California Schools Will Start Using LGBTQ-Friendly Textbooks To Teach History

Kids in kindergarten through eighth grade will soon be using LGBTQ-inclusive textbooks in California, setting an example for other states to possibly follow suit. The books are the first to be approved by the State Board of Education since the passing of California's 2011 FAIR Education Act, which mandated that LGBTQ people and people with disabilities be added to the list of minorities who must be represented in school curricula.

The FAIR act gets its name because it requires that representations of minorities be Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful. The State Board of Education approved 10 textbooks on Thursday that met the standards described in the law and rejected two others that did not. Some new textbooks will include portrayals of families headed by two dads or two moms for second grade units on family and community history. Eighth graders who learn about Native American cultures may learn that people who didn't identify as strictly female or male were held in particularly high esteem by certain tribes.

Schools will need to update their teacher training methods to ensure that instructors use these new, more inclusive materials appropriately. "This process is not over at all," board member Ilene Straus told EdSource. "We have a commitment that teachers will get the training they need to understand these issues."

California is the only state to require that social studies curricula include material on the struggles and historical contributions of LGBTQ people. Many hope that this example will encourage other states to enact similar laws.

A major debate during the textbook approval process was whether or not words like "gay" or "lesbian" should be used in reference to figures who did not self-identify that way, including those who lived before the terms existed. One textbook will include a story about Charley Parkhurst, a Gold Rush-era stagecoach driver whose sex assignment at birth was female but who lived his life as a man. The book will chronicle Charley's decision to defy gender norms and refer to him with the pronouns he/him/his, but it will not call him "transgender."

Even without this label, Professor Don Romesburg of the Sonoma State University Women's and Gender Studies department — a consultant on the curriculum — told Time Magazine that she is optimistic that Charley's story will send a message to students "that some people want to live a more gender-diverse life than their society confines them to."

Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) did not comply with the request of the state-appointed commission that it apply "specific labels" to the sexual orientation of figures like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Buchanan, and Walt Whitman.

"The absence of specific labels regarding sexual orientation creates an adverse reflection because the identity of these individuals is not honored and demeans their contributions to history," the commission said, according to EdSource.

HMH responded by arguing that "the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer are contemporary terms that may not map well on past lives and experiences." It offered to include material in teacher's guides that more explicitly addressed the figures' sexualities, including the fact that Walt Whitman's "poetry, letters, and journals suggest that Whitman would identify as gay if he were alive today."

HMH ultimately became the only publisher whose textbooks were rejected by the board, though for many additional reasons, including the fact that some of its representations of Indian and Chinese people were considered "adverse." In July, Hindu Education Foundation USA published a critique of HMH's textbook drafts, claiming that that they reportedly did "to Indian history, exactly what the colonial accounts do — objectify, exoticise, magicalize and essentialize them." HMH responded to this line of criticism in a Nov. 7 letter to the board.

The state allows textbooks to be approved if they need small corrections, but does not permit "rewrites" on the scale required for HMH's drafts. Ten textbooks from McGraw Hill, National Geographic, and five other publishers were approved. These publishers will make edits within 60 days and then finalize their textbooks within the first couple of months of 2018.