New Law Requires Illinois Schools Teach Contributions Of Gay, Transgender People

The law says merely that the teaching of U.S. and Illinois history in public schools “shall include a study of the roles and contributions of” LGBT people.

The Inclusive Curriculum Law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 9, mandates that by the time students finish eighth grade, public schools must teach them about contributions to state and U.S. history made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “This law will give more young people the opportunity to see themselves in those who came before us and recognize they are not alone.”

 

When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago this spring, the city’s school district put together a lesson guide with ideas and resources for teaching about her inauguration — without explicitly referencing her sexual orientation.

“Chicago made history by electing our first African-American woman to serve as Mayor,” the document began.

Under a new Illinois law taking effect next year, similar guides might mention another way Chicago made history: by electing its first openly gay mayor.

The Inclusive Curriculum Law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 9, mandates that by the time students finish eighth grade, public schools must teach them about contributions to state and U.S. history made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“This law will give more young people the opportunity to see themselves in those who came before us and recognize they are not alone,” Lightfoot said in a statement to the Tribune.

That includes students like Michelle Vallet’s transgender son, who is now also more likely to learn about the civil rights struggles that led to milestones such as marriage equality and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Vallet, of Chicago, and other parents of LGBTQ students have pushed for curricula that show children like theirs the types of professionals they could become. To them, the law is a progressive, if vague, step forward. But some detractors see the state forcing local districts to promote an agenda that conflicts with their personal or religious beliefs.

Beyond including the contributions of LGBTQ people to arts, sciences and social movements — as some classes already do — it remains largely up to teachers and local school administrators to navigate when and how to bring up the gender identity or orientation of figures such as artist Frida Kahlo, astronaut Sally Ride and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. At what age will kids understand the weight of the Stonewall riots? Is it enough to simply mention Lightfoot’s wife?

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Anna Moeller, an Elgin Democrat, said the mandate is “not prescriptive” and though various groups are working on guidance for how schools can start incorporating information into classrooms, the state does not plan to issue any more formal guidelines.

Helping compile resources for schools to draw from is Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Klaisner said he wishes the requirement had more structure but hopes his office can be a conduit of information.

The law says merely that the teaching of U.S. and Illinois history in public schools “shall include a study of the roles and contributions of” LGBT people.

“Being that vague could mean a simple unit or a few lessons at one grade level in the school, which I think is insufficient,” Klaisner said. “On the other hand, we don’t want (state officials) to be too heavy-handed when they tell exactly what’s going to be said.”

Though LGBTQ rights are often equated with other civil rights such as racial and gender equality, advocates still face opposition from conservative groups and in the state legislature, where the bill passed 60-42 in the House and 37-17 in the Senate.

Rep. Margo McDermed said she voted against the measure not because of its content but because it’s another state-imposed mandate on schools.

“It’s not … that it’s not a good cause,” said McDermed, a Republican from Mokena. “It’s about our poor, beleaguered taxpayers.”

As far as McDermed is concerned, the state should erase all its mandates for schools and give districts “a clean slate,” with the possible exception of physical education requirements, she said.

“As a matter of financial principle, I don’t think these mandates are useful or helpful to our schools,” McDermed said. “I vote against mandates no matter how worthy the topic may be, and of course this is a worthy topic, but how many mandates are there? … There’s a list on the (Illinois State Board of Education) website. You, you just look at it and your eyes just roll back in your head.”

McDermed said more trust should go to teachers and school boards to teach children appropriately.

Moeller, however, said the mandate should not come at a cost to schools. Many advocacy and education groups already have relevant curriculum materials free online, and sponsors are trying to work with school districts and the State Board of Education on providing information, she said. A provision says that when schools spend money on new textbooks, they must be nondiscriminatory and include all people protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act.

“In the way schools have become required to teach about African Americans, Latinos, women, other marginalized communities, now they’ll also be required to include some mention, some discussion of LGBT,” Moeller said.

Lawmakers have tried before to enact similar legislation, and though passing the law reflects an advancement in civil rights, more still needs to be done, Moeller said. LGBTQ students are still more likely to be bullied, to report feeling isolated in schools and to attempt suicide, she said.

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