SACRAMENTO, CALIF. The California state Senate will consider a bill that would require schools to teach students about the contributions gays and lesbians have made to society - an effort that supporters say is an attempt to battle discrimination and opponents say is designed to use the classroom to get children to embrace homosexuality.
The bill, which was passed this week by a Senate committee, would require schools to buy textbooks "accurately" portraying "the sexual diversity of our society." More controversially, it could require students to hear history lessons on "the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America."
Though it's a California bill, it could have far-reaching implications, not only by setting a precedent but also because California is the nation's largest textbook buyer and as such often sets the standards for publishers who sell nationwide.
The bill also could bring sex wars roaring back into state politics in an election year in which gay rights advocates had already purposefully relegated gay marriage to the legislative backburner, and signature-gathering efforts for propositions rolling back gay rights had begun to slow.
"We're totally opposed to inserting sexual orientation into textbooks in our schools. This is more than just accepting it, it's forcing our kids to embrace it, almost celebrate it," said Karen England, executive director of the public policy group Capital Resource Institute, which believes teachings about sexual orientation should be left up to parents.
"This is not about discrimination. California is one of the most friendly gay, lesbian and transgender states in the nation," England said. "This is a bold and out-front attempt to do what I think has always been the goal of a small, but very loud group."
The bill's author, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, rejects the criticism. "We've been working since 1995 to try to improve the climate in schools for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids, as well as those kids who are just thought to be gay, because there is an enormous amount of harassment and discrimination at stake."
As for the need to teach gay history? Kuehl points to research she says concludes that gay and lesbian students might do better in school and be less at risk for suicide, skipping school or drug and alcohol abuse if they saw their own lives more accurately reflected in school textbooks and if the issue were more openly discussed in classrooms.
"Teaching materials mostly contain negative or adverse views of us, and that's when they mention us at all," said Kuehl, one of the California legislature's six openly gay lawmakers. A Senate analysis of her bill noted that one of the few times homosexuality is routinely discussed in classrooms is in relationship to pathology. "In textbooks it's as if there's no gay people in California at all, so forget about it."
Whether the bill becomes law and if gay history lessons become mandatory might quickly become Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's call.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Katherine McLane reiterated Wednesday the governor's stance that he does not take a position on a bill before it passes the Legislature.