New push in N.J. to teach kids about LGBT history

John C. Ensslin, The Record

While the battle over the rights of transgendered people to use the restrooms of their choice is being fought in at least a dozen states, some New Jersey lawmakers are struggling to get a hearing on a measure requiring students to learn about LGBT history.

A day after a packed meeting where Pascack Valley School District officials considered an anti-discrimination policy for transgender students, lawmakers said they hope this local and national attention might help spur action on proposed legislation requiring schools to teach about the contributions to society of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people. But there’s no sign yet that the bill, which has been lingering since it was introduced in 2015, will get traction in the Legislature.

The school policy debate comes at a time when controversy is raging over a recently adopted North Carolina law that would require people to use restrooms according to their gender at birth.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, one of the New Jersey bill’s co-sponsors, said the debate among parents, students and school officials in Pascack Valley highlights the need for making the history of LGBT and people with disabilities a part of the school curriculum.

“I feel this bill would open up the dialog to discuss the concerns that many people may be fearful of because of the unknown,” Huttle said.

The school board is considering a district policy that would allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. Similar policies have been adopted in other North Jersey districts.

Assemblymen Tim Eustace, D-Maywood, and Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, both openly gay, were the prime sponsors of the bill introduced last year. So far, it has not advanced to a committee hearing.

The bill is modeled after a California law enacted in January 2012. According to a California Department of Education website, the law requires that history and social sciences courses include the contributions of LGBT and the disabled. But the law leaves it up to local districts to determine how the instructional content is included.

The New Jersey bill would require boards of education to adopt instructional materials that include the “political, economic and social contributions” of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It cites textbooks being developed under the California law.

Gusciora said he realized the need for such a law while teaching a course on LGBT politics to a class at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.

Many of his students did not know about the San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who became mayor only to be assassinated at City Hall in November 1978. He said they were unaware of the Stonewall Inn riot in New York City that ignited the gay rights movement in June 1969.

Asked why the bill has failed to advance, Gusciora and Eustace both said part of the reason is because the state is grappling with pressing major issues such as anti-poverty legislation and funding the state’s dwindling transportation trust fund.

“Every social issue has taken a back seat, even to the back seat,” Gusciora said.

The North Carolina law is one of several transgender restroom restrictions under consideration in other states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar measures are pending in 10 other states while two other states have killed such bills.

At a packed meeting in Montvale on Tuesday, the school board heard a spirited debate between those who favor the policy and others who say it infringes on their religious freedom or parental rights.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a parent and resident in the district, was among the people who spoke at the school board hearing.

Schepisi, R-River Vale, said Wednesday that she supports LGBT equality and opposes measures that would apply to restrooms, like the North Carolina law. But Schepisi said she had concerns about how the policy would apply to locker rooms. She also questioned the way the policy has been drafted, asking if pediatricians or child psychologists had been consulted.

“Where are the parental rights?” she asked. “We’re putting the school in place of the parent for some very significant life issues.”

Travel restrictions

Gusciora and Eustace also have sponsored a bill that would ban state-sponsored travel to states that have adopted religious freedom laws that fail to protect against discrimination.

Both lawmakers said their proposed travel ban would “absolutely” apply to North Carolina.

“They have codified discrimination,” Eustace said. “So I don’t think we should be paying our taxpayer money supporting a state that supports discrimination.

He said that bill originally was drafted in response to a religious freedom bill passed by the Indiana Legislature. In the uproar that followed, that bill was rescinded and replaced with a law that did not explicitly authorize discrimination against gays.

Eustace said after that “kerfuffle” ended, the push for the New Jersey travel ban died down. But with the North Carolina controversy, he expects efforts to pass it will be revived.