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How to teach gay issues in 1st grade?

A new law requiring California schools to have lessons about LGBT Americans raises tough questions.

October 16, 2011|Teresa Watanabe
  • David Columbus, a senior and president of Downtown Magnets High School's Gay-Straight Alliance club, said he was pushed around and called names since he was 3 because he liked Barbie dolls. But, he said, he has thrived in the school's supportive environment.
David Columbus, a senior and president of Downtown Magnets High School's… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

At Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in Laurel Canyon, there are lesson plans on diverse families -- including those with two mommies or daddies -- books on homosexual authors in the library and a principal who is openly gay.

But even at this school, teachers and administrators are flummoxed about how to carry out a new law requiring California public schools to teach all students -- from kindergartners to 12th-graders -- about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in history classes.

"At this point, I wouldn't even know where to begin," Principal Don Wilson said.

Educators across the state don't have much time to figure it out. In January, they're expected to begin teaching about LGBT Americans under California's landmark law, the first of its kind in the nation.

The law has sparked confusion about what, exactly, is supposed to be taught. Will fourth-graders learn that some of the Gold Rush miners were gay and helped build San Francisco? Will students be taught about the "two-spirited people" tradition among some Native Americans, as one gay historian mused?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 01, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
LGBT Americans: Three headlines with an article in the Oct. 16 Section A about a new law requiring California public schools to teach about the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in state and U.S. history erred in describing the subject matter as "gay issues" and "LGBT lessons."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 06, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
LGBT Americans: Three headlines with an article in the Oct. 16 Section A about a new law requiring California public schools to teach about the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in state and U.S. history erred in describing the subject matter as "gay issues" and "LGBT lessons."

"I'm not sure how we plug it into the curriculum at the grade school level, if at all," said Paul Boneberg, executive director at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

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 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 Los Angeles school board passed a resolution directing students and school staff to refrain from slurs about sexual orientation as far back as 1988. Then, in 2003, allegations of adult school staff members bullying LGBT students prompted the district to step up its educational efforts, according to Judy Chiasson, coordinator for human relations, diversity and equity.

In 2005, L.A. Unified debuted 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.

Those topics, educators say, are clearly inappropriate at the younger ages, raising tough questions about how to carry out the new law in elementary school.

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.

Chiasson said LGBT topics are controversial because people conflate them with sex -- and, for religious conservatives, sin. "People sexualize homosexuality and romanticize heterosexuality," she said.

The Safe Schools Coalition, an educational support group for LGBT youth, says the only age-appropriate lessons in elementary school involve family diversity, gender stereotypes and anti-bullying.

Which is pretty much what happens at Wonderland.

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.

Wilson, the principal, said such lessons are about as far as the school would take any LGBT instruction.

"The issue is never going to move beyond the diversity of family," he said. "If it were to move beyond that, we would address it as a breach of developmentally appropriate instruction."

Middle and high schools are a different matter. Sex education begins in fifth grade, so more specific LGBT instruction is considered 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.

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