Teaching Tolerance: California’s Bill and the Fight for LGBT Rights

16 Apr

Photo Courtesy of Liz Martin, AP.

The California Senate is shaking up education with a push for gay rights. In a controversial move on Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would require schools to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history in the social studies curriculum.

If the state Assembly adopts the bill and Governor Jerry Brown signs it, California will become the first state to require the teaching of gay history. Pardon my bias but, “Yippee!”

Due to social stigma regarding “what it means” to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, kids who identify as LGBT are at a constant threat for risk. Teenagers who are gay or bisexual are three times as likely to attempt suicide than other youth. According to the 2005 National School Climate Survey, “LGBT students were five times more likely to report having skipped school in the last month because of safety concerns than the general population of students.” Not only do LGBT adolescents feel unsure in admitting their sexual orientation, but they feel unsafe in their school environments. These kids need support from their families, communities, schools, and government, and we need to teach children about tolerance.

Efforts to spread tolerance are active among the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a group who remembers a young man beaten and murdered in 1998 for his sexual orientation. Jamie Nabozny, an activist for LGBT rights, still speaks out about the abuse he suffered at an Ashland, WI high school because he was gay. In 1996, Jamie won a historic federal case against the Ashland School District, effectively securing more rights for GLBT students. The story of Derek Henkle and the lack of federal and state endorsement of gay rights (only six states allow gay marriage) show that the fight for equal treatment is ongoing.

Matthew Shepard

I believe California is taking a step in the right direction in regards to education. Regardless of personal belief, gay children, students, and Americans exist. This is a fact. It is also a fact that LGBT students face group-specific risks that heterosexual students do not. Schools need to take active measures to protect these students and educate others on the issues surrounding gay rights. Much like the United States resisted and was long uncomfortable in granting rights to Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and women, the United States is uncomfortable and resisting granting rights to those students and people who have an “unconventional” sexual orientation. As Republican Californian State Senator Doug La Malfa openly announced regarding California’s bill,

“I’m deeply troubled kids would have to contemplate at a very, very early age, when many of us are teaching abstinence … what is sexuality.”

Several things are frustrating about this statement. The first is the equation the Senator makes regarding sexual orientation and abstinence. It is possible for parents of a gay child to teach their child abstinence. Senator La Malfa clearly does not make the connection that wild sexual promiscuity does not go hand in hand with homosexuality. Teaching a gay child to abstain from sex is the same as teaching a straight child to abstain from sex.

The second frustrating part about this statement is that kids contemplate sexuality at a very young age, regardless of whether adults talk to them about it. Just ask Freud. However, if Freud is just too controversial and perhaps a bit outdated, modern research show that the median age for recognizing one’s sexual orientation is 13, and gay teens usually report being aware of being attracted to persons of their own sex between ages 12 and 14, though individual reports do vary (Taylor and Whittaker, 225, 2009). Also, children in grade school begin “going out” as early as the second grade, as they are imitating relationship behaviors they see daily in their family lives. In conjunction with our media, children are in no way oblivious to human sexuality.

Lastly, the Senator’s statement brings to mind the age-old debate on the effectiveness of teaching abstinence. I don’t want to go there, but the New York Times will.

The core of this debate rests with this question of equality. We need to set aside personal beliefs, and let the issue of human rights rise to the surface. Start teaching tolerance. Embrace diversity. Spread the good word.


Taylor, L.S., & Whittaker, C.R. (2009). Bridging multiple worlds: case studies of diverse education communities (2nd Ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Calif. Senate Votes to Mandate Gay History in Schools,” Education Week.


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