The Equality Act, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, is moving to the Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives – and it could affect what’s taught in classrooms.
The Equality Act enables protections within education, particularly with how teachers implement LGBTQ inclusive curriculum.
“It signals to educators who are not part of our community that they too can, hopefully, implement language, representation and curriculum that is LGBTQ inclusive,” said Sophia Arredondo, director of Education and Youth Programs at leading LGBTQ+ education advocacy group GLSEN, to USA TODAY.
For many students, LGBTQ inclusive curriculum is lacking in their classrooms. Nationally, only 19.4% of respondents to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey said they had been taught positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, history, or events in their schools.
LGBTQ protections:Equality Act passes in House, but faces uncertain future in Senate
In California, where the first U.S. law mandating LGBTQ inclusive curriculum (the FAIR Education Act), was passed nearly ten years ago, only 31% of students reported being taught this history in 2019.
When it was passed, many advocates hoped the bill would lead to equitable and complete learning about the contributions and accomplishments of LGBT people throughout history and into the present.
But the FAIR Education Act was roadblocked in California for years.
And less than 20% of teachers are actually integrating LGBTQ history in the state today, said Erik Adamian, associate director of education for the ONE Archives Foundation.
“There’s not this base to build knowledge on,” he explained.
ONE Archives Foundation is the host of the largest repository of LGBTQ+ resources in the world, housed at University of Southern California. Also the oldest continuing LGBTQ+ rights organization in the nation, it now works with teachers across the country to introduce LGBTQ+ inclusive content into the classroom.
“LGBTQ+ history is American history and world history. And it’s time that our education system approaches it as such by making the space and providing the resources needed for teaching the next generation a more inclusive and just version of history,” Adamian said. “But you know, I would also imagine that’s the reason why there’s resistance in it.”
Up until the late 2000s, most LGBTQ+ inclusive teaching was pushed aside or hidden from students – if it wasn’t actively discouraged by states. Even today, five states – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas – in the nation have ‘no promo homo’ laws, which expressly forbid teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ topics in a positive light. In contrast, five states – California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon, as well as some counties in Maryland and Virginia – actually have laws that mandate LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
Some laws even require that teachers portray LGBTQ topics in a negative light – creating a vicious cycle of stigmatization and misinformation.
LGBTQ-inclusive books are hard to find.So these groups started sending them to schools.
And even in states where these laws don’t exist, some teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching these topics because of lack of support on the micro level — within their school districts, from their principal, or even from the parents. If there was pushback from one of these levels, there could be actual repercussions, said Shannon Snapp, professor of psychology at California State University, Monterey Bay.
The Equality Act could change that. It safeguards job protections for LGBTQ teachers, and could empower other educators to teach inclusively without fear of being fired, Arredondo said.
LGBTQ students without the support of inclusive curriculum are more likely to face harassment and bullying at school. But, research shows having LGBTQ storylines in the classroom affects all students positively, not just those who think they may be LGBTQ.
Students in schools with LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum are 82% more likely to report that their classmates are accepting of LGBTQ people than students in schools without LGBTQ-inclusive curriculums, according to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey.
A California high school senior, Jaiden Blancaflor vividly remembers the impacts to learning about the Stonewall riots as a part of his freshman AP U.S. history class.
“There are so many figures like Duke Ellington[‘s collaborators] and Marsha P. Johnson that so many people overlook,” he said. His teachers “always made sure to include if [historical figures] identified as something because it’s important that we have historical figures that we can relate to.”
Blancaflor believes including inclusive education in schools only benefits the general population.
“Especially since it’s history, you can’t really just disregard parts of it,” said Blancaflor, who serves on GLSEN’s National Student Council.
A recent survey from The Trevor Project, a national group focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ young people, also shows that positive school environments make the biggest difference in kids’ lives, compared with other environments such as home, community and work.
Sam Long has seen the effects of a positive school environment firsthand.
A high school science teacher from Colorado told USA TODAY students are more interested in his classes when he talks about the diverse gender, sex, and sexuality presented in nature.
But students who aren’t taught that way “either check out mentally or check out physically and don’t attend class,” he said.
“My concern for science students who don’t have a teacher and a curriculum that is gender inclusive, is that we’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to support and to validate our students,” he said. “We could give them the one reason that they need to continue going to school.”
In GLSEN’s 2019 survey, about a third of LGBTQ+ students considered dropping out of school said it was related to the hostile climate created by school policies and practices. The reverse: LGBTQ+ students who feel safe and supported at school have better educational outcomes.
Want to tackle LGBTQ bullying?Start a Gay-Straight Alliance at your high school, study says
Long is on Commission 1192, which develops recommendations for the expansion of inclusive civics and history education requirements in Colorado.
In order for educators to integrate LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, Long said they “have to stop teaching the way you were taught” and “actively seek authenticity.”
The Equality Act will help with that mission, said Arredondo.
“And for students, I think it also signals that they can show up as their full selves.”
Contributing: Claire Thornton, USA TODAY