Path to LGBT Education Unclear in New York

California law mandating inclusive history curriculum may be safe for now

Opponents of California’s new law mandating the teaching of LGBT history in public schools say they have fallen short in their current drive to put a referendum striking it down on the 2012 ballot. The statute goes into effect January 1, though anti-gay forces may yet have other tricks for overturning it up their sleeves.

New York supporters of such inclusive education are getting in gear, but legislation is not an option.

Out gay City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a Jackson Heights Democrat, is pushing a resolution calling on the city Department of Education to integrate LGBT history into the curriculum.

Regarding the chances of bringing about inclusive instruction statewide, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, an out gay West Side Democrat, said that in New York, unlike California, “We do not legislate curricula. We have the Board of Regents to do those things.” He added that he hopes the Regents will see to it “that our lives are reflected in history.”

After California enacted SB48, its FAIR Education Act, to do just that, O’Donnell heard Regents’ chair Merryl Tisch say she was “positively inclined, but noncommittal” on mandating LGBT history in New York. A call to Tisch for clarification was not returned by press time.

Assemblyman Matt Titone, a Staten Island Democrat who is gay, said he “fully supports the concept,” but echoed O’Donnell’s point that curricula in New York State “is in the hands of professionals.” The Regents are appointed by the Legislature, and Titone said he would approach the borough’s representative, Christine Cea, on the matter.

Dromm gathered advocates for LGBT education at City Hall on October 11, National Coming Out Day, to press for action.

“A comprehensive curriculum that includes LGBT Americans leads to a greater feeling of safety and a better sense of self among students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression,” Dromm, who was out as a fourth grade teacher in Queens, said in his release.

Tommy Craven, an out gay young man who graduated from high school in Jasper, Indiana, in May, said, “Only history [of gay people] I got was AIDS history.” He said he saw the movie “Milk” and read about gay history in books, but emphasized, “It would be great to be able to bring what I learned into the classroom.”

Dromm said he has reached out to the Department of Education about the teaching of LGBT history as well as for data on how prevalent Gay Straight Alliances are in the city’s schools.

“They are evasive,” he said. Officials have not given out the number of GSAs nor do they require them in schools, and they are not saying what they will do about integrating LGBT issues into curricula.

Responding to a query from Gay City News, the DOE press office pointed out that the schools have had a Respect for All program, aimed at helping “students embrace differences in others” since 2007, that the system operates schools named after slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and civil right leader Bayard Rustin, and that works by Stephen Sondheim, Truman Capote, Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin are studied in class. The response did not spell out how the lives of those composers, poets, and novelists are contextualized in the curriculum.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has total control over the New York City schools and could initiate LGBT history if he chose to.

Dromm introduced his resolution in April and has gathered 13 co-sponsors since then. No hearing on it is scheduled, but out lesbian Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Chelsea Democrat, said in an email, “LGBT history is an important part of American history, especially here in New York, which has been home to countless LGBT activists and has served as an epicenter for the gay rights movement. Ensuring that the contributions of LGBT individuals are recognized and incorporated into our classroom curriculum will help provide New York City students with a well-rounded education.”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, an out gay Sunnyside Democrat who was educated in Astoria, said, “I didn’t know anyone gay in my school or neighborhood. Harvey Milk had been elected ten years earlier. Had that been taught, I would have known it would have been possible to be openly gay and be an elected official.”

There is no mandate that schools in the state or city integrate LGBT issues into curricula, but neither is there anything stopping them. In the early 1990s, city schools introduced a second grade curriculum called “Children of the Rainbow” that reflected family diversity, including households headed by gay and lesbian parents. It was accepted in some districts and fiercely fought in conservative ones such as Community School District 24 in Queens –– Dromm’s old district. The tabloid fallout over the controversy made school officials and politicians in the intervening years loath to push the issue, Dromm said, a fear he hopes to overcome with this renewed push.

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