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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Who’s gay? Textbooks must say

Was Emily Dickinson gay? How about Ralph Waldo Emerson? The California Board of Education has rejected two proposed middle-school textbooks that didn’t label the sexual orientation of historical figures who didn’t “out” themselves, reports Theresa Harrington on EdSource.

Stage driver Charley Parkhurst was revealed as a woman after his/her death.

California is “the first state in the country to adopt textbooks that highlight the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,” writes Harrington. Next year, students “may be learning from history textbooks that astronaut Sally Ride was a lesbian, Walt Whitman was gay, and a Gold Rush era stagecoach driver named Charley Parkhurst was born a woman, but lived as a man.”

The board followed the recommendations of the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which “worked closely with LGBT activists and publishers,” she writes.

The commission’s report rejecting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s texts for grades 6-8 cited the publisher for not including the sexual orientation of Parkhurst and Whitman, along with Emily DickinsonRalph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, President James Buchanan and Jane Addams, the pioneer social worker who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. . . . The publisher said it did not label historical figures LGBT who had not themselves publicly described their sexual orientation. However, it did agree to add biographical information about speculation related to their sexual orientation in the teachers’ guide.

It’s not clear that Dickinson et al were gay, though I’d concede Whitman and James Buchanan. (But do students need to learn anything about James Buchanan?)

President James Buchanan probably was gay. Does it matter?

Parkhurst is particularly confounding to textbook writers, since nobody knows if the stagecoach driver should be listed as a woman or a transgender man. Of course, she/he was not a significant historical figure, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Local school districts are not required to use the adopted textbooks, but they must follow the California History Social Studies Framework which was approved last year, writes Harrington. “The framework requires publishers to “include the roles and contributions of people from different demographic groups” including LGBT Americans.”

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