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School Curriculum: LGBTQ Students Are Still MIA

Today's guest post is written by Mark D'Angelo, a PhD. student in curriculum & instruction focusing on LGBTQ equity in education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. 

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Society has changed, so why haven't our schools?

"History should be honest."  Those were the words uttered in a statement released by Governor Jerry Brown just after signing SB48 into law in California in 2011. Also known as the F.A.I.R. Ed Act, the landmark piece of legislation seeks a Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful recapitulation of human history by including the previously silenced voices of LGBTQ Americans in the state's social studies curriculum. 

Nearly three years later and three thousand miles away, a similar bill was introduced in June of 2014 seeking to revise the middle and high school curriculum in New Jersey (my home state) to make it more inclusive of LGBTQ perspectives and individuals.  Closely modeled after SB48, New Jersey's A3380 hopes to bring about meaningful educational change for students who have been historically marginalized due to their innate sexual and gender identities. 

Yet every day the bill fails to advance through the legislative process, the deafening silence of LGBTQ voices and perspectives persists, and the erasure of cultural and historical contributions of LGBTQ individuals remains codified into statewide curricula.  Meanwhile, New Jersey's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students are left staring blankly at the educational mirror, desperately hoping to see their reflection--anywhere.

For generations, sexual minorities have been fighting to achieve full legal equality, gain visibility in our public schools, and be recognized in the national sociopolitical discourse. Time and time again, suppressive culturally constructed "norms" around gender and sexuality that privilege gender-conforming, heterosexual individuals above all others--also known as heteronormativity--have proven themselves to be too intricately woven into the fabric of our social, political, legal, and educational systems to be successfully disentangled. 

Recently however, the LGBTQ rights movement has gained national traction and enjoyed long-awaited and hard-fought successes at the ballot box, and in our courtrooms and capitol buildings. Concurrently, the prevailing cultural attitudes towards homosexuality are shifting, and our country has been undergoing a transformation from one that has been historically heteronormative and very discriminatory towards gays, lesbians, and trans people, to one that is more inclusive and tolerant of LGBTQ individuals and their causes.

In the last ten years alone, the LGBTQ civil rights movement has racked up some impressive victories. Same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states (and the District of Columbia), the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, and a sitting president has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage for the first time in American history.

In just a few weeks the Supreme Court will rule on Obergefell v. Hodges with a decision that many feel will finally make marriage equality the law of the land by the end of this school year.  Yet despite this momentous cultural sea change, our educational system, the cornerstone of American civic life, has failed to keep pace with the changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ population, and is still overwhelmingly devoid of LGBTQ perspectives. 

When our curricula, school policies, and pedagogical practices fail--in perpetuity--to acknowledge the existence of an entire population of students, we expunge the evidence required to validate their fragile, inchoate identities--and for a minoritized population relentlessly forced to defend their legitimacy, the consequences are dire.

The recently released edition of the National School Climate Report from The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) showed yet again that LGBTQ individuals are not represented in curricula, nor are LGBTQ matters openly supported or even addressed by our teachers or schools.

Additionally, schools do not yet have adequate support systems and resources, or the professional, knowledge, or cultural capital necessary to combat homophobia and heterosexism.  As a result, our schools do not cultivate academic success, provide positive educational experiences, or foster healthy identity development for LGBTQ youth.  LGBTQ students in large numbers report feeling threatened, scared, ashamed, unwelcome, harassed, victimized, and bullied in public schools--often at the hands of teachers.                  

Unsurprisingly, all of these experiences and outcomes ultimately lead to increased absenteeism, poorer academic performance, decreased desire to pursue secondary education, and poorer overall psychological well-being for LGBTQ students--and in some cases, suicidal ideation and suicide.  At the macro level, these educational deficiencies all perpetuate the sociocultural ostracism and oppression of LGBTQ individuals. 

Correspondingly, GLSEN and countless educational change scholars show that an inclusive curriculum (the aim of A3380) is linked to greater student safety and lower rates of bullying and harassment.  In schools with inclusive curricula and pedagogical practices, bullying declined by over half, and LGBTQ students were more likely to develop feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy, and cultivate positive identity development.

Additionally, practitioners with professional, knowledge, and/or cultural capital around sexual minorities would have an immeasurably positive impact on LGBTQ students' school experiences, academic performance, and psychological and socioemotional well-being.  Ultimately, this kind of educational change will work to dismantle generations of LGBTQ oppression in our schools, interrupting its interminable cultural reproduction, while disrupting systemic heteronormativity and normalizing sexual variance (an already natural phenomena).

Of SB48, CA Senator and bill author, Mark Leno said, "Denying LGBT people their rightful place in history gives our young people an inaccurate and incomplete view of the world around them."  Accordingly, A3380 endeavors to "include instruction, and adopt instructional materials, that accurately portray political, economic, and social contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people" within the social studies curriculum for grades 6-12--depicting a more complete view of the world.  However, every day A3380 fails to advance, we are "denying LGBT people their rightful place in history" and contributing to the silencing, oppression, and marginalization of countless Americans. 

The LGBTQ civil rights movement has arrived on our schools' doorsteps and history will shame us if we keep the doors locked.  By passing this bill, New Jersey will finally allow LGBTQ students to see their own reflection in the educational mirror.  Millions of voices and perspectives that were previously silenced and delegitimized will be afforded richness, depth, parity, and legitimacy.  Most importantly, our LGBTQ students will finally see in their reflections that it was the system, and not they who were broken.  

Connect with Mark on Twitter. 

Creative Commons photo courtesy of University of Illinois Library

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