In Illinois, State-Mandated LGBTQ History for Students Becomes a Reality

by Dale Pauly

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 24, 2020

In Illinois, State-Mandated LGBTQ History for Students Becomes a Reality
  (Source:Getty Images)

LGBTQ History Month is having a much broader impact in Illinois this year, thanks to a new law that mandates the teaching of LGBTQ heritage in public schools across the state.

Signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker in 2019, the LGBTQ Inclusive Curriculum Bill took effect this semester, and makes Illinois the fourth state, after California, Colorado and New Jersey, to implement such a law—Oregon also passed such a mandate last year, but has until 2026 to put theirs into effect. And while Pritzker is facing fierce backlash from Illinois's students and parents right now, it's not over this—they're far more upset over the governor's decision to ban all high school contact sports this fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

"You can pretty much reduce every single horror that has ever been visited upon the LGBTQ community for millennia to the fact that we have been forced to conceal ourselves in plain sight for countless generations," says Victor Salvo, founder and executive director of The Legacy Project, the nonprofit behind the popular queer history-infused Legacy Walk along Chicago's North Halsted Street. The Legacy Project now serves as a key educational component of the Illinois Inclusive Curriculum Advisory Council, whose other members include Equality Illinois, the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

"By incorporating information about our histories very quietly and uncontroversially into general education, it begins to sort of de-systematize that absence," Salvo explains. "It may take a generation for the full effects of this to telegraph out, but it will at least have an immediate effect on the quality of life for these kids. Prevailing studies like GLSEN's National School Climate Survey show that kids who grow up and experience education in a school that has LGBTQ-inclusive education content simply have better outcomes—the dropout rate is lower, the incidence of drug abuse is lower, the incidence of bullying is lower. And not coincidentally, the same studies show that all students benefit from it—that all incidences of bullying are addressed by LGBTQ-inclusiveness because it changes the climate in which bullying of all types can flourish."

GLSEN's Director of Public Policy, Aaron Ridings, concurs. "We know from our National School Climate Survey, which is entering its 20th year as a national sample of LGBTQ+ students in K-12 education across the country, that students report being more often accepted and affirmed by their peers where there is an inclusive curriculum in that school," he says. "They do better academically, they feel safer, and they're less likely to hear negative remarks about LGBTQ+ people and about other identities. The reverse is true in states where denigrating 'no promo homo' laws are in place." So-called "no promo homo" laws, which forbid or limit the discussion of homosexuality or trans identity in public schools, are still on the books in five states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, though South Carolina's federal district court struck down that state's similar law in March.

For Illinois's new inclusive curriculum, Salvo says the spotlight is not on pivotal moments in queer activism—like Stonewall—that tend to preoccupy LGBTQ adults when we think of our heritage, but instead on individuals from broader history who happen to have been what we would now consider LGBTQ. "We're focused on contributions to world history and culture, as opposed to focusing on the movement," says Salvo. "Our kids are already studying these people. We're really just putting the one sentence back into these biographies that someone else thought was important enough to leave out." These include national and international figures like writer James Baldwin and artist Frida Kahlo, and local Illinois natives like justice advocate Jane Addams and transgender Civil War soldier Albert D. J. Cashier.

Theresa Volpe (L) pictured here with her wife, Mercedes Santos (R), and their children, Jaidon (L), Lennox (R) and Ava (R). Volpe is an educational content developer with more than 28 years of educational publishing experience.
Theresa Volpe (L) pictured here with her wife, Mercedes Santos (R), and their children, Jaidon (L), Lennox (R) and Ava (R). Volpe is an educational content developer with more than 28 years of educational publishing experience.  (Source: Ava Santos-Volpe)

"If I had seen some of these materials when growing up, and learned about some of these significant people in history, I might not have felt so alone, and I would have seen that there are other people out there who identify similarly to me," says Theresa Volpe, an educational content developer who's helped to craft the K-5 portion of Illinois's curriculum. "Having those role models and actually seeing myself reflected in the world around me would have been something that would have been a tremendous value to me growing up."

Volpe and her wife Mercedes Santos were one of the first couples to be legally married in Illinois in 2013, and they're parents of three children—16-year-old Ava, 12-year-old Jaidon, and 5-year-old Lennox. She says that the new curriculum may now help her children's classmates see that their two moms aren't quite so unique.

"Let's say you've learned about Sally Ride, and you love that Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space," she says. "But then you also learn that, 'Oh, you know what? Sally Ride is part of the LGBTQ community. Jaidon's moms are part of the LGBTQ community, and so is Jaidon—that's pretty cool.' So I think it's that empathy, and being able to say, 'Oh, I know somebody like that.' And the more they know the less fear people have."

"We do know there's still a lot of fear and just ignorance out there," admits Sunette Thompson, a Legacy Project board member (and mother of 14-year-old Suniyah) who's providing community outreach around the new inclusive curriculum. "We foresee there being a certain amount of pushback from parents, and them really not understanding or wanting to have this curriculum in the schools—because there's a thought that there'll be a push to turn children into lesbian, gay or trans people, when of course that's not the mission. The goal for the outreach is to give parents and anyone who gives pushback the understanding and knowledge of the purpose of what we're doing—which is simply giving homage where it's due to the histories of LGBTQ people who have been contributors to what we know the world as today."

Salvo and the Legacy Project began working on inclusive curriculum materials for Illinois as early as 2013, long before the state mandate was even proposed. "We began creating lesson plans, but the problem was really that number one, teachers themselves were unaware of most of this information because they were also victims of its redaction in their own educations," says Salvo. "Number two, they recognized the need and the benefit of it, but no one felt qualified to teach it, because there was no professional development component available to them. And number three, and probably the most important factor of this, is that this no one would commit career suicide to begin to push this out without a state mandate or a professional directive that required it, because they were too afraid of not only pushback from parents, but also the reaction of the school districts. The mandate was needed in order to give that intrepid teacher in Southern Illinois, who under other circumstances could not justify at all attempting to do this, the professional cover to do it."

The curriculum includes profiles of more than 50 historical figures, arranged in a public database of lesson plans that are all carefully tagged by subject, identity, student grade, and official Illinois state curriculum code numbers.

Essayist, playwright and novelist James Baldwin is among the historical figures included in Illinois' new curriculum.

"It took a long time to do that analysis, but I think that it's ultimately going to make it easier for the teacher who's looking to fulfill a requirement in one particular code or subject to find at least a couple of people whose stories are apropos to that content," says Salvo. "Right now, it's all tagged to Illinois coding, but what we hope to do if possible is to adopt the same general content nodes to other states' school coding. It's just a question of translating and the substantial resources we need to do it."

With many states now facing grim education funding outlooks exacerbated by the pandemic, it's difficult to say which ones might next sign on to the inclusive curriculum movement. "I think it's really impossible to predict at this point," says GLSEN's Ridings. "I mean, we're at a place where public education is desperately in need of additional emergency relief funding. There's uncertainty about whether or not students are going to be able to safely return to brick-and-mortar schools if they're not able to access remote learning. There's interest in communities across the country for moving forward on these kinds of either legislative or administrative initiatives, but we've got twin pandemics right now [COVID-19 and systemic racism], and it's just not possible to forecast when that'll happen in which state."

While Ridings says a push for a national mandate for LGBTQ-inclusive is conceivable, that isn't realistic in the current political climate. "Unfortunately, the conversation at the national level has really been dominated by the current administration's cruel and discriminatory agenda that too often targets LGBTQ+ students, and particularly transgender students," he says. "I think we'd all be interested at some point in having a conversation about whether a federal bill makes sense, but right now with the chaos that's happening in the world, it's just not possible."

Pandemic notwithstanding, state-by-state mandates and curricula development are only the first steps. Training and education among teachers and administrators will propel the laws into reality. California passed the FAIR Education Act in 2011 but, according to Reuters, it wasn't until 2017 that the state approved inclusive history books.

Emily Vaden, whose five-year-old son is transgender, told Reuters, "I want him to look at those who came before us and did great things, and see great things in his own future. That is made more possible when he can see himself in the stories shared at school."

Back in Illinois, Volpe anticipates a smooth rollout for the new curriculum. "When teachers are supported and there's content available for them, I think that introducing this into their classrooms is really not that big of a struggle and not that complicated, as long as people see the good intentions here," she says. "It's not to try to brainwash your children or lure them into some form of evil. It's to create this openness to say that there are all kinds of people out there, and look at some of the LGBTQ people in history and how they were able to make these contributions that, in so many cases, helped shape the world in the way it is now for the better. They should be recognized for that."