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New Curriculum Brings LGBTQ History Into The Light

The Legacy Ptoject
Jane Addams and Albert Cashier, right, are LGBTQ figures teachers may choose to discuss within the new inclusive curriculum. Addams, left, was a lesbian and founder of Hull House settlment in Chicago. Cashier was a transgender Civil War soldier,

The kids called Grayson Alexander "dyke" and "faggot." The bullying got worse when he came out  as transgender the summer between eighth grade and high school. 

Now a senior at Loyola University in Chicago, the Springfield native says attending school was “not fun.”

“Especially when I was trying to navigate that process of figuring out who I was, and where I fit in," Alexander says. "Being gay, or LGBT, or trans never came up in any way at school. And it left me feeling really alien."

Credit Grayson Alexander
Grayson Alexander

He said he believes there is greater acceptance of trans people in the years since he was a teen and that the level of vitriol he experienced has lessened.

This school year, students in Illinois are being taught about LGBTQ historical figures such as inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci and pioneering Illinois social worker Jane Addams. Conversation about those individuals will be woven through the curriculum for students as early as kindergarten.

Alexander says he hopes the new curriculum will not only help LGBTQ students feel visible, but also teach  non-LGBTQ students to not marginalize their queer peers.

The law took effect July 1. The instruction must come by the time students graduate eighth grade and will be taught in high school as a required one-year unit of history.

State Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who introduced the measure, points to a recent survey by GLSEN, a research and support group for LGBTQ students. It found that in schools with an inclusive curriculum, more than three-quarters of LBGTQ kids believed their peers were accepting. That figure falls to 40 percent in schools without that curriculum, according to the survey.

“In these critical years, as you are going through puberty, there's really high levels of suicide for LGBTQ population, high levels of bullying, and having an inclusive curriculum really does help change the environment for kids,” said Steans, who has an adult daughter who is transgender.

But some believe the legislature has no dictating what schools teach about LGBTQ figures. Among them is Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. Zorn said he believes teachers should talk about the contributions of LGBTQ individuals.

“I have a real problem, though, with state lawmakers who are not really well- versed in history and are not experts in education, telling local school districts exactly how they should be micromanaging their curriculum. ”

Steans says she understands why some oppose more mandates, and said lawmakers tried to limit requirements to let districts have freedom around the rules.

Some educators, like Amy Biancheri, say they’ve already addressed LGBTQ issues throughout their teaching. Biancheri, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University, says she plans to teach about LGBTQ history when she covers civil rights.

"It's something that everybody should understand -- that they have the right to equal protection under the law," Biancheri said. "And justice is something that is a constantly evolving thing. And I think that's a really good thing for people to understand, because obviously, it's still evolving, and it's still a big part ofour current situation.” 

The framers of the new law intended for LGBTQ issues to discussed as developmentally appropriate.

Grecia Magdaleno works for the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago, directing the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance. Those entities are part of a consortium helping to draft the legislation and prepare curriculum.  They said the incorporation of the discussion of gender nonconformity for students as young as kindergarten should not be controversial.

“It can be as simple as introducing students to examples of diverse families.  There are  stories …  that show depictions of same sex parents, or transgender young people.  So even though you don't necessarily have to go into the specifics of it, you can still provide representation without sexualizing it in any way, rather, just showing that there are LGBTQ people that exist. And that's all it really matters.”

Carrie Vine agrees about the benign nature of the subject. Her son Cal is a transgender sophomore at Carbondale High School. 

“Famous people throughout history identified as LGBTQ,” Vine said. “I think it's important for the youth of today to know that it is not a new thing…People  that are gay and lesbian or bisexual or whatever have been around for a long time. It's nothing new.”

Victor Salvo, leads the Chicago-based Legacy Project, where he  worked with teachers to create a lengthy ever-growing series of lesson plans with multi-media features for the inclusive curriculum.

“I think, if anything, people will be really shocked by how uncontroversial it actually is," Salvo said. "Indeed, the most controversial thing about this is the fact that it exists at all. But it's not the content...And that's part of what we hope to do is demystify that a little bit.”

Salvo said he’s heard fear-mongering among some people who are hearing all kinds of horror stories about what children are going to be taught.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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