Civil Liberties

We're Here, We're Queer, And We're Perfect

California's quest for an unbiased textbook turns history into a cartoon


Should California students learn that homosexual Californians have no flaws? A bill that just passed the state Senate could make that happen. Textbooks would have to treat lesbians and gay men with the same kid gloves the law now requires for members of other minorities. Equality demands many things, but not this.

The bill begins from a sound premise: that history classes should not be biased. California's schools went through a long period where students learned California and U.S. history without knowing about the contributions women or people of color had made to that progress. Up until 40 years ago, when the role of Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and others were brought up, they could be—and were—characterized in social studies classes in stereotypical and demeaning ways.

That's why, in 1965, California began the effort to make sure that our students' introduction to history was not also a course in Prejudice 101. If children are to learn repugnant stereotypes, they shouldn't get their information in school.

Much of the bias came from simple exclusion. Prejudice against certain groups made accomplishment much harder for them. But equality is a powerful motivator. As far back as 1913, the NAACP established its first branch in California. In 1918, four women were elected to the California Assembly. These, and many other documentable facts, were accomplishments precisely because they went against the overwhelming prejudices of their day. They are surely worth teaching to students. The rarity of such accomplishments, should not be used against them, and, in fact, demonstrates how steeply tilted the playing field was.

The 1965 changes to the Education Code served as a corrective, prohibiting biased curricula. But well-intentioned laws, like great civilizations, have their rise and fall. What began as an attempt to solve the problem of curriculum bias against minorities and women has evolved into its converse: a project to avoid anything that "reflects adversely" on them. That language is existing law. And whether related to lesbians and gay men, Latinos, women or anyone else, it is a license to whitewash.

Prejudice against Latinos should not cause Cesar Chavez to be left out of California history, but neither should it require that he be presented as a saint. Father Junipero Serra's shortcomings are part of his legacy, as are Leland Stanford's and Hiram Johnson's. Chavez should be treated no differently. Would it reflect adversely on women if Kathleen Brown's history-making run for Governor were described as a debacle? Possibly. But it's true.

These questions are hard enough when it's clear you are talking about a particular minority, but the discussion is even more complicated for homosexuality. It was not until the 1950s or so that American lesbians and gay men began to assert themselves publicly as homosexual. Remember, Oscar Wilde's famous trial for sodomy in England was premised on his defense that he was not a sodomite. Prior to 1950, it's extremely hard to know who was homosexual without resorting to exactly the sorts of stereotypes—rumors and gossip about bedmates, non-conforming gender behavior, cross-dressing—that the Education Code rightly condemns.

But for over a half century now, we have had people who comfortably identify themselves as gay. Moreover, it is now becoming clear that, whatever New York and San Francisco may think, the struggle for gay equality in this country had its genesis in California, and particularly in Los Angeles. Gay L.A., a major work of local history by Stuart Timmons and Lillian Federman, will be released later this year. It is the first book to fully document L.A.'s monumental contributions to the modern gay rights movement, and it will be a fine source for developing textbook material.

Knowing California's central role in the history of gay equality is one thing. But that's quite different from saying that students who learn the parts played by key figures like Harry Hay and Morris Kight should be prohibited from also knowing that those men could be a couple of very pissy queens. Should textbooks rely for their information about Hay and Kight or Harvey Milk solely from the gay community's hymnal?

Certainly, textbook authors should not go out of their way to find flaws. But neither should they have to avoid the obvious ones for the sake of not reflecting adversely upon someone's group. Even positive prejudice is still prejudice.

Many of the criticisms aimed at SB 1437 are due to the fact that it accepts the current statutory language as its starting point, and adds sexual orientation to the list. Sadly, the bill's author, Senator Sheila Kuehl, is being blamed for the existing law's excesses.

Minimizing bias is a respectable, even an essential goal for all education. That part of the law is important, and gays should be included in it. But steering textbooks away from "adverse" reflections on individuals because of race, gender, or any other group identity is a fool's errand, and bad history to boot.