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    LGBTQ and Ethnic Studies Courses Are Needed in All Schools

    By Lyndsey Schlax and Matt Haney

    A few weeks ago the legendary Castro Theatre hosted a celebration of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, on what would have been his 86th birthday, just a block from the camera shop where he ran his historic campaigns.

    In the mezzanine, guests viewed a collection of art honoring not only Milk, but also the under-told, dynamic history of San Francisco’s, and the world’s, LGBTQ people and communities. The show had been carefully curated by the students from Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts’ (SOTA) LGBTQ Studies class.

    The LGBTQ Studies class at Asawa SOTA, established last year, is the first of its kind in a San Francisco public school, and may well be the first in the country.

    The announcement in early June that the course would be expanding to three additional high schools was expected to be met with a proud celebration of the work of educators and community leaders in bringing representative and relevant education to the students of San Francisco Unified School District.

    Instead, because of hatred, oppression and bigotry, we are mourning. The attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was a blow to many, but most especially to the LGBT Latinx community, who lost so many.

    As news of the attack spread on social media, many questioned: What can we do to prevent this from happening again? How do we fight back with love and understanding?

    Teachers and schools are positioned to help answer one of those questions by taking action in the fight to end discrimination against LGBTQ people and communities.

    We can start in the classroom, as individual teachers have been doing, lesson by lesson, for decades. And we can demand representative education, insist that our schools offer LGBTQ Studies, LGBTQ-infused history, Ethnic Studies, and non-traditional narratives.

    Straight, cisgender, and white allies especially—this is what we can and must help do. We have privilege that obligates us to take this risk, to teach in direct opposition to bigotry, because we can, in ways and safety that others sometimes cannot.

    The work to branch out beyond erasure and tokenism has begun at San Francisco’s Asawa SOTA. There, students are able to walk into a classroom and intentionally, holistically, learn about this defining part of history and identity in a stand-alone course, covering the stories, writings, contributions, and experiences of members of the LGBTQ community; in many cases, of people like them.

    We know that the class has already made a difference. Take, for example, the decline in bullying and homophobic slurs that occurred on the Asawa SOTA campus this year. Students who took the LGBTQ Studies course reported a campus-wide reduction in both experiencing and overhearing harassment based on sexuality or gender identity, as well as increases in their sense of belonging, safety, and support.

    While SFUSD has long undertaken pioneering work around cultural competence, including being the first district nationally to have a fully integrated Support Services Department for LGBTQ youth, the LGBTQ Studies class has given new momentum to a resurgent LGBTQ education movement.

    We must do better; we have an obligation to teach true, comprehensive history in a way that enables students to learn from our mistakes and that ensures that no one is made invisible.

    LGBTQ artists and authors, histories and struggles, much like those taught in Ethnic Studies, belong in every school, every day. Students deserve classes that go beyond the textbook, into identity, advocacy, and a deep understanding of culture and self.

    These classes belong in San Francisco, Union City, Atlanta, North Carolina, Florida, and everywhere else that LGBTQ communities and histories exist. They belong everywhere.

    Until the day that every school offers classes like LGBTQ and Ethnic Studies, the education we provide to them remains incomplete.

    Teacher Lyndsey Schlax of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (www.sfsota.org) recently taught a groundbreaking LGBT course as well as a popular new course on Ethnic Studies. She is the coordinator of the “San Francisco Bay Times” column “Student Voices,” and will resume teaching the aforementioned courses in the fall. Matt Haney is the President of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education.