New Illinois law requires LGBTQ+ history to be taught in public schools

Connor Wielgos, Opinion Editor

Illinois made state history recently when Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation into law that would require all public schools in the state to include LBGTQ+ contributions to American history in K-12 history curriculum. This will come in the form of including prominent LGBTQ+ figures in state-approved textbooks. The law will go into effect in July 2020, just before the 2020-21 school year begins.

The purpose of this new law is to increase awareness of the historical contributions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals have had on society. For example, new curriculum will include topics like Sally Ride, the first woman in space, who was lesbian. It will also mention the establishment of the Society of Human Rights, an LGBTQ+ activist group that was founded in Chicago in 1924.

“Representation in the curriculum matters especially for all marginalized groups of people. This curriculum teaches our students that gay Americans have been an integral part of our society and the advancement of our culture,” school psychologist Jennifer Zacharski said. “In addition, LGBTQ students who see themselves reflected in the curriculum are likely to do better in school, are more likely to feel connected and invested and may have a better and clearer sense of themselves.”

Similar laws were passed in states like Calif., N.J. and Colo., all earlier this year. Controversy in those states has stemmed from parents, who feel that teaching students about sexuality at a young age isn’t appropriate. To combat that concern, N.J. limited its mandate to middle and high schools.

“If all states embraced this curriculum, it would provide a louder and more unified message that LGBTQ individuals are an important part of our society and continue to shape our current world,” Zacharski said.

A proposed list of historical figures has similarly met criticism, as some include people that were never confirmed to be LBGTQ+, like Baron von Stuben of the Revolutionary War or President James Buchanan. While historians generally have a consensus on the sexuality of such figures, it was never confirmed publicly. Advocates, however, argue that discussing the effect any LGBTQ+ figures at all is a step in the right direction.

“I feel like more acceptance could come to BG if more LGBTQ+ history could be talked about,” junior Bernice Zielinski said. “More large parts of history that have LGBTQ+ figures that have been glossed over and could be amplified as successful figures in the LGBTQ+ community.”

Illinois state legislators who voted in favor of the bill argue that the new state-mandated curriculum will increase the level of acceptance students have for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Senator Heather Steans, who sponsored the bill, felt that the exposure to historical events could “overcome intolerance” often directed towards the LGBTQ+ community.

“LGBTQ+ history is huge and just cutting them out for years hasn’t been helping society on being more accepting,” Zielinski said. “I am excited for more people to become accepting of the LGBTQ+ Community through historical figures that everyone may or may not know.”

High rates of depression and suicide have plagued LGBTQ+ youth consistently throughout the past several decades, and the aim is that exposure from public school systems will lessen that issue.

“The more we can educate people, especially young people, on different facets of the LGBTQ community, the more tolerant and accepting this generation will become,” senior Tanya Khazin said. “It’s extremely important in the current state of society to teach young people to be open and accepting of each other.”

The new curriculum will be required in public schools only, meaning religious schools and non-religious private schools will be exempt from purchasing the new required textbooks. In other states, parents that have concerns about the new teachings have considered moving their children into private schools, according to a story by the Chicago Tribune.

While criticism has been prevalent from conservative pundits like Ben Shaprio, the state of Illinois will continue developing the curriculum for the foreseeable future. Inevitably, the effects of the numerous mandated textbooks will be measured as students begin to use them, and the original expectation of the Illinois government will be met or missed based on future reaction via public polling.

“My hope is that students welcome this information with open minds and hopefully move past any implicit biases they may have,” Khazin said. “Awareness and education are key parts of building a community that is diverse and harmonious, and it’s great to see Illinois and BGHS working toward that goal.”