This is important. After the immense heartbreak so many LGBTs felt as one after another gay teen committed suicide - six in September alone - as a result of antigay bullying, the nation rallied to contribute to the extraordinary and deeply personal "It Gets Better" project created by gay columnist Dan Savage.
But telling kids "it gets better" is about a future possibility and doesn't drill down to the here and now when bullies can still act out with apparently impunity and little repercussions. What happened to the right of all children to be safe at school?
On Monday, California Sen. Mark Leno tried to address that - introducing the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Act, written and sponsored by Equality California and Gay-Straight Alliance Network, with contributions from the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The bill would prohibit discriminatory education and ensure that LGBT people are treated fairly and accurately included in instructional materials.
"Studies have shown that inclusion of LGBT people in instructional materials is linked to greater student safety and lower rates of bullying," EQCA reported in their press release. It seems akin to the well-studied point that discrimination diminishes if you know an LGBT person. The bill also seems like a natural follow to the statewide Harvey Milk Day recognition, which allows schools to voluntarily educate students about the contributions of the openly gay San Francisco Supervisor who was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Mascone.
"Most textbooks don't include any historical information about the LGBT movement, which has great significance to both California and U.S. history," Leno said. "Our collective silence on this issue perpetuates negative stereotypes of LGBT people and leads to increased bullying of young people. We can't simultaneously tell youth that it's OK to be yourself and live an honest, open life when we aren't even teaching students about historical LGBT figures or the LGBT equal rights movement."
The FAIR Education Act would also prohibit the State Board of Education from adopting instructional materials that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, EQCA says.
The bill seems like a no-brainer, if legislators really want all youth - including kids who are or are perceived to be gay or trans - to have a mentally, emotionally, healthy and safe learning environment - which every child deserves, as well as a well-rounded education. According to EQCA, the bill would:
"bring classroom instruction into alignment with existing non-discrimination laws in California and would add LGBT to the existing list of underrepresented cultural and ethnic groups, which are covered by current law related to inclusion in textbooks and other instructional materials in schools. By including fair and accurate information about LGBT people and history in instructional materials, SB 48 will improve student safety, reduce bullying, enrich the learning experiences of all students, and promote an atmosphere of safety and respect in California schools."
"Given the number of young people who tragically took their own lives after being bullied for being LGBT - or perceived as being LGBT, it is imperative that we do more to ensure that all children feel fully welcomed, and this legislation is an important step toward that goal," said EQCA Executive Director Geoff Kors. "LGBT people should not be pushed into the closet when it comes to what students learn about history. Educating youth about the contributions of LGBT Californians and our state's rich diversity will help foster true acceptance of LGBT students and will ultimately create a safe school environment for all students."
"LGBT youth are denied a fair education when they are exposed to harmful stereotypes in classroom materials and are excluded from learning about their history," said Carolyn Laub, GSA Network's Executive Director, in the EQCA release. "The FAIR Education Act is a key step in preventing discrimination in the classroom and creating safe, respectful schools."
EQCA says that about 20 Senators and Assemblymembers have already agreed to co-author the legislation, including members of the LGBT Legislative Caucus. But considering that EQCA put a question about LGBT education on their political action committee questionnaire, legislators who received EQCA's endorsement and help in the 2010 elections - and want it in 2012 - will also probably sign on. The bill will be heard in the Senate in the New Year.
Then-Assemblymember Tom Torlekson (right) with Insurance Commissioner-elect Dave Jones at an Assembly Health Committee meeting on ADAP convened in LA Photo - Karen Ocamb
And would the bill be just another groundbreaking law with no effect or enforcement? Well, new Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlekson has already shown strong support for LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS - so hope springs eternal. Here's Geoff Kors on Torlekson:
"Tom Torlekson expressed his strong support for including the contributions of LGBT people such as Harvey Milk in the candidate forum EQCA held in April. That was a factor in our decision to endorse him and he was highlighted in our election program, including in over 400,000 pieces of mail. We are confident he will be a leader in supporting fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful education and look forward to working with him to pass and implement this bill that Mark Leno is authoring as well as an anti-bullying bill Tom Ammiano is authoring and EQCA is sponsoring that will but real enforcement mechanisms into existing law. It was important to first pass laws to ban harassment and prevent negative stereotypes in education.
These two bills take the basic protections that are now in place to a much higher level and are an example of the work that needs to happen after first establishing basic non-discrimination laws. Non-discrimination is a critical piece but affirmative laws to make us visible in educational materials and to provide counseling for LGBT youth and teach anti-bullying curriculum are needed if we are going to create truly safe schools and an environment where equality and acceptance become the norm."
After all, Kors says in another email about the bill, "LGBT youth deserve to thrive in school and in life."
EQCA says: It's time for us to come out of the education closet. Ask your legislators to support the FAIR Education Act, SB 48, authored by Senator Mark Leno.