professor Tina Trujillo says a change in instruction can shift students' opinions on a given subject.

"We already have state law that mandates that we teach about women, that we teach about Asian-Americans, that we teach about various other groups, marginalized and non-marginalized, Trujillo says. And the intention behind that law is to make sure that students develop a well-rounded understanding in their communities."

Not everyone is supportive. Randy Thomasson is with the nonprofit group Save California, and he says teaching gay history will simply distract students and teachers. "This is not tolerant, it's promoting something," Thomasson says. "If you go into a classroom with second graders and say, 'Let me tell you about a man, who was really attracted to other men,' those kids will squirm, they'll bust up laughing. Why? They're not even sexually developed."

But others, like Judy Elliot, say it's about empowering kids. Elliot is in charge of curriculum for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She says teaching about influential gay and lesbian leaders sends a message to gay and straight students that they have promising futures. She says teachers should no longer side-step the issue.

Recently, the new law was extended to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyles (LGBT) and it must be taught as of January 2012. I have previously blogged about the insensitivity of some to this not-so-well-known alternative lifestyle. I believe young children should know about it but I am concerned about unintended consequences of teaching it to children in elementary schools. The moral development of children proceeds in stages according to the famed cognitive developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. I believe most kids during their kindergarten to twelfth grade years are self-centered and may not be ready to accept alternative LGBT lifestyles. They should do so, as should we all. However, the possibility exists that by drawing attention to LGBT contributions to America in history classes the result may be to inadvertently foment underlying distaste for such lifestyles, perhaps instigated by unaccepting parents. In an age of cyber-bullying, I worry about the unintended consequences of teaching about such controversial subject matter that may be looked at as out of the mainstream by immature kids.

Of equal concern is that school districts will have little help in navigating this sensitive and controversial change, which has already prompted some parents to pull their children out of public schools. The California Legislature suspended all adoptions of instructional material through eighth grade until 2015 to save money. Any new textbook with LGBT content is not likely to land in schools until at least 2019 because that process usually takes a minimum of four years, according to a state Education Department spokeswoman.

The transition should be easier in L.A. Unified, which has been a pioneer in LGBT education. The school board passed a resolution directing students and school staff to refrain from slurs about sexual orientation as far back as 1988. In 2005, L.A. Unified used the nation's first chapter in a high school health textbook on LGBT issues covering sexual orientation and gender identity, struggles over them and anti-LGBT bias. A section on misconceptions says sexual orientation is not a choice — a statement many religious conservatives disagree with.

So sensitive is the subject that a children's picture book about a same-sex penguin pair is one of the most controversial books in America today. "And Tango Makes Three" — based on a true story about two male penguins at New York's Central Park Zoo that bond, hatch a surrogate egg and raise a baby together — has drawn the most complaints and requests for removal from library shelves nearly every year since its 2005 publication, according to the American Library Assn.

On a recent morning, teacher Jane Raphael invited her two dozen kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders to sit in a circle and tell a story about their family. The students described a cross section of modern-day America: moms and dads and athletic siblings, crazy dogs, a cat named Lulu, a fish that died, divorced parents, a girl with two mommies. There was no discussion about sex or gay lifestyles. The exercise simply underscored that families come in all sizes, shapes and configurations. I believe this may be a valuable alternative to consider. Rather than treat LGBT as something different that requires a special mandate to teach, why not include it in discussions about the diversity of families in today’s society?

Perhaps middle and high schools are a different matter. Sex education begins in fifth grade, so more specific LGBT instruction may be appropriate — and necessary, experts say, as bullying steps up in these years. That happened at Downtown Magnets High School, where a lesbian student was beaten up on a school bus in 2005. The school responded by launching an anti-bullying poster campaign, a Gay-Straight Alliance club, staff sessions about inclusiveness and a conscious effort by some teachers to integrate LGBT issues into instruction. This is a more effective way to address intolerance, I believe, – through school sanctioned programs and student-oriented advocacy groups. Why not have experts come to campus and make a presentation to the student body discussing alternative lifestyles?

Why does everything have to go through the curriculum at a time when, according to Common Core, a high school advocacy organization, a majority of high school students know little about U.S. history? On a multiple choice test given by Common Core, less than half of high schoolers knew when the Civil War was fought. They didn’t even know the exact dates, just that it was sometime between 1850 and 1900. Other findings were: 10 percent thought that Adolf Hitler was a munitions manufacturer and not a dictator responsible for killing millions of Jews; one in four thought Columbus discovered the New World after 1750, which would be after Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and other early American developments; and about half have no idea why the Federalist papers were written, picking choices like “to win approval for the Revolutionary War” or to “confirm George Washington’s election as the first President” instead of to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Shouldn’t we make sure students know about and identify with American history as a way of understanding where we came from and where we are now? Wouldn’t students be better off if teachers discussed discrimination in any form, including based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, along with discrimination that occurred during the Civil War years and slavery? Let’s not forget that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Blog Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 31, 2011