MEXICO CITY, Aug 29 — Growing up as a young, gay Latino in rural Colorado, Daniel Ramos never heard any stories about people like him in the classroom.
“I came out the year after Matthew Shepard was killed,” said Ramos, recalling the disturbing fate of a gay man who was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998, a murder that made world headlines.
“To see folks represented in my curriculum who looked like me... that would have been an incredible opportunity,” said Ramos, 32, who is now executive director of LGBT+ rights group One Colorado.
But some 20 years later, students across Colorado will finally have the opportunity to hear the kinds of life stories that Ramos never did.
In May the state’s first openly gay governor, Jared Polis, signed into law a bill mandating teaching about LGBT+ people and other minority communities in public schools.
California has approved similar legislation, while Oregon, New Jersey and Illinois all passed bills earlier this year requiring the inclusion of LGBT+ history in the public school curriculum. Other states could soon follow suit.
“It’s kind of like a snowball, a domino,” said Mark Eckstein from the Washington chapter of PFLAG, formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, of the campaign to see the gay rights movement taught as part of US history.
“Once you start, you can’t go back... And I think the window is open for a lot more,” Eckstein said.
The American story
In June Eckstein and two other parents raised the idea of an LGBT+ curriculum with Eric Luedtke, a former history teacher and state representative in the Maryland House of Delegates, whose district includes parts of the DC metro area.
Luedtke then organised a letter signed by 47 other local legislators asking Maryland’s department of education to include LGBT+ and disability rights history in its curriculum.
Earlier this month the education department agreed to do just that, making the state the country’s sixth set to teach LGBT+ history in schools.
“We’re telling kids that we’re teaching them the story of America,” Luedtke told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We should include the entire history of America.”
“When I was a teacher, I had students who were LGBT,” he recalled. “I always thought that it was important that those students see themselves as fully part of the American story.”
Given increasing evidence of LGBT+ students facing serious mental health hurdles in school, advocates say that having gay and trans rights recognised in classrooms is vital.
According to a study published this month in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, trans students are more than four times likely than their peers to suffer at least one mental health condition.
Research from suicide prevention group the Trevor Project published in June found that nearly two million LGBT+ young people in the United States each year seriously consider suicide, with teenagers at highest risk.
“Having recognition of milestones in the movement toward equality (gives) LGBTQ students affirmation and a sense of belonging,” said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at the LGBT+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
“For non-LGBTQ students, it’s real history, it’s a real representation of the breadth of diversity, and better prepares them to live in an increasingly diverse world,” she noted.
Bans on LGBT+ history reversed
Conversely, rights campaigners say laws limiting or banning the teaching of LGBT+ issues can damage young people.
“They stigmatize their existence, censor information relevant to their well-being... and foster a school climate in which harassment is allowed to grow,” said Peter Renn, an attorney with rights group Lambda Legal.
Currently six US states prohibit educators from what is often referred to as promoting homosexuality, although campaigners are fighting for their repeal.
Utah revoked the state’s anti-LGBT+ education law in 2017, while Arizona legislators voted in April to scrap a provision on HIV/AIDS education which barred teachers from presenting “homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style”.
Legal experts say other states could see similar rollbacks soon, owing to the laws’ questionable legal standing.
Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah who worked on lawsuits against anti-LGBT+ education laws in Utah and Arizona, said the legal challenges prompted lawmakers to repeal the laws rather than risk losing in courts.
“These laws are number one, discriminatory and harmful, and number two, they’re unconstitutional,” said Rosky, adding he expected more such lawsuits.
“It’s just a matter of finding LGBT students and parents who are courageous enough (to file them),” he said.
Meanwhile, as violence against LGBT+ people grows, with at least 16 transgender people murdered in the US this year according to HRC, lawmakers say legislation promoting gay and trans rights is an important step in changing social attitudes.
“While there’s been great progress made on LGBTQ rights... the cleavage between acceptance and hatred seems to be more stark than ever,” said NY state senator Brad Hoylman, who has introduced a bill to include LGBT+ history in public schools.
“The best way to combat hate is through education of our kids,” Hoylman said. “And that’s the goal of this bill: To sensitise children towards differences.”
With the administration of US President Donald Trump rolling back LGBT+ rights, including banning trans people from enrolling in the military, Hoylman says that remembering the history of the movement is more important than ever.
“We have a responsibility as a progressive beacon, as the home of Stonewall,” he said, referring to the New York City bar where a riot ignited the gay rights movement 50 years ago.
“It is our responsibility as New Yorkers to fight back.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation