Putting the sexual identity cart before the accomplishment horse

Okay, I’ll admit that my post title is awkward, but it sums up what California State Senator Mark Leno is trying to do in California public schools: namely, put a person’s sexuality front and center, with a tag-on coda about the person’s actual accomplishments. This isn’t the first time a gay California legislator has tried this.

Here’s Leno’s press release:

Senator Mark Leno introduced legislation today that helps address the nation’s bullying crisis by ensuring that historical contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are accurately and fairly portrayed in instructional materials. Senate Bill 48, known as the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful) Education Act, adds the LGBT community to the existing list of under-represented cultural and ethnic groups already listed in the state’s inclusionary education requirements.

“Most textbooks don’t include any historical information about the LGBT movement, which has great significance to both California and U.S. history,” said Senator Leno (D-San Francisco). “Our collective silence on this issue perpetuates negative stereotypes of LGBT people and leads to increased bullying of young people. We can’t simultaneously tell youth that it’s OK to be yourself and live an honest, open life when we aren’t even teaching students about historical LGBT figures or the LGBT equal rights movement.”

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Research indicates that bullying rates are double in schools where students do not learn about the contributions of LGBT Americans. Students in schools with inclusive education also report that all youth – straight, gay, and those perceived to be gay – are treated more fairly by their teachers and peers.

In addition to including the role and contributions of LGBT Americans in educational materials, SB 48 adds sexual orientation to the state’s existing anti-discrimination protections that prohibit bias in school activities, instruction and instructional materials. The bill is co-sponsored by Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

“Given the number of young people who tragically took their own lives after being bullied for being LGBT – or perceived as being LGBT, it is imperative that we do more to ensure that all children feel fully welcomed, and this legislation is an important step toward that goal,” said Geoff Kors, Equality California Executive Director. “LGBT people should not be pushed into the closest when it comes to what students learn about history. Educating youth about the contributions of LGBT Californians and our state’s rich diversity will help foster true acceptance of LGBT students and will ultimately create a safe school environment for all students.”

“LGBT youth are denied a fair education when they are exposed to harmful stereotypes in classroom materials and are excluded from learning about their history,” said Carolyn Laub, GSA Network’s Executive Director. “The FAIR Education Act is a key step in preventing discrimination in the classroom and creating safe, respectful schools.”

Senator Leno’s bill was modeled on Senate Bill 1437 (Kuehl) from 2006, which passed both houses of the Legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. About 20 Senators and Assemblymembers have agreed to co-author the legislation, including members of the LGBT Legislative Caucus. It will be heard in the Senate in the New Year.

As I noted, this happened before, back in 2006. I’ll regurgitate now what I said then:

I don’t have a problem with acknowledging that someone who has distinguished accomplishments did so because of (or despite) pressures against him because of his race, color, creed or sexual orientation. To dig into my discontent with this propsal, I really had to break down things down into what I think ought to be taught, versus what I think this bill is trying to accomplish.

Like it or not, our public schools are going to teach values. You can’t teach any subject but math and chemistry without wrapping it up in subjective content. For example, we’re all alive to the battles over history: Was the development of America a Democratic light in the world or was America a genocidal experiment that killed Native Americans and trashed their culture? Is socialism an inherently good thing that was misused by the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese, or is it a doctrine that is inherently evil? And don’t even get me started on the battles over Judeo/Christianity and dead white men.

The same, of course, goes for English. We don’t quarrel about the need to teach our children to read, but once you get past “the cat sat on the mat,” what do you have them read? Shakespeare? Mein Kampf? Dead, white males? Living, oppressed [fill in the blank]?

My point is that, everything our children read teaches them something. Only the sciences have a purity that raises them above values (although, as we know from the Nazis, science in the presence of the wrong values, or in the absence of any values, is the most deadly thing of all).

For all these difficulties, though, there are a few core values that, I think, most people want to see their children learn: loyalty, honesty, respect, bravery, faith, etc. These are abstract values that exist in almost all societies, regardless of specific societal dogmas or practices. (Although some societies place these labels on practices that are antithetical to the same values as practiced in other cultures. For example, in the late 1970s, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about Palestinian soldiers. As part of the training to demonstrate their bravery, they’d use their bare hands to rip the heads off of live chickens. I call that sadism, not bravery.)

William Bennett tuned into this idea of overarching abstract values when he wrote his hugely popular virtue series. In his books, he identified a virtue and then illustrated it with stories drawn from different countries, cultures, religions, etc. “Bravery” might be illustrated by stories about Chinese warriors, black athletes overcoming racism, or Valley Forge. He started with a color-blind, race-blind, sex-blind abstract virtue, and went from there to specifics that demonstrated that the abstract virtue applies equally to all races, colors and creeds.

In other words, Bennett makes it clear that honesty wasn’t confined to dead white males who owned slaves. (I’m thinking George Washington and the cherry tree here.) Bennett’s approach, instead, was that any given value is universal, and that one can readily find examples of that universal value amongst the various groupings, tribes, self-identifications, etc., that make up citizens of the world.

Identity politics has this bass-ackwards. It essentially says that the “value” is being Black, or being gay, or being Hispanic, or being female. It then goes on to say, almost coincidentally, that if you go digging around amongst those people who inherently possess these “values,” you can find some abstract, overarching virtues as well. “He’s gay and — wow! — he’s brave, too.” “She’s black and — this is so cool — she’s compassionate.”

Well, I’m sorry, but being Black is not a value. Being Hispanic is not a virtue. Being gay is not an ethic. Each of these is simply a label to help classify a person, because classification seems to be an innate human need. None of these labels describe conduct (although one could argue that point a bit when it comes gays, because homosexuality manifests itself through sexual conduct, whereas being black is tied to appearance, not actions).

I want to hear about heroic, brilliant, compassionate, important blacks, gays, women, Hispanics, etc., and I want my children to hear about them too. The focus, though, should be on the “heroic, brilliant, compassionate” parts, which are universal values we want to see all children learn. Only then should we go to the subset idea, which is that, no matter the label you give yourself (or that is given to you), you can aspire to these over-arching values, virtues and ethics.

So, let’s do away with Black History Month and the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Month I now see lurking around the corner. Let’s have Honesty month, and Compassion month, and Bravery month, and Patriotism month. Then, during those months, let’s illustrate that virtue with examples drawn from the myriad cultures, ethnicities, religions, sexes, and sexualities that go towards the melting pot — yes, I used that old fashioned idea — that is America.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

The Bookworm Turns : A Secret Conservative in Liberal Land,
available in e-format for $4.99 at Amazon or Smashwords.

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