Gays… In… History…

A colleague was poking fun at the Catholic Church’s stated opposition to teaching students about the contributions and discrimination of gay Americans throughout history by making the phrase, “Gays in history,” sound spooky, like a ghost out of the campy (and hilarious when you’re an adult) old Scooby Doo cartoons would say it. That reminded me of Mel Brooks’s “Jews… In… Space…” joke at the end of History of the World Part I, echoed in almost the same campy way.

It’s funny because at that time (1981), there had been no Jews in space. It’s also tragic because there have been plenty of gay Americans throughout history that deserve mention and, yet, most schools never mention them. They mention Martin Luther King, but not Harvey Milk; they mention Japanese internment and Jewish extermination, but not medical experiments, torture and murder of gays. It is as if gays have been erased from history.

That is where some of us in California have stepped in. SB 48, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, would ask local school districts to find a way to teach some of their students about the contributions of gay Americans as part of their history or social studies curricula. It does not grant special treatment to gay people; it simply rights a wrong — gay people have been erased from American history.

There is considerable evidence that this kind of policy — what I called “soft power” in my previous scholarship — is the most effective at reducing the frequency and effects of anti-gay bullying and cyberbullying in schools. It brings gay people away from the fringes of society and recognizes that they, like everyone else, have been part of this grand national experiment since its early days. It also recognizes that the deletion of an entire group from history is a devastating form of group injury that provides a tacit ok for someone to write “All Faggots Must Die” across someone’s locker.

I have written about all that elsewhere. Rather than rehash it, I would like to engage the Co-Op community in a discussion to answer the following question: To what extent is opposition to proposals like SB 48 and, say, gay-straight alliances, founded on our squeemishness about sex in schools, in general, or distaste for gays, in particular?

Bill Eskridge has argued that many of our student speech precedents could be understood as part of a general unease about talking about sex with kids. The school, some think, should be the purest of pure places of learning, not muddied by words like “penis,” ejaculation” or whatever the Urban Dictionary is coming up with these days. This same unease could have no impact on teaching about African American history or Asian American history; those groups’ differences are not based on sexuality. Gays are sexual minority, not a racial one. A discussion of who Harvey Milk was and what he died for is inexorably bound up with a discussion of sexuality, in general, that some people do not want in our schools.

That is the argument, at least. And, you can call me skeptical. I do not doubt that Americans have been squeemish about sex in schools, but there is something unique about the opposition to SB 48. It’s about gayness not sex

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez condemned the measure as an attack on the family.

“The family is God’s first beautiful gift to us,” Gomez writes. “Because each one of us came into this world as the fruit of a mother and a father’s love. America needs strong families to nurture the values and virtues we need to live as a free and just people.” The measure, Gomez said, is a “dangerous government intrusion into parents’ rights. This amounts to the government rewriting history books based on pressure-group politics. It is also another example of the government interfering with parents’ rights to be their children’s primary educators.”

Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego, objected to the bill because it attempts “to teach that homosexual behavior is normal, that it’s acceptable, and that people because of their sexual behavior are somehow heroes in our society.”

That sounds like the problem here is not sex. It’s gay sex. The Church has decided that gays are not worthy of recognition in education. I disagree. The contributions of gay Americans throughout history deserve recognition in our public education because of those contributions. This is not about granting every minority, including “albinos” and “polygamists,” a set “number of lines in each textbook,” as Fox & Friends guest University of Dayton history professor Larry Schweikart argued this morning. It is about recognizing and honoring contributions to American democracy that have not been recognized simply because some

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2 Responses

  1. Am I a Bigot? says:

    Just by way of illustration, my view of the relative historical importance of a sampling of individuals goes something like this:

    Harvey Milk < Jim Thorpe < George Washington Carver < Cesar Chavez < Babe Ruth (leftie!) < Sandra Day O'Connor < Martin Luther King, Jr. < Abraham Lincoln

    On the proposal, how far back can the historical gaydar reach? Would speculation about Carver and Lincoln be on the syllabus? Or is the aspiration to just profile the uncloseted gay Americans? (If so, isn't that historically dishonest?)

    If you didn't sound so serious about it, I'd half suspect the goal was to elicit bigoted reactions and not to actually have the bill enacted.

    Finally, I don't pretend to know much about Harvey Milk, but I'm very confused by the "what he died for" suggestion.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Is your question a bit too limited, like Stephen Colbert’s “good President or great President” alternative? Namely, are the grounds you mention the only possible ones for having doubts about the statute?

    Among its affirmative requirements, SB 48 proposes to add the bolded language to Cal. Edc. Code § 51204.5 :

    Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders [current law: “Pacific Island people”] , European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.

    Parallel amendments are proposed to be made to Edc. Code § 60400. Some observations:

    (1) Neither Jews nor members of any other religious groups are mentioned. It would be possible to comply with the law without mentioning Jews at all in the California public school curriculum — should we be kvetching? (Though one hopes that the Chumash Native American people may get a shout-out.)

    (Some people might also argue that if, in fact, Jewish Americans do get mentioned in the curriculum, such an explicit statute is unnecessary — though based on historical experience I’m inclined to think this argument could be a red herring for the discrimination you worry about.)

    (2) Might some people object to the statute for vagueness? E.g., does the language imply that bisexual people (as distinguished from gay people and lesbian people) need to be given as much weight as, say, Mexican Americans? And transgender people be given an equal quantum of time as well? Might some people, including members of the various LGBT communities themselves, question the at-least-implicit characterization of LGBT Americans as an “ethnic” or “cultural” group? (Ditto for persons with disabilities.) Might some people be disturbed that one could comply with the law without teaching about any heterosexual Californians whatsoever?

    (3) BTW, Boris Volynov was the first Jew in space (1969 and again in 1976).