New Jersey has become the second state in the nation after California to adopt a law that requires schools to teach about LGBT history in a move hailed by civil rights groups as a step toward inclusion and fairness.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who promised to promote equality for gay and transgender people during his campaign, signed the bill Thursday. Among those celebrating the news was Jaime Bruesehoff, of Vernon, whose 12-year-old transgender child Rebekah spoke in support of the bill in Trenton in December.
“This bill is so important for our young people,” Bruesehoff said. “They need to see examples of themselves in the history being taught and in classes they are going to each day. We know representation matters.”
“By learning about LGBTQ people who have made amazing contributions to their country, they are seeing possibilities for themselves and hope for the future,” she said.
Under the measure, public schools must include lessons about the political, economic and social contributions of individuals who are gay and transgender, starting in the 2020-21 school year. The bill also requires teaching about contributions of people who are disabled.
The law does not apply to private schools.
Leaders of civil rights and advocacy groups said the law will give students a fuller history of the United States, promote understanding and help children feel included in school.
“Our youth deserve to see how diverse American history truly is — and how they can be a part of it one day, too,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of the advocacy group Garden State Equality.
Concerns about bullying, parents’ rights
Conservative organizations have opposed proposals to teach gay and transgender history, saying such requirements take away power from parents and may encourage kids to question their sexuality.
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said he opposed the bill because it infringed on parents’ rights.
“We believe it further erodes the right of parents to discuss this sensitive issue with their children, if in fact schools are going to be promoting and making the claim that this particular person was an LGBTQ member,” he said.
Deo said individuals should be included in lessons based on achievements without discussion of sexual orientation. He noted that New Jersey already has what many education experts consider the strongest anti-bullying law in the country.
Despite the 2011 anti-bullying law, many students in New Jersey still say they feel harassed, targeted and unsupported at school because of their sexual orientation or the way they express their gender, according to findings of a survey released last month by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN.
By teaching about lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual communities in schools, students will feel more connected, which will help their mental health and ability to learn, said Kathryn Dixon, Northern New Jersey policy coordinator for GLSEN.
“It fosters respect and connectivity and develops a culture and climate where everyone feels safe,” she said.
The lessons shouldn’t be confined to the history of the gay rights movement, Dixon added. Rather, schools should also include everyday examples of LGBT individuals and families across subjects.
New Jersey’s inclusive agenda
The New Jersey law was modeled after one that took effect in California in 2012. It’s one of a several measures that the Murphy administration has backed or approved for LGBT rights.
In September, New Jersey issued guidance to schools that were designed to promote transgender-friendly policies on the use of names and pronouns, participation in activities, use of facilities and student records.
One of 11 states with similar policies, New Jersey’s is considered the most progressive because it tells schools that gender identity should rest with the student and that parents don’t need to be notified.
And on Feb. 1, a law went into effect that lets transgender residents more easily change the gender on their birth certificates while also adding a third, gender-neutral option.