When California second-graders learn about families, they learn they come in different shapes: Some are formed through adoption; some include only one parent; others, only grandparents. And from now on, textbooks will also teach them that some families have two moms, or two dads.
California is set to become the first state to use LGBT-inclusive textbooks in elementary schools. The State Board of Education approved 10 LGBT-inclusive history textbooks for kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms last week.
“The great things about these books is that they serve our students well,” says Tom Adams, deputy superintendent for the Teaching and Learning Support Branch of the California Department of Education.
“We know there are many students out there who are LGBT or whose parents are,” he says. “This is a reality that most of our students have in their schools and our instructional materials should reflect that reality.”
In fourth grade, textbooks will teach kids about a notorious bandit-battling California stagecoach driver named Charley Parkhurst, who was born a woman but lived as a man.
Polly Pagenhart says that’s important. “It occasions a conversation for kids about why a person would live their life as a man,” says Pagenhart, policy director for Our Family Coalition, one of several organizations that worked toward the inclusive textbooks. “What does that tell us about gender roles or the possibility for women to live full lives in the Wild West?”
Pagenhart says the new textbooks will change how students learn about the history of social change movements, too. “The LGBTQ movement won’t be omitted, as it often has been in the past,” she says, noting that LGBT activists’ work helps shape the world kids live in today. “There’s a lot of changes to constitutional law that have happened as a result of LGBT civil rights movement work.”
Advocates expect there will be some lively debate at the school district level. But Pagenhart says, “It’s really important for people to bear in mind that telling [students] about what is true is different than advocacy.”
School districts do not have to use these textbooks, but if they don’t, they still have to use materials that include LGBT people’s role in state and U.S. history: California law requires it.
The adoption of these textbooks is the latest step in the implementation of California’s 2011 Fair Education Act, introduced by former state Sen. Mark Leno (who’s now running for mayor of San Francisco.)
Under the law, social sciences curriculum in California and the United States must include the contributions of LGBT Americans, people with disabilities and members of other cultural groups.
“I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing to see how this plays out in classrooms and in generations to come,” Pagenhart says. Her children grew up with two moms, “and they’ve felt, before they got to third grade, the sting of ignorance on the part of their peers,” she says.
Her kids have also come out as gay, and she says schools offered few role models. “Or if they’ve learned about them — like Sally Ride — they wouldn’t have known that not only was Sally Ride the first woman in space, she was also the first gay person in space. That kind of stuff makes a difference.”
The newly approved textbooks also include more information on the farm labor movement and the role Filipinos played in it; information about the Mexican Repatriation Program, which illegally deported thousands of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s, many of whom were U.S. citizens; more details on African-American history, specifically the institution of slavery; and more on the plight of Native Americans in California’s missions.
When the board approved the 10 textbooks last week, it also rejected two books that didn’t include LGBT history, violating California’s 2011 Fair Education Act.