Making History Education FAIR: California Brings the LGBTQ Past to K-12 Students

by Don Romesburg

Members of the FAIR Education Act Coalition after testifying at the California Department of Education in August 2017. Prof. Don Romesburg is in the back row, second from left.

In 2012, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act — known as the FAIR Education Act — became law in California. This was just the start of an ongoing effort to bring the LGBTQ past into the state’s K-12 classrooms. The act mandated that the contributions of LGBTQ Americans and people with disabilities be added to the history of other groups such as women, immigrants and people of color that the state required public schools to teach. Unfortunately, with no state funding for implementation and no penalty for schools that ignored it, the FAIR Education Act initially was largely symbolic.

Since then, I have been collaborating with other LGBTQ historians and LGBTQ youth and family activists to turn the law into something more concrete. The FAIR Education Act Implementation Coalition has focused on two major efforts: training educators to teach LGBTQ history and advocating for incorporation of that history into the state’s K-12 History-Social Science Framework. The training was taken up by LGBTQ advocacy and history organizations, including the ONE Archives and Our Family Coalition.

Many of us learned from teachers that they simply did not know how to make LGBTQ history meaningful in their classrooms. With a major framework revision process set to begin in 2014, historian Leila Rupp, history education professor David Donahue and I worked with nearly 20 scholars of the queer past to suggest line-by-line changes. This became Making the Framework FAIR, a report from the Committee on LGBTQ History. In July 2016, the state’s new framework showed the fruits of the coalition’s labor: LGBTQ content appears in grades 2, 4, 5 and 8 through 12 — an unprecedented breadth and depth that puts California’s public schools light years ahead of any other state.

Since then, I have been collaborating with the University of California’s History-Social Science Project, the California Department of Education and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association on a series of 18 rollout sessions around the state to acquaint educators and administrators with the new framework. At every workshop, educators ask for textbooks, educational materials, and lesson plans that reflect the LGBTQ content in the new framework.

The current phase of our campaign involves making sure publishers hoping to sell to the lucrative California K-12 market revise their textbooks to reflect the LGBTQ content of the new framework. In July and August, I joined dozens of LGBTQ advocates, students, parents and teachers to urge the California Department of Education to reject any textbooks that fail to do this important work. Two more opportunities to make this demand are coming up soon. Contact Our Family Coalition to join this effort.

In addition, many historians, teachers and advocates are working to produce educational materials and lesson plans that go into the new LGBTQ content in greater depth than textbooks will. The GLBT Historical Society is currently exploring possible partnerships with the California Historical Society and other institutions to open our archives to teachers looking to create and share curricula based on our holdings. The society is eager to help students get excited about LGBTQ history, archives and museums.

When I initially got involved with the passage of the FAIR Education Act, I didn’t know I’d not only be doing this work today, but also will be continuing into the foreseeable future. It’s been inspiring to participate in such a substantial change in the ways that young people will encounter the past. That said, my biggest takeaway has been that making this kind of structural and systemic change is arduous, complex and takes a long time. With persistence, collaboration and focus, however, we can transform history education to make the LGBTQ past a part of our state’s — and our society’s — shared heritage.

Don Romesburg is professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University in Northern California. At the GLBT Historical Society, he has served on the board of directors, chaired the Program Working Group and curated numerous exhibitions.

NOTE: Reprinted from the September 2017 issue of History Happens, the monthly newsletter of the GLBT Historical Society. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.