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The Truth Comes Out

2011 July 8

It should be quite clear by now that queer men and women exist. New York has begun to realize this, as Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and our nation’s capital have done. The other states in our country have had a bit of trouble with this, particularly California, which has performed acrobatic feats of denial to circumvent queer-acknowledging legislation. However, Assembly Speaker John Perez, California’s first openly gay assemblyman, and a host of other state legislators, have plans to change that. On Tuesday, a bill was passed that would require California public schools to include LGBT men and women in history lessons, because, apparently, this was not previously necessary. Queer men and women now await the signature of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown before they will be officially recognized by history.

The legal recognition of a significant percentage of human beings has taken a disappointingly long time to arise. In fact, until 2003, homosexuality was still illegal in 13 states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia, to be precise). Only six states have elevated queer men and women to equal status under the law. After enjoying a brief fit of equality in the summer of 2008, same-sex couples in California were again demoted to legal inconsequentiality that very fall. However, this era of either shameful ignorance or willful hatred is beginning (dare I say it?) to end. Suffering that great and particularly bitter injustice, queer Californians have continued the fight against stupidity and cruelty in other venues. This bill (SB48) is not the first time Californians have attempted to combat ignorance at its core: in the classroom.

Earlier this year, Redwood Heights Elementary School opened its doors to Gender Spectrum, a group dedicated to educating children and adults about the complexities of gender identity. Kindergartners were taught that some girls like blue, that some boys like pink, and that just as some girls like to wear pants, some boys like to wear dresses. The class was read My Princess Boy, which tells the true story of 4-year-old Dyson Kilodavis, who, like many other males of all ages, enjoys wearing flowing dresses, sparkling jewelry, and tiaras. “Clothes are clothes,” one child said, after the lesson. “And people are people,” added another. While the school found almost unanimous support from within the community, criticism swiftly came from without. “Kids are too young for this sort of thing,” said Kevin Snider, a chief counsel for the Pacific Justice Institute and a person who, apparently, has never spent time in a kindergarten classroom.

In California, Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly has said of SB48 that, “As a Christian, [he is] deeply offended.” He worries that the bill will promote a “homosexual agenda,” which he ostensibly views as a bad thing. One can only wonder what he thinks of the black agenda advanced by a similar law requiring the recognition of black men and women in history classes; or of the obvious Native American agenda behind another law requiring the teaching of Native American history. There are similar laws for Mexican, Asian and European Americans as well. There is no existing law requiring the acknowledgment of white men and women in history classes, but I suppose there’s not such a large problem with that.

“I think it’s one thing to say that we should be tolerant,” Donnelly continued. “It is something else altogether to say that my children are going to be taught that this lifestyle is good.” Well, to begin with, tolerance seems a rather low bar, does it not? I would certainly expect far more than tolerance from an elected servant of California’s citizens. It is curious, as well, to imagine just how Donnelly envisions these lessons will look if he claims to be worried about teachers instructing his children about the benefits of a queer lifestyle. In what classroom does this kind of discussion occur? Surely, history class of all places is not where one would go to learn about the advantages of growing up queer in the United States. The assemblyman himself can undoubtedly attest to that.

The vote fell largely along party lines (I’ll let you guess), excepting one Republican who voted in favor. The rest generally cited their own religious objections to homosexuality, which is dismissible nonsense that should have no bearing on lawmaking. Others amazingly felt that the bill had no specific importance. “I don’t think this helps the teaching of history,” said Assemblyman Chris Norby. “I think it’s a distraction.” Just what could be distracting about ensuring the inclusion of an unmistakably vital but neglected minority in the story of American (which is to say, their own) history is far beyond the limits of my imagination. Norby was also concerned about how, under the new legislation, teachers would speak of those historic figures who never identified openly as gay, but whose heterosexuality is, well, doubtful. There are so many solutions to this non-problem that taking the trouble to specify even one seems tedious. I’ll say this: luckily, we modern humans have a variety of words at our disposal with which to describe complicated issues like gender and sexuality, but in the cases of President James Buchanan and the economist John Maynard Keyes—both of whom Norby referenced repeatedly on this point—the word “gay” might be of use.

The bill specifies little regarding its implementation. Local school boards would be left to decide how the requirement would be incorporated into the curriculum. The bill does not even identify a grade level at which such instruction should begin.

It seems certain that the best way to combat ignorance is to strive to ensure a thorough education. By avoiding issues of gender and sexuality, we allow the myth that deviations from heterosexuality are in some way abnormal to perpetuate. This vicious lie allows at its best for the maintenance of inequality and at its worst for the justification of violent death, as the daily news has long documented. Imagine, if you would, a generation hindered not by the fallacious notions of gender normativity; free to wear what they like without regard to arbitrary cultural habit; free to love who they will without any “standard” from which to “deviate;” free to define their own identity, rather than remain imprisoned behind a false one; free to know that they are not alone in their struggles. Is this generation not already a more loving, compassionate one by definition, without the learned prejudices of their predecessors? Perhaps Assemblymen Donnelly and Norby can imagine an America without the Stonewall riots, the subsequent establishment of gay pride celebrations and the election of Harvey Milk, but that America is not this America.

Assemblyman Donnelly finished by claiming that with the passage of SB48, “Our founding fathers are turning over in their graves.” Well, probably not Alexander Hamilton, who famously exchanged some more than suggestive letters with his fellow aides, John Laurens and the Marquis de Lafayette. And in any case, if the others were the homophobic villains that Donnelly would happily have them be, let them roll for eternity, they will never be any less dead or less wrong.

Update: This bill was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday, July 14, making California the first state in the country to require the inclusion of queer men and women in history textbooks.
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