California Passes Law Mandating Teaching of Gay History: Now What?
posted at 6:21 pm on July 15, 2011 by Howard Portnoy
It is official. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Thursday making California the first state to require that school textbooks and history lessons include the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans.
In a statement following the signing into law of SB 48, which passed the state Assembly on July 6 by a vote of 49 to 25, Brown said that “history should be honest.” The measure, he added,
revises existing laws that prohibit discrimination in education and ensures that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books.
Making history honest so that it reflects the contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life: Who wouldn’t be for that?
State Sen. Mark Leno, who authored the bill, was even more effusive in his praise of the new law, noting that
[d]enying LGBT people their rightful place in history gives our young people an inaccurate and incomplete view of the world around them.
Now that history has been made—make that made honest—California finds itself in a “Graduate” moment. At the end of the classic 1967 Mike Nichols film of that name, which launched the big-screen career of Dustin Hoffman, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock claims his prize. He crashes the wedding of the woman he loves (played by Katharine Ross), bars the door of the ultra-modern church with a crucifix, and boards a city bus with the love of his life by his side. The two look at each other—at first uncertainly, then uncomfortably—as the bus lurches forward. The clear unspoken message is “Now what?”
Which is precisely the quandary facing the state of California. Make no mistake: As one of the three leading states in textbook acquisitions, California can call the shots with the Pearsons and the McGraw-Hills and all the other major educational publishing cartels. They can dictate chapter and verse what the authors of history books write if they are to have a chance of having their oeuvres adopted by the California Department of Education.
So now that California has the legal authority and undivided attention (as always) of the el-hi publishing world, the question before the state curriculum framework committee is “Now what?” How, in other words, will the new History of a Free Nation—Glencoe/McGraw-Hill’s contender for the Golden State’s dollars in the high school history market—differ from previous editions?
According to one analysis of the book in the Textbook Letter, an industry watchdog, History of a Free Nation is currently fraught with myths about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Another review of the same book condemns it as shallow and providing a distorted view of American History, devoting more space, for example, to Benjamin Banneker, a black surveyor, than to founding father and President John Adams. Defenders of this and other schoolbooks will call the charges baseless, but a glimpse at either review shows both to be exhaustive and well-documented.
So it this the company the LGBT community wants to keep in claiming its “rightful place in history”?
Even allowing for the possibility that the accomplishments of gays are accurately recorded, how will they appear in print? Will the books mention that Ann Bancroft (not the actress who appeared in The Graduate and who spelled her name differently anyway but the explorer) was a lesbian? And if so how? Will there be a paragraph reading:
Ann Bancroft, American author, teacher, and adventurer, was the first woman to successfully finish a number of arduous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. And by the way, she is gay.
Or perhaps they will start calling out attributes of sexual orientation parenthetically, much the way elected officials’ party affiliation and state are called out currently in journalistic writing. Thus, twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland would appear in textbooks as “Aaron Copland (G-J-NY).” The “J” is of course for “Jewish.” (You don’t want to start offending other minorities.)
I would be genuinely interested in learning what Sen. Leno and others who applaud the correction of this deficiency imagine happening. What I have no trouble imagining is what happens when a third grader learns in his social studies text about the accomplishment of a famous gay or lesbian or bisexual or whatever. He will ask his teacher what “gay” (or “lesbian” or “bisexual” or whatever) means. And isn’t this—and the dialog that ensues—what this whole charade is really about?