Calif. might add gays to curriculum

Senate approves bill on teaching of history

May 14, 2006|By SCOTT GOLD AND HEMMY SO | SCOTT GOLD AND HEMMY SO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Would the state of California "out" Abe Lincoln, now that a controversial biography has suggested that he not only changed the course of a nation but also shared a bed with men?

Last week, after the state Senate voted to require that the historical contributions of gay people be taught in California schools, the weight of practicality - how would it be accomplished? - settled in.

Many educators and activists found themselves in a briar patch of confusion - even those who believe that folding the concept of sexual orientation into the school curriculum would lead to greater levels of tolerance.

The bill, which still needs the approval of the Assembly and the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would require schools to incorporate, in about six years, studies of the "role and contributions" made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the "economic political and social development" of California and the United States.

"How far do we have to go?" asked James Berger, who retired last year after a 35-year teaching career and is now a "coach" of local history teachers. "I read one time that [Nazi leader] Herman Goering liked to wear dresses. Is that important to note? Because he was also a murderer, and that seems to be the essence of what he was about."

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat and author of the bill, and her legislative director, Jennifer Richard, acknowledged that questions remain about how the proposal would be carried out but said that critics should trust in the typical restraint of historical study.

Textbook manufacturers, they say, would require far more documentation and confirmation than, say, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the biography that raised the issue of Lincoln's sexual orientation, which was seen by some historians as slipshod and irresponsible.

Supporters say that bulking up the curriculum dealing with gays is more likely to mean the inclusion of the Stonewall Rebellion, the 1969 gay rights struggle in New York, in the context of America's other civil rights movements.

"The only way that gay and lesbian kids can see themselves in schoolbooks now is in the context of the AIDS epidemic or wearing pink triangles during the Holocaust," said David Holladay, executive director of the nonprofit Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Los Angeles.

California schools are required to teach about the contributions of blacks, women, American Indians, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups. The addition of homosexuals raises complex issues, say educators who have concerns about the measure.

For instance: Billie Jean King, the great tennis champion who became a feminist heroine when she defeated avowed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes." King had a romantic relationship with her secretary, a woman, in the 1970s while she was married to a man. Should King be remembered as a tennis champion? A feminist heroine? A lesbian?

The answer is yes to all three questions, said Richard, Kuehl's legislative director. When it comes to measuring King's historic significance, she said, King's sexual orientation should not be viewed any differently than the fact that Jackie Robinson was a very good baseball player and an African-American.

"That is an important part of Jackie Robinson's story," Richard said. "It is also an important part of Billie Jean King's story, that she was the first openly lesbian athletic star."

The bill points down a perilous path, said Carol Hogan, spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, the public policy office of California's Catholic bishops.

Unless a person's gender, race or ethnicity played a central role in that person's historical significance, it should not be discussed, Hogan said - and neither should his or her sexual orientation.

David Tokofsky, a member of the Los Angeles school board, said that while he supports the idea behind the bill, he fears that it could backfire by reducing gays and lesbians to another item on a "checklist" that textbook manufacturers and teachers use in an age of standardized testing.

"They are not asking for a sophisticated history or something that causes thinking," he said. "These things kind of get debased."

Scott Gold and Hemmy So write for the Los Angeles Times.

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