Local gay rights groups are celebrating new standards that will require public schools to teach children about LGBT history, but some are skeptical about how the curriculum will be implemented in the conservative Valley.
Under the new requirements – approved earlier this month by the state school board – students as early as second grade will learn about families with same-sex parents and later about the gay rights movement and activists like Harvey Milk.
People like Chris Jarvis, president of the Fresno LGBT Community Center, are cautiously optimistic and unsure how politics will affect the public school mandate.
“I expect kickback from parents that believe still that any mention of LGBT people is an indoctrination of young people, which, of course, is ridiculous,” he said. “But this is a great step in letting people know how diverse this country is. Visibility is always the most important thing in any civil rights movement. Now, kids can learn about us at an early age when they’re less subject to prejudice and biases.”
Karen Adell Scot, a Yosemite High School teacher who is transgender, fears that people’s personal beliefs could harm what the curriculum sets out to do: Teach about a minority group’s history.
“The curriculum is seen as dangerous to children, when in fact, what we’re dealing with are people that are born this way and have worked hard for their human rights. Just like we teach about Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. It’s just another group of Americans that have history and have had impact. That’s all,” she said. “It’s not trying to make people believe a certain thing or force you into a belief system you don’t agree with. It’s just an affirmation.”
Fresno Unified school board member Brooke Ashjian has spoken out against the new requirements, pointing to his Christian faith.
“As a Christian, father and a conservative, I am disappointed and not in agreement, but as an American and an elected official, I will follow the law until we can change it,” Ashjian said.
Jason Scott, president of Gay Fresno, grew up in the Clovis Unified School District, and his 3-year-old son will one day attend school in the district.
Scott, who is gay, pointed to an incident earlier this year, when the school board fought the American Civil Liberties Union to keep its strict dress code despite concerns that it violated gender expression laws and harmed some LGBT students.
In a re-vote, the board later allowed a gender-neutral dress code, but Scott said the trustees’ feelings regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community were made clear.
“It’s something that has been really difficult. Here in the Valley – a very conservative area – we’re always concerned about (our son) getting treated fairly because he has same-sex parents,” Scott said.
“I think that with conservative school districts, especially like Clovis Unified, they’re not going to be teaching LGBT history that reflects the diversity of the student body without the order to do so. With this law, it’s going to make it a safer environment and make the students be more reflected in the things that they’re studying.”
Clovis Unified school board president Chris Casado said the district will be “carefully examining” the new curriculum.
“Our board is committed to fulfilling our obligation to enact state and federal laws and do so in a way that best reflects our community’s standards,” he said. “The board has to operate under the law. We don’t make the law.”
Rei Bioco, a 16-year-old Buchanan High School student who identifies as queer, considers her school a welcoming environment and said she has had open discussions about LGBT issues with her teachers. She hopes under the new curriculum schools can serve as a safe haven for LGBT teens by normalizing the status and disqualifying homophobia.
“If a closeted or questioning youth sees queer figures like Harvey Milk making history or reads the works of poet Audre Lorde, they’ll think, ‘Hey, I’m queer and I’m proud and I can do great things, too. My life matters, too,’ ” Bioco said.
Robin McGehee, a lesbian mother of two Clovis Unified students, has seen her sexual orientation collide with her children’s education before. In 2008, she was forced out of her position as PTA president at Fresno’s St. Helen’s Catholic School after she publicly spoke out against Proposition 8, which attempted to outlaw gay marriage.
“We know that we live in a very conservative part of the state of California and that if it wasn’t for some type of mandate that all types of families be discussed, our family would be silenced,” she said.
“But the reality with any classroom is that teachers are able to pick and choose what they cover. Where the rubber will meet the road is when a student realizes that it’s not being talked about, and whether or not the school really does enforce that curriculum … you’re not going to know until then.”
Betty Liao, psychologist and director of the Fig Garden Anxiety Center, has worked with many LGBT clients and clients with LGBT parents and said that teaching children about what it means to be gay can only help them better understand the world and themselves.
“It’s actually a lot easier to introduce the concept of LGBT while they’re young. It’s much harder later, once expectations and these implicit social values become engrained,” Liao said.
“As a 7-year-old, your world is the world of your family and maybe the kids in school you see everyday. Introduce it in a very casual way of: There are all different, diverse types of families. ‘This little boy has two moms, a dog and a cat. That’s his family.’ In their eyes this seems natural. It’s a very gentle and real way of talking about family membership – because that’s what it is.”