(Reuters) - A picture book for second graders about a family with two moms. A lesson for fourth graders about Gold Rush era stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst, who was born a woman but lived as a man.
These are just some of the ways U.S. public school students will learn about LGBTQ - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender queer - history in a growing number of states moving to mandate inclusive K-12 curriculum. It is the latest chapter in a decades-long push to teach students about the trials and contributions of marginalized communities - from suffragettes to black Americans - whose stories have often been absent from classrooms.
At the forefront is California where the curriculum became law in 2011. New Jersey became the second state in January, limiting its mandate to middle- and high-school students.
On Thursday, Colorado lawmakers voted to mandate LGBTQ curriculum for K-12 public school students. Governor Jared Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor, will review the final bill before deciding whether to sign it into law, a spokeswoman said.
“Our intent was to start teaching the history of everybody,” said Colorado Representative Brianna Buentello, who co-sponsored the bill, which mandates LGBTQ-inclusive courses a requirement for high school graduation.
“It’s a very different story that’s being told than the one, as minorities, we live every single day,” said Buentello, a public school teacher in Pueblo, Colorado.
New York and Illinois lawmakers are considering similar K-12 mandates.
In California, eight years after the mandate was signed into law, known as the FAIR Education Act, many teachers are just beginning to incorporate LGBTQ history into their classrooms.
In 2017, the state took a major step by approving history textbooks that include the mandated material. While the textbooks are optional, schools receive financial assistance from the state to purchase them.
Some approved textbooks include eighth grade lessons about two-spirits, people revered in many Native American cultures because they were believed to embody both masculine and feminine spirits, before Native American gender roles were largely stamped out by Spanish and English colonization.
Despite these inroads, the Golden State is still grappling with making sure all public school students learn LGBTQ history. One challenge has been instructing teachers, who may have never learned LGBTQ history themselves.
April Faulkner, 29, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at La Paz Middle School in Salinas, a northern California city, was trained last year on how to include LGBTQ themes in lessons. Now she teaches students about Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Revolutionary War hero who historians believe was kicked out of the Prussian Army for being openly gay. George Washington hired von Steuben, who is credited with playing an essential role in the training of the Continental army.
“If I have one student who feels more comfortable about their identity and sexuality because they learned about Baron von Steuben and how he whipped the army into shape ... Even if it’s just one student, that’s worth it,” said Faulkner.
Battles have erupted in some school districts as some conservative and religious parents protest history curriculum that they deem offensive or inappropriate.
In the San Juan Unified School District just outside California’s capital, parents spoke for hours at heated school board meetings before the district voted in April on which textbooks to approve for the 2019-2020 school year.
Jenica Williams, 34, spoke about her concerns that her sons, ages three and six, would begin reading books about transgender people in first and second grade, long before she may be ready to talk to her children at home about gender and sexuality.
“I should be the first one to educate about those things,” Williams told Reuters. Williams, who is Christian, has considered moving her kids into private school.
On the other side of the debates was Emily Vaden, 30, whose five-year-old son is transgender. Born a girl, the child identified almost immediately as a different gender and said soon after he began to talk that he was a boy and wanted a boy’s haircut and clothes, his mother said. Vaden hopes that by learning about LGBTQ history in school, her child can avoid the high depression and suicide rates that plague transgender youth.
“I want him to look at those who came before us and did great things, and see great things in his own future,” Vaden, 30, told Reuters. “That is made more possible when he can see himself in the stories shared at school.”
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Orlofsky