The Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, is moving to the Senate after being passed by the House of Representatives – and it could affect what's taught in classrooms.
The Equality Act would enable protections within education, particularly on how teachers implement LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
"It signals to educators who are not part of our community that they, too, can hopefully implement language, representation and curriculum that is LGBTQ inclusive," Sophia Arredondo, director of Education and Youth Programs at the LGBTQ+ education advocacy group GLSEN, told USA TODAY.
LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is lacking in many classrooms. Nationally, 19.4% of respondents to GLSEN's 2019 National School Climate Survey said they had been taught positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, history or events in their schools.
LGBTQ protections: Equality Act passes in House but faces uncertain future in Senate
In California, where the first U.S. law mandating LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum (the FAIR Education Act) was passed nearly 10 years ago, 31% of students reported being taught this history in 2019.
When it was passed, advocates hoped the bill would lead to equitable and complete learning about the contributions and accomplishments of LGBT people throughout history and into the present.
But the FAIR Education Act was roadblocked in California for years.
Less than 20% of teachers integrate LGBTQ history in the state, said Erik Adamian, associate director of education for the ONE Archives Foundation.
“There's not this base to build knowledge on,” he said.
The ONE Archives Foundation is the host of the largest repository of LGBTQ+ resources in the world, housed at the University of Southern California. The oldest LGBTQ+ rights organization in the nation, it works with teachers across the country to introduce LGBTQ+-inclusive content into the classroom.
“LGBTQ+ history is American history and world history. And it's time that our education system approaches it as such by making the space and providing the resources needed for teaching the next generation a more inclusive and just version of history,” Adamian said. “But you know, I would also imagine that's the reason why there's resistance in it.”
Up until the late 2000s, most LGBTQ+-inclusive teaching was pushed aside or hidden from students – if it wasn’t actively discouraged by states. Five states – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas – have laws that forbid teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ topics in a positive light. In contrast, five states – California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon, as well as some counties in Maryland and Virginia – have laws that mandate LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
Some laws require that teachers portray LGBTQ topics in a negative light.
LGBTQ-inclusive books are hard to find. So these groups started sending them to schools.
Even in states where restrictive laws don’t exist, some teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching these topics because of lack of support on the micro level – within their school districts, from their principal or from the parents. If there was pushback from one of these levels, there could be actual repercussions, said Shannon Snapp, professor of psychology at California State University-Monterey Bay.
The Equality Act could change that. It would safeguard job protections for LGBTQ teachers and could empower other educators to teach inclusively without fear of being fired, Arredondo said.
LGBTQ students without the support of inclusive curriculum are more likely to face harassment and bullying at school. Research shows having LGBTQ storylines in the classroom affects all students positively, not just those who think they may be LGBTQ.
Students in schools with LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum are 82% more likely to report that their classmates accept LGBTQ people than students in schools without LGBTQ-inclusive curriculums, according to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey.
Jaiden Blancaflor, a California high school senior, vividly remembers the impacts to learning about the Stonewall riots as a part of his freshman advanced placement U.S. history class.
“There are so many figures like Duke Ellington['s collaborators] and Marsha P. Johnson that so many people overlook,” he said. His teachers “always made sure to include if [historical figures] identified as something because it's important that we have historical figures that we can relate to.”
Blancaflor said inclusive education in schools benefits the general population.
"Especially since it's history, you can't really just disregard parts of it," said Blancaflor, who serves on GLSEN's National Student Council.
A survey from the Trevor Project, a national group focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ young people, shows that positive school environments make the biggest difference in kids' lives, compared with other environments such as home, community and work.
Sam Long, a high school science teacher from Colorado, told USA TODAY students are more interested in his classes when he talks about the diverse gender, sex and sexuality presented in nature.
Students who aren't taught that way "either check out mentally or check out physically and don't attend class," he said.
"My concern for science students who don't have a teacher and a curriculum that is gender-inclusive is that we're missing out on a lot of opportunities to support and to validate our students," he said. "We could give them the one reason that they need to continue going to school."
In GLSEN's 2019 survey, about a third of LGBTQ+ students who considered dropping out of school said it was related to a hostile climate created by school policies and practices. LGBTQ+ students who feel safe and supported at school have better educational outcomes.
Want to tackle LGBTQ bullying? Start a Gay-Straight Alliance at your high school, study says
Long is on Commission 1192, which develops recommendations for the expansion of inclusive civics and history education requirements in Colorado.
For educators to integrate LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum, Long said, they "have to stop teaching the way you were taught" and "actively seek authenticity."
The Equality Act would help with that mission, Arredondo said: "And for students, I think it also signals that they can show up as their full selves."
Contributing: Claire Thornton
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LGBTQ history not taught at school, but Equality Act may change that