In compliance with an Illinois state law requiring inclusive history lesson plans, Peoria Public Schools will begin using the Legacy Project curriculum for high schools next spring.
The free curriculum developed in Chicago will teach students about LGBTQ figures in U.S. history.
Deric Kimler, executive director of Central Illinois Friends, serves on District 150's implementation committee. He tells reporter Joe Deacon learning about LGBTQ history is critical to development.
Joe Deacon: Why has the time come now for schools to implement an LGBTQ curriculum?
Kimler: It's always been important to learn about identity of those who have helped us along our way. If you think back through history, we know things about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. We know about their personal lives, and those kinds of things that make them human is what helps us connect to those individuals.
When young girls can learn about women who did amazing things in their history, it gives them a sense of identity that they can do that as well. When young boys can see what men have done, that look like them and come from the same places they come from, when they see what all that they've done to progress us as a society, they feel like they can do that, too. There's a connection.
And that is true of LGBTQ individuals. Whether we learn about the history of those that came before us that are transgender or gay or lesbians, it helps us, those that are (LGBTQ) realize that, ‘Hey, this isn't new; this hasn't just come up.’ We've always been transgender; we've always been gay; we've always been lesbians, it's all been bisexual. This has always been part of our history.
And to get that sense of identity helps our younger LGBTQ individuals understand that they aren't wrong, and that they're not bad people, and that they can do good things. And it gives them that sense of identity so they can focus on schooling, rather than focusing on their sexuality.
What is the legacy project curriculum? And what benefits does it offer?
Kimler: The Legacy Project curriculum is, I think, it's a great curriculum. It's amazing because parents can use it, any adult can use it. It's an online free platform that helps you basically search – kind of in a Google form that was thought about for teachers to use specifically.
What's nice about it is there's multiple different levels – there's levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 – and level 1 may be for elementary. It's just simply like, ‘Hey, did you know George Washington Carver was gay?’ George Washington Carver had a male partner for all of his life. Now, that's just one piece of the puzzle. But the fact is, you can teach about George Washington Carver, a black individual scientist who helped us create peanut butter and find peanuts and our modern day workings of what we know is peanuts today … George Washington Carver did that and he was a black gay man.
All the way up to the social justice piece of that, which could be something that people in high school learn about: the fact that Native Americans often celebrated transgenderism, and knew that people amongst them that were transgender, and that this is something that's been around for a long time.
What was the selection and implementation process used by Peoria Public Schools in choosing the Legacy Project?
Kimler: So they started out with a committee. This is a mandate from the state of Illinois, and so the district had to move on this and move on this quickly to be able to do what the state of Illinois was asking of them. So they put together a committee full of organizations that provide services for the students: teachers, community members, parents, and so on.
The idea is a two-pronged approach. One is to implement the curriculum to our teachers, but also to provide the safe zone training to our board and the teachers within the system in order to provide a comprehensive evidence-based curriculum that we're talking about to students, but yet to still be able to answer the questions that the students may have.
Keep in mind, the whole idea of this curriculum isn't to go, ‘OK, and on this month, we have LGBTQ Awareness Month’ or ‘This week, we're going to talk to you about our LGBTQ community members.’ The idea is, you're having a normal history class, and you just happen to hear that these people in our history that were prominent members of those that we already learned about in school, happen to have been gay, and lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual, intersex, and so on.
How does learning about LGBTQ figures in American history improve or enhance student's educational experience?
Kimler: In terms of just education experience, I don't know if it enhances their education. But what it does enhance is their overall well-being and our overall community's well-being. So learning about all of this is going to help lower – and I know this because Massachusetts and other states and like it have noticed this: what they found is there's a decrease in suicide rates. There's a decrease in individuals who are LGBTQ who need mental health access. There is a decrease in bullying.
And for all of those that are skeptic and want to think that, ‘Well, if we teach them this, then you're going to have more kids and become gay’ and all of this – they've also learned that that's not true. You're born LGBTQ, and ironically enough learning about it doesn't make you LGBTQ-plus. So what they did notice is that it does not increase the amount of LGBTQ population around us.
But what it does is decrease bullying, decrease stigma, and decrease the mental health issues that come along with being LGBTQ. Often times, we get this bad rap of us LGBTQ people have mental health issues, and the truth is that most of us, we have a higher percentage of LGBTQ individuals that do need mental health services. But that's not because we're LGBTQ, it's because society does not see us as human. So it's a cause-and-effect that causes our mental health problems.
You mentioned George Washington Carver. What can you tell us about some other noteworthy figures or landmark moments in LGBTQ plus history that would be part of this curriculum?
Kimler: So one of them off the top of my head, one of the moments is World War II. When we're talking about World War II, what we don't discuss often is the pink triangle, and the pink triangle is how they labeled the gay community members that were put in internment camps during the Holocaust. The irony, and the sad truth is – and it doesn't shed a great light on the United States, but we need to know about it – is the fact that when the war was over, and we liberated all of those that were in prisons, the U.K. and U.S. at the time still had laws about being gay.
So anybody with a pink triangle was not liberated; they were put into other prisons within Germany. So this is a good part to see that yeah, we liberated Jewish individuals, and we moved around black people and black community members, but our LGBTQ population did not receive the same liberation.
Other individuals in our history? Byron Rustin. He was a black civil rights icon; he was the man behind Martin Luther King, who helped set up all of the marches and some of his greatest speeches. He was an openly gay man that worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and Martin Luther King knew it.
They were they were good friends and worked for a long time. Now, there was a moment when they split, but that was only because U.S. senators at the time – white U.S. senators – threatened to say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Byron Reston were having a homosexual relationship. So Martin Luther King had to distance himself for a while, but then they came back together and started working together.
Eleanor Roosevelt is another individual. Friedrich von Steuben, which is the father of the U.S. military, was an LGBTQ individual. Obviously, Harvey Milk – one of the civil rights (leaders) of the LGBTQ community – and the list goes on and on. We have many other amazing icons that have come before us that have helped us get to where we are today.
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