For a high school history assignment on the Holocaust, Olivia Loesch chose the pink triangle, used by the Nazis to persecute gay men in concentration camps and decades later a symbol of pride for the gay rights movement.
“I never knew about it,” said Loesch, 15, a sophomore at Haddon Heights High who came out in seventh grade and now identifies as gender-queer. “I feel that the topic should be talked about and people should know about me.”
Educators in her public school district — and 11 others in New Jersey — are now testing a pilot curriculum to include instruction about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law last year requiring New Jersey public schools to include LGBTQ-related instruction in lesson plans for middle and high schoolers statewide. The mandate takes effect statewide for the 2020-21 school year.
Garden State Equality, an advocacy group that pushed for the mandate, developed a model curriculum and selected districts to launch the first phase of the program. It started training teachers this month on how to promote inclusion across all subject areas.
In history class, for example, students could learn about the thousands of gay men put in Nazi concentration camps and forced to wear pink triangles or about other significant moments in the gay rights movement. Or about people such as the late Barbra “Babs” Siperstein, an activist who made history as the first openly gay transgender person to serve on the Democratic National Committee. She was also the namesake behind pioneering New Jersey legislation that allowed transgender people to amend their birth certificates.
Or they could learn about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay and married to a man.
“LGBT history is part of American history. To tell our students anything other than that would be fictional," said Jon Oliveira, a spokesperson for Garden State Equality. "There’s so much information to be consumed in the classroom.”
The movement has its detractors, however, those who believe the curriculum is inappropriate and that parents, not schools, should teach their children at home about what they believe is a moral issue.
The Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey said it has 7,000 signatures on a petition opposing the instruction. Other opponents have asked to “opt-out” their children from the mandate, but the law doesn’t allow that.
“In many ways, this instruction will directly challenge biblical teaching on homosexuality and what parents choose to teach children at home,” the alliance posted on its website. “The radical left’s sexual indoctrination should not be forced upon our children!”
New Jersey joins California, Colorado, and Illinois in requiring public schools to teach lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history and their battle for civil rights. The law requires schools to include instruction and textbooks and materials that accurately portray their political, economic, and social contributions. In addition to teaching about the LGBTQ community, Jersey schools also will teach about similar contributions from people with disabilities.
In South Jersey, Haddon Heights was selected from 50 districts in the region that applied to pilot the program. Districts were chosen based on need or existing work to create an LGBTQ-inclusive climate.
“We are always looking to see what we need to do so that all students feel safe and welcomed in the environment,” said Ron Corn, the district’s curriculum director.
During a meeting last week of the Gay Straight Alliance at Haddon Heights High, Loesch and other members hailed the new curriculum. They believe it will reduce bullying and help enlighten their classmates and teachers about things such as which gender pronoun they prefer.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to help open up a larger discussion about LGBTQ,” said special-education teacher Anna Sepanic, the group’s adviser.
Said sophomore Lola Rossi, 15: “How we’re normal and that we exist.”
Oliveria acknowledged that the biggest challenge will be combating misperceptions about the curriculum. Educators who work with Make It Better for Youth, a grassroots group that works with LGBTQ youth, developed the lesson plans.
Oliveria said at least two meetings are planned to discuss the curriculum with parents. The curriculum, he said, is not for Gay Pride Month or to talk with students about what the “LGBTQ does in their bedrooms.”
It will be up to local school boards to implement the state mandate, including how to teach the curriculum and what books to read. Teachers later will be able to modify the suggested curriculum and make their existing lesson plans for subjects such as science, math, and music more inclusive.
Oliveria said 45 lesson plans were written for the pilot program and will be taught in grades 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12 at the pilot schools. By the fall, 60 more lesson plans will be ready.
Teachers in the pilot districts will get help from curriculum coaches, he said. They will also be able to download lesson plans from a website, he said. A conference is also planned for May at Monmouth University.
Oliveria said the coalition wants to avoid the missteps that caused delays in California, where a similar law was adopted in 2011. The curriculum there has not fully been implemented, mainly because of push-back from conservative groups and parents.
“We’ve been working really hard on this,” he said.