Opposition to a groundbreaking bill which would mandate the inclusion of LGBTQ history in Illinois schools had been fairly muted until earlier this week.
A mysterious billboard appeared on Highway 143 outside of Carbondale warning that the state’s Senate “is considering a plan to force schools to teach LGBT [sic] history to your children.” The words “LGBT history” and “children” are accentuated with bold red lettering for maximum impact.
“Is that something you want?” the billboard cautions.
The advertisement claims to have been sponsored by the “Church Without Walls,” which shares a name with a religious denomination located in Rockville. It’s unlikely the two entities are related. The central Illinois city is a more than five-hour drive from Carbondale, a college town located at the very southern tip of the state.
No group has taken responsibility for the billboard, which was discovered after a member of Equality Illinois’ community advisory group snapped a photo of it during a Tuesday drive.
Executive Director Brian Johnson tells INTO he was “floored” by the message.
“We’d been talking a lot about the inclusion curriculum bill with stakeholders across the state, coalition partners, state lawmakers, and even the governor,” Johnson claims in a phone conversation. “To find a group that we’d never heard of start putting up opposition language against it was something we weren’t expecting.”
Thus far, the bill has been embraced by the state legislature. It passed the House Education Committee by a 10 to 4 vote and the Senate Education Committee by a 9 to 2 vote, the latter of which included the support of two Republican Senators.
Next the Illinois Inclusive Curriculum Billknown as SB 3249 in the Senate and HB 5596 in the Housewill head to the full chambers of each body for a vote.
If passed, the legislation sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) would compel elementary and high schools to teach “the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this State.”
The specifics of what and how much LGBTQ history is taught would be up to individual districts to determine.
Lessons could include Bayard Rustin, the openly gay civil rights activist who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington; Sally Ride, the first woman in space who wasn’t publicly known as a lesbian until her death; and Jane Addams, the Nobel-Prize-winning social worker who had a decades-long relationship with another woman.
Steans claimed learning about queer pioneers is important for LGBTQ youth. After sponsoring the legislation, she told colleagues, “People need to see their history to understand that they are a part of our society.”
“For the LGBTQ community, we’re not a community that’s born into ourselves,” he says. “We can’t easily pass down our own history from one generation to the next.”
“Because of that, we learn about LGBTQ people through the public square,” Johnson continues. “When LGBTQ identity is erased from school curricula, we are denied the opportunity to learn about our role models and our predecessors in the movement. That’s naturally damaging for us.”
To date, just one other stateCaliforniahas voted in favor a bill mandating LGBTQ inclusion in school curricula.
But after its passage in 2011, the implementation of the FAIR Education Act faced challenges. Partially due to opposition by conservative groups, California wouldn’t finalize the updated textbooks that would be circulated to K-8 classrooms for another six years.
Illinois’ bill has been widely embraced thus far.
Equality Illinois reports that over 40 organizations have come out in support for the progressive legislationincluding the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois State Board of Education, and the Chicago History Museum.
But Johnson says there has been a “small but fierce” backlash from right-wing organizations in the state. Laurie Higgins, a cultural analyst for the Illinois Family Institute, has called for equal time for anti-LGBTQ groupssaying the new textbooks should include dissenting voices from those who oppose “the homosexual movement.”
“The left’s motive is what it always is: it is to normalize homosexuality,” Higgins told the Associated Press.
Other critics felt the bill would force religious students to learn about subjects and themes which are antithetical to the core tenets of their faiths. Illinois Family Institute lobbyist Ralph Rivera claimed there’s no “protection for students and parents who have a religious belief” in the proposed legislation.
“[T]his is not a new, avant-garde thing that they find this behavior to be against their religious beliefs and their churches’ or synagogues’ beliefs,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “No one seems to be mindful of that. They don’t care.”
State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) says this isn’t the first time supporters of the Illinois Inclusive Curriculum Bill have heard from the legislation’s detractors.
On April 12, the openly gay lawmaker posted a photo on Facebook of a lobby sheet authored by the Illinois Family Institute which had been making its way around the General Assembly. The document warned that if the legislation passed, students would be learning about “the life style [sic] of 3.8 percent while infringing on the constitution [sic] rights of the 96 percent.”
“The 96 percent are being discriminated against!” it concludes.
The bizarre one-sheet goes onto claim that queer and transgender people should not be granted equal protection on the basis of “preference or identity” because homosexuality was illegal when the 14th Amendment was passed. The subject of nondiscrimination protections, however, is in no way addressed in the curriculum bill.
Harris tells INTO the argument willfully misses the point.
“It’s past time for American history books to reflect the true and complete history of our nation including an accurate depiction of the many amazing contributions of LGBTQ people,” he says in an email. “That flier is eloquent testimony of how dangerous to our civic life it is when people are either ignorant of our history or intentionally misrepresenting it.”
Although attacks against the Illinois Inclusive Curriculum Bill have increased in recent weeks, advocates say momentum continues to grow. Johnson says the more groups like Equality Illinois sit down with legislators and “explain what this bill tries to do,” the more they are willing to support it.
He says these conversations have been “incredibly positive.”
“We believe the ground is fertile to take this all the way to the governor’s desk this year,” Johnson claims.