In a plan working its way through the Illinois State Senate, public schools within the state will be shifting curriculums to include the lives and history of major LGBT contributors throughout state and national history. An identical plan has already been approved by the Illinois House Committee on Education. The plan provides for a unit in both Elementary and High School in which students will learn about the various contributions of LGBT figures, both in Illinois and across the nation. New, comprehensive textbooks will support this measure.
Assuming the measure is enacted, the unit will be a requirement of all public schools within the state. However, some factors — including the amount of instructional time spent on the unit — will be left up to the individual school districts. Present Illinois laws already provide for an education curriculum that includes the contributions of historically underrepresented groups — including African Americans and Latino figures — which sets a precedent for this newest addition.
The move is being heralded as a significant victory for the LGBT community, which has long sought to illuminate its various contributors within early education. Key figures in significant historical events and cultural movements — including Walt Whitman, Chicago’s own Jane Addams, Andy Warhol, and Bayard Rustin, who orchestrated the famous 1964 March on the Capitol — have made their fingerprints on history, and will now find a particular unit devoted to their contributions.
However, some groups have protested the implications of the bill. Conservative political groups, in particular, have protested what they see as a one-sided coverage of American history. Some have called for the equal representation of those speaking out against homosexuality and the “homosexual lifestyle.”
Critics have also claimed that there is no “straight historical figures” unit specially designated for the contributions of straight men and women. Various LGBT groups have responded, claiming the normalization of heterosexuality has already dominated the history taught in most schools.
Other groups have claimed that, while the contributions of significant Americans should always be studied — regardless of the individuals’ sexual orientation — designating a particular unit to LGBT contributors distorts their role in the overall sweep of history, and often associates them with a movement they were not knowingly or willingly part of. The LGBT movement, which has its seeds as early as the 60s, was not an established movement for many of those figures covered in the unit.
The LGBT community, though, is widely in favor of this new provision. Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, an LGBT organization, responded to the calls for equal representation of dissenting voices. For many children who are questioning or decidedly non-cis, he said, the dissenting calls are already plain to see and will be present in most moments of their lives. This bill’s role is to oppose those voices.
Instead, the measure should help children become aware of their role models, and feel empowered to strive for such great heights themselves.