Illinois schools to spotlight LGBTQ contributions under new law: ‘The right kind of mandate’

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill last week mandating Illinois public schools teach students about the contributions to American society of people that identify as LGBTQ, and now advocates who pushed for the law must develop a curriculum by the next school year.

Pritzker’s signature on the bill that passed the Illinois House in March and the Senate in May was seen as a victory by those wanting a supportive and affirming environment for the state’s LGBTQ students.

“We hope this will show LGBTQ young folks that people like them have made great contributions to history and society,” said Mike Ziri, public policy director of advocacy group Equality Illinois.

The founder of another group — the Chicago-based non-profit Legacy Project, which promotes LGBTQ history education — said his organization started compiling LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum materials several years ago.

”We’re not creating a new curriculum from the ground up. We’re providing supplemental tools to facilitate this,” Legacy Project founder Victor Salvo said. “In most cases, these LGBTQ figures are people students were already learning about. It’s just been redacted that they’re gay.”

The law requires LGBTQ-inclusive history curriculum be taught by the end of 8th grade. Some LGBTQ historical figures students might learn about — starting when the law goes in effect, ahead of the 2020-21 school year — include social justice activist Jane Addams, who historians believe was a lesbian; civil rights leader Bayard Rustin; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Salvo said he hopes schools eventually will also offer electives about LGBTQ history.


Social justice activist Jane Addams, who lived from 1860 to 1935, was notable in the women’s suffrage movement.
Sun-Times archives

Only 24% of LGBTQ students in Illinois are taught about LGBTQ people in a positive way, according to a 2017 report from GLSEN, a national organization supporting LGBTQ students in K–12 schools. More than 80% of LGBTQ students reported hearing “gay” used in a negative way or hearing other homophobic remarks or negative remarks about gender expression in school.

“This also benefits non-LGBTQ students who will learn that a diverse group of people have contributed to society, and we should celebrate and include that diversity today,” Ziri said.

The bill was co-written by advocates from Equality Illinois, the Legacy Project and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, which supports LGBTQ youth in schools.

Illinois is the fifth state to pass a law requiring LGBTQ history be taught in schools. California passed its law in 2011; New Jersey, Colorado and Oregon passed similar laws this year.


sally ride lgbtq

Sally Ride, who was a lesbian, in 1993 became the first American woman and the third woman overall to go to space.
AP photo

Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin), who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), said schools won’t have to spend any money implementing the curriculum.

“A lot of the curricular resources will be available for free, and there will be deliberate work done with districts to make this as easy as possible for teachers,” Moeller said.

The new law requires new textbooks purchased by schools with state money to be non-discriminatory and include the contributions of LGBTQ people.

Salvo said the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) will provide the Legacy Project with a list of what students already learn at each grade level. The Legacy Project will then cross-reference that list with its Education Initiative database; the collection of LGBTQ history teaching guides and lesson plans was launched in 2013.

ISBE spokesman Max Weiss said the board doesn’t endorse specific textbooks or lesson plans, so each public school and district will decide what to include in its curriculum.

“ISBE will work with partners to ensure that curricular and content resources are available and that public schools and districts have an opportunity to review and search curricula that best meets their needs,” Weiss said.

Salvo said he’s aiming to have all materials compiled by spring 2020 so the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance can facilitate training on the new curriculum. Teachers also will have access to the materials so they can pick and choose what to teach.


rustin bayard lgbtq

Rustin Bayard, who was gay, was an American civil rights rights leader and a nonviolence and gay rights activist.
AP photo

Other existing resources for developing LGBTQ history curricula include GLSEN’s online educator database and the One Archives Foundation, the largest LGBTQ archive in the world, which also has free, downloadable lesson plans.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the union worked closely with Equality Illinois to pass the law. The union plans to form a group of teachers who will also develop curricular resources.

Montgomery said union members hope to see a state task force that will provide guidance on implementing the new curriculum and ensure that districts are complying.

“As teachers, we sometimes get a little on edge when we talk about teaching mandates from Springfield or Washington. But this is the right kind of mandate,” Montgomery said. “This will make us a stronger society and nation.”

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