California legislators are considering a bill that aims to change students' perceptions about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to society.
The goal of the legislation introduced by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, whose district includes southern Sonoma County, is to ensure that the historical contributions of LGBT people are included in instructional materials such as textbooks and lesson plans.
The proposed legislation is one of more than 2,300 bills that will be considered this legislative session. Among those are hundreds that North Coast lawmakers have introduced in the past few weeks that range from protecting medical marijuana users from employment discrimination to increasing fines for wildlife poaching.
With Senate Bill 48, known as the FAIR Education Act, Leno said he hopes to educate all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, about the civil rights movement of the LGBT community and to create a more welcoming environment for LGBT youth in schools.
"The inspiration behind the bill is really the tragic phenomenon we have seen recently of very extreme bullying going on within our schools, and the resultant violence that gay and lesbian students and transgender students are taking upon themselves, in many cases, in the form of suicide," Leno said.
Nancy Vogl, co-director of Positive Images, a group that advocates for Sonoma County's gay, lesbian, transgender youth, said that she's aware of at least three suicides in Sonoma County in the past 11 years that were related to being gay. Vogl said that although Sonoma County is generally welcoming to LGBT people, children and teens are still bullied in schools and issues persist.
"These young people were isolated," Vogl said. "Young people today who exhibit non-traditional gender identity — other kids are still uncomfortable about that. It just compounds their anxiety when they go to school feeling like there a girl in a boy's body, or a boy in a girl's body."
Vogl said attendance at the group's Thursday night support meetings has grown 30 percent in the past year.
Currently, schools are prohibited from adopting classroom materials that reflect negatively on anyone based on their race, sex, color, creed, disability, national origin or ancestry. The bill seeks to add and sexual orientation to that list.
To some opponents, that's a freedom of speech issue.
"The bill forbids anything adversely to be said about the sexual orientation," said Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition. "You are gagging free speech. You have to allow for the balance of the discussion."<NO1>
The Traditional Values Coalition, a lobbying group that says it represents more than 43,000 churches, is alerting thousands of churches to write letters opposing the bill, Sheldon said.
The details of what would be included in curricula would be left to educators and the State Department of Education, Leno said. He suggested that students could be taught about the historical contributions of Harvey Milk, a former city supervisor in San Francisco who was the first openly gay politician in the city's history.
Educators in Sonoma County interviewed this week were supportive of the measure, though they said that statewide, the procedure for adopting new instructional materials has been postponed until the 2013-14 school year.
"There's so much that they want schools to handle that used to be handled in the home, because society has changed," said Greg Espinoza, assistant superintendent of curriculum for grades K-6. "In this case, the schools would play a significant role in presenting this material such that attitudes would evolve and change over time."