How LGBTQ history will be taught in public schools

What do Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, Harvey Milk, Sally Ride and Rock Hudson have in common? They were trailblazers and pioneers in their respective fields. They also were gay.

The latter distinction often warrants little if no mention in school history books.

That's about to change across Illinois classrooms as educators begin to implement a new law requiring public schools to highlight the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in American history and culture. The law goes into effect next July 1.

The law does not establish a specific curriculum for acknowledging LGBTQ issues. Aside from acknowledging that certain historical figures were gay, teachers likely will begin weaving stories of LGBTQ personalities and events highlighting the community's civil rights struggles into lesson plans, advocates say.

Leslie Schock, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. and world history at Palatine High School, is ahead of the curve in incorporating LGBTQ history in her classroom. She said the College Board revised its AP history curriculum, which students take during sophomore and junior year, with such material several years ago.

Schock teaches about the 1969 Stonewall riots for LGBTQ rights in New York City, feminism, and Latino and American Indian rights movements as part of the description of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. She spends a class period on each topic.

She also talks about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California's history. Milk was assassinated in 1978 and his killer's “infamous Twinkie defense” — whereby the defense argued that Milk's killer's consumption of Twinkies reflected the depth of a depression that was behind his actions — catches students' attention, she said.

Schock said she has never gotten pushback from the school's administration, parents or students about the curriculum.

“We have an incredibly diverse student body, which leads to more inclusiveness and tolerance,” she said. “The kids don't really question why it's important to them. For the most part, throughout their entire childhood, gay marriage has been legalized.”

The new law requires textbooks purchased through the state's textbook block grant program to be nondiscriminatory and include “the roles and contributions of all people protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act,” which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and other factors.

Beyond that, implementation of the law is left up to school districts.

Equality Illinois, the Legacy Project and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, which collectively advocated for LGBTQ history inclusion in school curricula, are working with the Illinois State Board of Education on curricular resources for teachers available through the Legacy Project.

“We don't have to create content,” said Michael Ziri, Equality Illinois director of public policy. “The Legacy Project Education Initiative already has lesson plans and high-quality content that can be used to share these stories about personalities and events.”

State Rep. Anna Moeller, an Elgin Democrat, was the legislation's lead House sponsor. The goal, she said, is to be more comprehensive and not teach only “one certain majority perspective that is always presented.”

Advocates of the law say it's time the LGBTQ community was recognized as being a valued part of the American mosaic and included in history lessons just as other marginalized groups — blacks, women, Latinos, Asian-Americans and people with disabilities — have been over time.

State Rep. Sam Yingling, a gay Round Lake Beach Democrat, praises the law for the latitude it provides educators to determine what to teach.

“Until recent history, the LGBTQ community was heavily discriminated against and viewed as being societal outliers,” Yingling said. “It's important that today's youth recognize that LGBTQ individuals have contributed an enormous amount to our society and history as a whole.”

Illinois joins California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon in adopting the teaching of LGBTQ history in schools.

  "The kids don't really question why it's important to them," Palatine High School AP history teacher Leslie Schock says about LGBTQ issues. "For the most part, throughout their entire childhood, gay marriage has been legalized." Patrick Kunzer/
  Palatine High School AP history teacher Leslie Schock has included LGBTQ issues as part of her curriculum for several years. A new state law mandating teaching LGBTQ history in public schools goes into effect next July 1. Patrick Kunzer/
  History teacher Leslie Schock leads students in her Advanced Placement class at Palatine High School. Schock has been teaching LGBTQ history as part of the AP curriculum for several years now ahead of new state law mandating it for all Illinois public schools. Patrick Kunzer/
A new Illinois law requiring schools to highlight the contributions of LGBTQ people to American history and culture is going to change the way history is taught in schools. Illustration by Patrick Kunzer/

Teaching history

Illinois School Code's inclusion of the historical contributions of traditionally marginalized communities by year:

Blacks and women: 1990

Hispanics; 2001

Asian-Americans: 2004

People with disabilities: 2010

LGBTQ: 2019

Source: Equality Illinois

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