SPRINGFIELD — Gay and transgender rights advocates want to require Illinois public schools to teach students about LGBT history, as opponents say those kinds of decisions should be left to local officials.
Legislation pending in Springfield would require a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender section be added to history classes and have school districts ensure textbooks "accurately portray the diversity of our society."
Supporters say the state already has similar rules requiring lessons on African-Americans and other groups. They say a dedicated LGBT history unit would give students greater perspective on instrumental Americans whose stories often go untold.
"There is no justice for LGBTQ people when we are erased from the study of history," said Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, a gay and transgender rights advocacy organization.
But opponents say those lessons hinder the religious freedom of students with certain beliefs. Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist with the conservative Illinois Family Institute, said adding LGBT education to public school curricula would promote "a value system counter to the value system that those students have."
"Where's the protection for students and parents who have a religious belief?" Rivera said. "Which has always been the case, this is not a new, avant-garde thing that they find this behavior to be against their religious beliefs and their churches' or synagogues' beliefs. No one seems to be mindful of that. They don't care."
And the Illinois Association of School Boards doesn't back the proposal, either. It opposes most state requirements for schools, contending local officials can make the best decisions for their districts without lawmakers getting involved.
Johnson, though, said the absence of LGBT education means students are "deprived of the role models we deserve," and all children should have the opportunity to get a "full understanding" of some of the historic figures they already learn about in school.
"You know, the fact that you would learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and learn about Coretta (Scott King), but not learn about Bayard Rustin and his partners, it's just a sign that we're giving kids a lopsided view of history," he added. Rustin was a civil rights leader who was a chief organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The proposal has won preliminary approval from Illinois House and Senate committees and could be debated further in the coming weeks.
The latest push from gay rights advocates follows a number of high-profile victories at the Capitol in recent years, including the approval of same-sex marriage in Illinois before the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it nationwide. Just last year, lawmakers approved allowing transgender Illinoisans to change the designated sex on their birth certificates. And another new law bans use of the so-called "gay panic defense," in which criminal defendants charged with first-degree murder were able to claim they acted out of passion after learning their victim was gay or transgender.
Under the LGBT history bill, the Illinois State Board of Education would recommend resources for schools to develop a curriculum. Local school districts would be largely responsible for creating and administering the programs, which would include material to present significant contributions made by LGBT people and promotion of equal treatment of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The new requirement wouldn't take effect until the 2019-20 school year.
"We're really trying to do this in a way that gives as much flexibility as possible to school districts," said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and the proposal's sponsor. On Wednesday, dozens of supporters from around the state traveled to the Capitol, clad in matching Equality Illinois T-shirts, in a demonstration effort led by the group to connect constituents with their lawmakers.
Advocates met with Gov. Bruce Rauner, and Johnson said "the governor has always heard us out." A Rauner spokeswoman said he would "carefully consider" the bill if it lands on his desk.
Among the demonstrators were Peter Thaddeus Kwiatkowski and Josh Lynch, a married couple from Warrenville who volunteer weekly with an LGBT support group for youths. In doing that work, they've found that young people grapple with many of the same issues that they dealt with years ago, Kwiatkowski said.
"I hear very similar stories, kind of this feeling that 'I'm the only one.' It's kind of an isolating situation to not know there are LGBT people," he said. "And they're not learning it in history, so they don't see any representation of themselves.
"This is one of those (issues) that's been left out," he added. "I think a lot of people thought we had marriage and then we had everything. It just isn't the case."