Why California law requires teaching about LGBTQ Americans in public schools

Santa Cruz County superintendent Faris Sabbah at a 2021 ceremony raising the rainbow flag.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In California schools, teachers do and must say the word “gay” as well as lesbian and transgender in lessons about nonconforming expressions of gender.

Gay pride videos shown in a Glendale third-grade classroom have fueled a debate over how and when lessons on gender identity should be broached in public schools.

At recent Glendale Unified School District board meetings, some parents and activists have asserted a right to parental control over education, particularly when it relates to topics they consider sensitive.

Here’s what California law and education policies say about such issues.

What does California require on LGBTQ education?

Mandatory learning goals from the California Department of Education say instructional materials must include the “role and contributions” of, among others, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.”

How this is accomplished is left to local school systems and teachers, said Maria Clayton, a spokesperson for the department. The state-approved framework notes that teachers should use “age-appropriate” materials to discuss and teach about the “the diversity of humankind.”

Recommended resources include materials from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

How early are California students supposed to learn about issues related to gender expression and identity?

Much of this is left to local discretion. But state guidelines note that second-graders, by studying the stories of “a diverse collection of families,” including those “with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender parents and their children ... can both locate themselves and their own families in history and learn about the lives and historical struggles of their peers.”

How much leeway do parents have in pulling their children out of lessons on gender identity?

Parents or guardians can opt out of lessons about comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education but not out of instruction that references gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.

For example, parents could not pull children from a social studies lesson on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

If a parent decided to keep the child out of school when such a lesson is taught, it would likely be recorded as an unexcused absence.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Glendale
Exterior of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Glendale, where a third-grade teacher was reassigned after facing threats for showing a gay pride video.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Did the third-grade Glendale teacher and the school abide by state guidelines?

No evidence has emerged that the Glendale teacher, Tammy Tiber, violated local or state guidelines. A district curriculum gave an unqualified endorsement of three short videos Tiber asked about. The advisor had reservations about a fourth video but did not forbid Tiber from showing it.

In a statement, Glendale Superintendent Vivian Ekchian noted that “we are very intentional” in selecting curriculum that is aligned to state requirements, with the goal of providing “an inclusive and respectful representation of the rich diversity in our community.”

Rainbow flags are going up across most school districts in Santa Cruz County this week to commemorate Harvey Milk Day...

How do Learning for Justice materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center figure into this debate?

Tiber, on behalf of the school system, was piloting widely used materials created by the Southern Poverty Law Center. These materials were developed decades ago by the nonprofit group to combat racism and white supremacy.

The Learning for Justice materials used in Glendale do not include the gay pride videos, but the entirety of the lessons offered by the organization are meant to promote diversity and inclusion, including empathy for students who don’t conform to gender norms.

“This notion of rendering things invisible — we know is not a solution,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for children’s rights for Southern Poverty Law Center. “So we can’t pretend that topics don’t exist. We can’t pretend that people don’t exist. And so to set up a scenario where some children can come in and talk about their identities or their families, and other children are excluded from those exercises, is deeply harmful.”

How do California education policies compare with those of other states?

California’s policies are generally in step with states that have liberal leadership, such as New York. But conservative states — including Texas and Louisiana — have been mulling or putting limits on teaching about gender identity.

A new Florida law — which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, saying it marginalizes LGBTQ people — forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. At least five other states have similar legislation approved or in the works. And at least 19 states have restricted or are poised to restrict children’s access to gender-affirming care when it conflicts with the individual’s biological gender at birth.

Do parents or the public have an opportunity to participate in decisions over what’s being taught?

School districts and the state typically have a lengthy public process, including hearings and a comment period, before education officials approve curricular materials. But the hearings and textbook reviews rarely attract much attention.

Glendale officials noted that there’s also a process for complaining about a lesson. Parents should first bring up the issue with the teacher; they can then turn to the principal and finally, if needed, can file a formal complaint with senior district staff.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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