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San Francisco's high school LGBTQ studies class makes history

Teacher Lyndsey Schlax in her classroom at SF’s School of the Arts.";

San Francisco Unified School District’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts made history in 2015, when it offered what the district believes was the first LGBTQ Studies class in the nation. That class has since expanded to Thurgood Marshall High School, Mission High and even a high school in Union City.

We're going to start talking about trans – not just transgender, but the big umbrella.” That's how teacher Lindsey Schlax started the very first lesson last year.

“It’s history, and it’s politics and government, and it’s media awareness,” Schlax explains. “And it’s literature and film – and very interdisciplinary. There’s a ton of art in here, a ton of poetry.

And a ton of videos, songs, films, podcasts and TV shows, like an episode on transgender rights from “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver.

“I use as much technology as I can to keep it relevant and interesting and engaging,” Schlax says. “We can watch old news reports. We can watch documentaries.

Schlax says that because this subject is so new to high school classrooms, “there isn’t a textbook for high school students about LGBTQ studies yet – so instead, they listen to all of these stories.”

Schlax actually crowdfunded for MP3 players this summer to make sure all her students could do the coursework – things like watching  a YouTube video of transgender activist Laverne Cox, who Schlax describes as “one of the most vocal and visual trans activists out there.”

Schlax says the class came about because the San Francisco school board recognized the relevance of LGBTQ issues to its students.  Like teenagers everywhere, many are grappling with sexual identity.

“We're planning to be able to have a Skype session with a film director later in the year,” Schlax notes. She wants to “make sure that the voices that are being heard in this class are not just mine, that they are the voices of the people who are part of the LGBTQ community.”

Many of those people live in San Francisco, so the students use the city as their classroom. Kyra Monterrosa, a senior with green streaks in her hair, explains: “First we’re attending the Castro museum, then we’re going to the new installation of the Tenderloin Museum about trans history, then Compton’s Cafeteria.”

Monterrosa is referring to the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, which took place in 1966 at the corner of Taylor and Turk in the Tenderloin, following police harassment of the restaurant’s transgender clientele.

“I think it’s a good way to recognize the history that we walk through every day,” Monterrosa says.

Sophomore Isi Vasquez, arms adorned with a serious collection of string bracelets, is thrilled to be learning about local events that paralleled national milestones in the fight for gay rights.

“The Compton’s Cafeteria riot was so similar to what happened in Stonewall, which was a big movement,” Vasquez explains. “It’s really interesting to learn that San Francisco had so much history similar to the Stonewall movement. It was really cool to learn about that.

Senior Salena Nguyen is excited about classroom visits from long-time activists, like Tom Ammiano, the former teacher who fought California’s Proposition 6, which would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. “He was the first teacher in the SF Unified School District to come out as a gay teacher,” she notes.

Ammiano also co-founded the “No on 6” campaign with Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay Supervisor.

When Milk announced the measure’s defeat in November 1978, he spoke these words: “A lot of people joined us and rejected Proposition 6 and we now owe them something. We owe them to continue the education campaign that took place. We must destroy the myths once and for all.”

Three weeks later, Milk was murdered in City Hall, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone.

Gay rights activist Cleve Jones has seen a lot of change since he arrived in San Francisco as a young man in the 1970s.

“Every time I walk by the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, I think it’s such a wonderful symbol that a public grade school would be named after a gay rights hero. When I was in school, of course, there was no such thing as a gay-straight alliance.”

Jones was an aide to Harvey Milk, and later created the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Today, he visits high schools all over the country, and says that talking about homosexuality with young people no longer raises eyebrows.

“I really come from the last generation of homosexual people who, as we were coming of age, did not know that there were other people like us,” Jones states. 

Back at Asawa School of the Arts, students are preparing a column for San Francisco’s Bay Times newspaper, where they write on issues like being a good ally.

Sophomore Isi Vasquez says the class helps students validate their own experiences.

“It's hard to feel empowered when you feel alone in what’s going on, with your struggle specifically, and with your friends’ struggles.”

Senior Kyra Monterrosa feels like she’s in the vanguard.

“I feel like it is history in the making because it's something that’s never been offered. With all the media attention … I didn’t realize how rare it was to have this opportunity."

So when the semester ends, what grade will these students give their teacher?  The verdict is unanimous: A+ and above. 

San Francisco schools have changed a lot since the controversies over “homosexuals in the classroom.” And perhaps the fact that these students find nothing surprising about LGBTQ studies in their school marks the biggest change of all.

This piece first aired on 12/10/15