New Jersey schools are now required to teach the contributions of LGBTQ people in history as part of their curriculum.

Senator Teresa Ruiz, one of the sponsors of the law, said it is important to teach diversity as a strength because perceptions are shaped in childhood. Classrooms should be filled with lessons that reflect the mosaic of our society and history.

“Teaching young people about everyone who has contributed to the progress of our country, including members of the LGBTQ community and persons with disabilities, will help to foster greater acceptance throughout their lives. We must continue striving to develop comprehensive curriculums that highlight the many ways diversity has been and continues to be a strength,” she said.

The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy this month, will officially take effect for the 2020-2021 school year.

“A Board of Education shall include instruction on the political, economic and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, in an appropriate place in the curriculum of middle school and high school students as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards,” the law states.

The Montclair school district has not yet started taking any specific steps regarding a revised curriculum, but district officials are currently reviewing what its obligations would be under the law, said Superintendent Kendra Johnson.

A 2018 study by the Human Rights Campaign found that only 19 states, including New Jersey, had passed anti-bullying laws to protect LGBTQ students from being bullied based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. Of those states, 13, including New Jersey, have passed laws prohibiting students from being discriminated against based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. This includes matters such as access to facilities, sports teams, and clubs.

Montclair now has at least one gender-neutral restroom in each of its schools. Additionally, the district requires transgender students to be allowed access to restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities based on their gender identity.

But the report says that beyond the laws, schools must work to create a welcoming environment.

“Schools must be intentional about creating a welcoming, safe environment for LGBTQ students. First steps can include providing professional development opportunities, LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bias programs and ongoing monitoring of policy compliance,” the report states.

A need for inclusiveness

Montclair has worked with groups such as Garden State Equality and Hudson Pride to provide teachers with professional development on addressing the needs of LGBTQ students.

Montclair parent Ghana Hylton is excited about the law’s passage, and how it will enhance her three children’s education. “I think it’s a necessity. I think diversity means diversity,” Hylton said.

She believes history lessons in diversity need to go beyond concentrating on the contributions of white, male and gay people, and include different ethnicities and orientations. As examples, she cited Bayard Rustin, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr.; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and the writer George Sand.

Rustin was gay and black, and his sexuality was not widely mentioned in the 1960s, Hylton said. “But he was a key player in the civil rights movement,” Hylton said. The same applied to Ride, a lesbian. “They didn’t want that to distract from her being the first [American] woman in space.”

Most people support the idea of teaching LGBTQ history in the classroom, but some don’t, she said. Some insist that parents be the ones to talk to their children about issues related to homosexuality. “And I said to them, that’s what we used to say about sex education, that’s what we used to say about African-American history,” she said; some see those subjects as “tender topics” that only parents, not schools, should discuss with children. The result of that approach is that some children learn about those topics much too late, or not at all, she concluded.

New Jersey is the first state in the country to require schools to teach about the contributions of LGBTQ people across all disciplines in the classroom, such as science and literature.

“We believe that it’s critical that our classrooms highlight the contributions of LGBT people to history,” said Christian Fuscarino, the executive director of Garden State Equality, whose North Jersey offices are located in Montclair.

Familiar faces in history

Each school district has some leeway on how it puts together its curriculum, Fuscarino said. Garden State Equality has worked with some school districts on the curriculum, he said, one of which highlights people known for their activism, such as Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk.

It also includes people who already appear in most history textbooks, like mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing, playwright Oscar Wilde and novelist Virginia Woolf. Generations of school children have already been learning about those figures, Fuscarino said, but discussions of their sexuality were often omitted from classroom lessons until recently.

“This is important because young LGBTQ people need to see themselves in these lessons,” Fuscarino said. Additionally, he said, their straight classmates need to be shown that LGBTQ people are not a distant, isolated group.

The bill had the sponsorship of senators Loretta Weinberg and Teresa Ruiz, and assembly members Reed Gusciora, Tim Eustace, Valerie Vaineri Huttle, Mila Jasey and JoAnn Downey. It was first introduced in February 2018.