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Why Calif. students should know that Harvey Milk was gay [Blowback]

October 28, 2011 | 12:37 pm

Lorri L. Jean and C. Scott Miller respond to the Oct. 19 and 26 editorials "Gaps in the LGBT lesson plan" and "A textbook case of politicization." Jean is chief executive of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, and Miller co-chairs the California Teacher Assn.'s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus.

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It's true that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it. That is one of the reasons students learn about the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And that is one of the reasons The Times deserves an "F" for its editorials against the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful) Education Act. 

The historical contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people should not be excluded from classrooms, and those lessons belong in history books, not in high school sex education classes.

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is just one example of an openly gay leader who contributed to the rich fabric of California. Before being assassinated, he helped lead the fight to protect the right for gay men and lesbians to teach in California's schools; it's outrageous that the story of his accomplishments isn't taught in those same schools. 

Milk's full story, which isn't at all about sex, can't be told without mentioning his sexual orientation. He was California's first openly gay elected official. His sexual orientation is just as essential to his story as the religious faith and ethnicities of those killed by the Nazis is to the story of the Holocaust.  And just as we teach all students about the Holocaust (not just Jews), all students should learn about the accomplishments of historical figures, whatever their sexual orientation. 

And how many young people today know that in California and other states, police imprisoned LGBT people simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity?  Learning the full and sometimes sordid history of our great state will help students understand how far we've come in the effort to create a more accepting society. 

That's why in previous amendments to the state education code, the California Legislature has required schools to teach about the contributions made by people from a wide variety of groups that have faced discrimination, such as women and people of color. 

The FAIR Act simply ensures that the historic accomplishments of LGBT and disabled people are no longer excluded from social study lessons. Nowhere does it mandate the teaching of "issues" related to LGBT people. It's simply because we have a responsibility as a society to teach children fair, accurate and inclusive history in a respectful environment that the governor signed into law SB 48.

Though the FAIR Act amends the state education code, the real action happens at the local level, with parents, teachers and school boards making decisions about age-appropriate materials. Yes, teachers need support, guidance and the resources to educate themselves and their students. That's why it's up to each school district to determine what specific support is necessary. 

And make no mistake, this is a law about social studies education, not sex education. LGBT people, like all other people, are about much more than their sexuality, and people such as Milk, Barbara Jordan and Bayard Rustin have made undeniably significant contributions to society that should never have been kept out of social studies lessons. To tell their stories without disclosing their sexual orientation suggeststhere's something so wrong with being LGBT that discussions about us, like racism and sexism, must be kept out of the schools. 

-- Lorri L. Jean and C. Scott Miller


A textbook case of politicization

Gaps in the LGBT lesson plan

California schools scrambling to add lessons on LGBT Americans

Photo: San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone are shown in the mayor's office during the signing of the city's gay rights bill in April 1977. Credit: Associated Press

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