Last month, dozens of state lawmakers signed a letter calling on Maryland school officials to craft new curriculum standards addressing the rights of LGBT and disabled communities. The letter specifically mentioned the 50th anniversary in June of the Stonewall riots in Manhattan, and the other states that have recently passed similar standards through legislation.
“These are important stories for our teachers to tell, not only for those students who are themselves LGBT or who have a disability, but so all of our students have a basic understanding of the challenges faced by significant segments of American society,” Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) wrote in the letter to State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon.
In response, the Maryland State Department of Education on Friday said it had already been in the process of developing such changes to the curriculum. Officials plan to present the standards to the State Board of Education for approval during the upcoming school year, a spokesman with the agency said. The spokesman could not confirm any other details about the nature of the curriculum changes.
“It was a quick and easy win,” said Luedtke, who is a former history teacher. “I believe that the history we teach in schools should reflect the history of all Americans. For decades now, we have been going through a process where we correct that our history curriculum leaves out certain groups.”
In recent months, Illinois, Colorado and New Jersey have all passed legislation mandating that LGBT history be taught as part of school curriculum. California became the first state where LGBT curriculum became law — in 2011. But eight years later, many individual schools in the state have been slow to incorporate the curriculum changes, due to protests from conservative and religious parents who argued that lessons about sexuality and gender should be taught by parents in the home — not by teachers in public schools.
Maryland has in the past avoided changing curriculum through law, with the exception of curriculum related to health or safety, such as the consent education mandate passed last year, Luedtke said. For this reason, Luedtke aimed to put pressure on Department of Education officials through his letter.
Once the general standards are approved, each school district in the state will be tasked with incorporating the standards into its curriculum. At least one district, Montgomery County Public Schools, said it aims to go beyond the Department of Education’s standards for U.S. history and social studies classes.
“This will include ensuring diverse texts in the new curriculum in English Language Arts, as well as is in students experiences in PE/health, fine arts, world languages, and other content areas,” Gboyinde Onijala, supervisor of the communications department for Montgomery County Public Schools, said in a statement.
The district, she said, “is working to ensure that all students see themselves in the curriculum and texts, not only in US History but throughout the instructional program.”
Luedtke said his letter was prompted in large part by calls from parents, who said they worried their LGBT children weren’t seeing people like them represented in their school curriculum. Luedtke also mentioned the troubling rates of suicide for LGBT youth.
“Imagine you’re an LGBT high schooler and you take a course of American history and never once are LGBT people mentioned,” Luedtke said. “What does that say to you, that you’re not American? … I think that can have a profound impact on someone."
One of the parents that reached out to Luedtke was Mark Eckstein, a Rockville resident who chairs an LGBT-focused subcommittee within the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. Eckstein and his husband have two children enrolled in a Montgomery County public elementary school.
Eckstein recalled one student who realized in college that he had never learned about the Lavender Scare — the mass firings of gay federal employees in the 1950s. “He was an openly LGBT individual from a very progressive high school,” Eckstein said. “He was disappointed and kind of shocked that he had never heard of that.”
Eckstein said he thinks it’s important to go even deeper in LGBT history than lessons on the Stonewall riots or gay rights leader Harvey Milk. When students learn about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, they could also learn about the openly gay black activist Bayard Rustin, who advised King on nonviolent protests and organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Eckstein has heard some pushback from some conservative parents who oppose lessons on gender and sexuality being taught in the classroom. But he hopes they realize the focus of these curriculum changes are on moments — and key leaders — in American history.
“This is not indoctrination. These are facts,” he said. “You don’t have to like gay people. You don’t have to agree with the way they live.”
But another parent, Sarah Watson, said she hopes the lessons on the LGBT community go beyond history and social studies. Watson, the parent of a non-binary child entering the eighth grade in Montgomery County, said she would like to see gender issues folded into the health curriculum as well.
“Right now, kids don’t even know what the word transgender is, because they don’t talk about it in the classroom,” Watson said.
Still, Watson said acknowledging the contributions of LGBTQ people in history is an essential first step.
“Our kids need windows and mirrors in the classroom,” Watson said. “If we don’t talk about LGBTQ history, they’re not seeing themselves, and they’re not seeing people like them in history.”