Certain topics were off limits when Forest Stuart attended high school. Civil rights were covered, but rarely did classes take a deep dive into the contributions of minority communities. Stuart first learned about the LGBTQ community from Tumblr. One teacher, however, a field hockey coach at Monta Vista High School, encouraged Stuart to learn about the group’s history and other topics deemed too risque.
“She was always really great at bringing in the history of minority groups that are usually lost or not discussed in class,” Stuart says. “The other teachers covered little to nothing.”
Stuart identifies as trans, non-binary and queer. Family was supportive from the start, beginning when they—Stuart uses “they/them” pronouns to identify as both masculine and feminine—started to question gender and sexuality in middle school and high school, all the way through coming out last year.
“[My family has] been really receptive in me teaching them and bringing them up to speed on all the terms,” Stuart says.
Not everyone has been so supportive, though. Stuart faced harassment from some classmates on social media after becoming heavily involved in the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA).
“The general school population who was vocal was really accepting and excited for me, and that was nice,” Stuart says. “Being pretty out there and outspoken meant that whenever people could voice their opinions anonymously they did take that chance.”
Not long after this time, Stuart found the LGBTQ Youth Space, a resource center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth and young adults ages 13 to 25. A staff member from the Youth Space was the first non-binary adult Stuart had met.
“The power and importance of queer and LGBTQ people coming together and providing for our own is huge, creating a space that is so vibrant and energetic where people can thrive and learn about themselves,” Stuart says.
Other than learning about Bayard Rustin in U.S. history junior year, Stuart has no recollection of classroom lessons about other LGBTQ leaders. Rustin, a civil rights leader and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., practiced non-violent protests and worked to advance rights for the African American and LGBTQ communities.
“Being a queer person in a school, anything that is said [about LGBT figures] really stands out,” Stuart says. “It’s so different having these subjects in a classroom setting.”
Stuart will soon attend West Valley College to study in the Women and Gender Studies program. College has often been the first place students begin to learn about sexuality and LGBTQ issues, but that’s about to change.
In 2010, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 48, also known as the FAIR Education Act (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act). The bill requires California public school textbooks and curriculum to include lessons on the political, economic and social contributions of people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.
The Senate passed SB48 in April 2011. Two months later it passed through the Assembly and less than two weeks later after that, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law. At the time, he estimated the curriculum would probably not be in textbooks until 2015. It turns out he was one year too optimistic.
While educators and LGBTQ advocates worked on creating structured, age-appropriate lesson plans, a conservative group called Stop SB48 tried to place two measures on the 2014 ballot, arguing the new curriculum is a “promotion of homosexuality.” One effort hoped to eliminate the bill completely and the other wanted to give parents the option to opt out of having their children taught LGBTQ history. The efforts fell short of the 500,000 signatures required.
Only now are California public school districts finalizing curriculum to meet the law’s standards. More robust accounts of LGBTQ figures like Harvey Milk—the first openly gay elected official in California—are expected to be woven into history and social science classes. Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for 11 months and passed a gay rights ordinance for the city before being assassinated in 1978.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, the first openly gay man to be elected in county history, says that learning about someone like Milk in school would have made a huge impact on him.
“All of this is so personal,” Yeager says. “Some kid will be reading a textbook in the solitude of their bedroom and it will bring such comfort to them. It is going to make them feel that they have self-worth and that there are any number of possibilities open to them.”
Peter Allen, a spokesman for San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD), the largest district in the county overseeing 42 schools, points out that for many children, adding these figures into history lessons gives straight and LGBTQ students people they can relate to.
“Every story has to have a protagonist, or a hero; you’re trying to tell a narrative,” Allen says. “In order for history to resonate you have to have individuals, moments, events that give context.”
Maribel Martinez, a manager for the county’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the first department of its kind in the country, views the changing framework as coursework that fits in with existing history and social sciences. Educators, she adds, will now have more tools to teach young people about inclusion. Martinez helped the LGBT Inclusion Coalition, which sent a letter July 1 to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst asking for the adoption of the Fair Education Act. On July 14, the board adopted new guidelines for what school districts can incorporate into existing Common Core curriculum.
Martinez calls the Fair Education Act’s implementation, which will also have an emphasis on the contributions of minorities and the disabled, “a turning point.”
Elementary school students will now be introduced to marriage equality and the acceptance of families with two moms or two dads. In middle school, students will learn about the Boy Scouts lifting their ban on gay scout leaders and the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard. High school will require studies on transgender identity and the process of coming out; the Stonewall Riots of 1969; what it was like to be gay in different generations; and how to overcome or break out of gender stereotypes. By graduation, students will have studied the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage and more cases about gender neutral bathrooms.
Gabrielle Antolovich, president of the Billy DeFrank Center, which conducts outreach and programs for the South Bay’s LGBTQ community, calls the implementation an exciting yet long overdue development.
“People need to know that parenting is parenting,” Antolovich says. “Children need love and attention that’s age appropriate, and they need to bond with adults who care for and love them.”
Of course, a concern raised about the new law is the topic of sexuality and when to introduce it to children. Students will receive “age-appropriate” lesson plans that exclude “intimate details of historical figures’ lives,” according to the Fair Education Act’s website. It adds, “Lessons about morality or sex are not part of the guidelines and are left entirely for parents to discuss with their kids at home.”
SJUSD has taken the content and made it available to social studies teachers to use as early as this coming school year. Teachers are being monitored to ensure they incorporate the new information into their lesson plans.
Antolovich underlines that the passing of this bill will not only benefit any student who identifies as LGBTQ, but also their family and friends. She says, “Our friends can say ‘Hey, look, somebody like you.’ It will help parents and teachers who also recognize we are a valid part of the community.”