SB 48: THE Epic Struggle for Queer Rights in California
Equality California Director Warns About Upcoming Referendum
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Roland Palencia, Kevin Beiser
“This is the greatest threat in years to LGBT [Queer] Californians,” Roland Palencia, executive director of Equality California, warned the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at their August 25 meeting. The great threat he and two other speakers — EQCA’s regional field director, George Zander; and Kevin Beiser, openly Queer member of the board of the San Diego Unified School District — were there to mobilize against is the radical Right’s referendum campaign to repeal SB 48. Also known as the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, Respectful) Education Act, and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown July 14, SB 48 requires California public middle and high schools to teach “a study of the role and contributions of Pacific Islanders … Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and other ethnic and cultural groups” in social-science classes.
It might not seem like much of a change from previous law — which contained similar requirements to teach the role and contributions of “Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, … [and] European Americans” — but a coalition of radical-Right activists similar to the ones that successfully pushed through Proposition 8, banning legal recognition of same-sex marriage in California, are aiming to get the repeal of SB 48 on the June 6, 2012 ballot. Palencia and Zander, EQCA’s regional field manager for the Palm Springs area and a former San Diegan, came to the club to warn of the consequences for the Queer community if SB 48 is repealed by California’s voters — and to present the coalition they’re organizing to defend the law at the ballot box.
SB 48 “is about historical accuracy, and our enemies are portraying this as ‘the homosexual agenda’ and saying this is what will turn kids Gay,” Palencia warned. “It’s not going to be a referendum on the merits of whether we have contributed. It’s going to be a referendum on the entire Gay community. They’re going to use this as a platform to demonize and marginalize our community. No matter what the issue is — marriage equality, employment rights, fairness, education, safe schools — they always go back to their core issue: that it’s a threat to families and children. We’re going to have to address it head on and deal with it very directly.”
According to Palencia, the campaign to repeal SB 48 will be based on the radical Right’s tried and true stereotypes about Queers: “that we are haters, we have a homosexual agenda, and we want to make everybody Gay and teach about sex.” His coalition plans to answer with the argument that it’s people with anti-Queer prejudice, not Queers, that threaten children and families. “Discrimination and creating a hostile environment in school is dangerous,” he said, adding that one reason Queer adolescents are at higher risk for alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide than non-Queers is “the pressures on Gay students” from bullies, who often feel inspired and reinforced by anti-Queer ballot campaigns like the one which passed Proposition 8 and the one likely to be waged against SB 48.
Beiser, who stayed behind and fielded questions after Palencia had to leave for another meeting, said he was wearing “two different hats.” As a school board member, he said, he has to get ready to implement SB 48 by “making information available to history teachers” so they themselves can learn about the contributions of Queer Americans and then be able to teach it to their students. He also spoke as a Queer educator, saying that there’s nothing new about radical-Right attempts to write school curricula to eliminate the historical and social contributions of groups they don’t like.
“In the 1980’s, when the state started adding Martin Luther King and the [African-American] civil rights movement, they fought back against it and wanted to keep that information away from students,” Beiser recalled. He stressed that the campaign to protect SB 48 must stress that all the law requires is that students receive “age-appropriate, factual instruction,” and cited a 2003 study, “Safe Place to Learn: Preventing School Harassment,” by the California Safe Schools Association [available at http://www.casafeschools.org
] that argued that teaching the sorts of lessons mandated by SB 48 can actually keep Queer middle-school and high-school students from being bullied and make them feel more secure.
“School climate is improved, students feel safer, students hear fewer slurs and less name-calling, and harassment is less frequent when students report that they have heard about LGBT issues at school,” the “Safe Place to Learn” report said. “For example, 67 percent of students who have learned about LGBT issues at school said their school is safe for LGBT students, compared to 40 percent of students who have not learned about LGBT issues at school. … Students who have learned about LGBT issues at school were also more likely to feel they have a voice at school and make positive contributions to school.”
Asked how the opposition is working to get the repeal of SB 48 on the ballot, Palencia said, “They’re focusing on their network of churches. They have to collect 500,000 valid signatures by October 12, so they’re probably shooting for 650,000 to 700,000 for a margin of error. We have spotted signature gatherers in Temecula and Amador County, but we don’t know if they’re being paid. They may be confident enough that they can raise the signatures through their churches, but if they need to go with paid signature gatherers, a $1 million budget would be enough to get it on the ballot.”
“Right now, we’re also contacting our base,” said Zander, who took over as Equality California’s spokesperson after Palencia left the meeting — he had another speaking engagement during his whirlwind San Diego visit. Zander explained that a decline-to-sign campaign, aimed at targeting signature gatherers and getting people they approach not to sign the petition, “is possible,” but only if the anti-SB 48 side stops relying on volunteers at churches and starts paying people to gather signatures. They’ve set up a hotline for people to call, 1-(877) 440-9585, to report any sightings of people circulating the anti-SB 48 petition.
Questions from the audience focused on whether Equality California would make the same mistakes a lot of people thought they did in the Proposition 8 campaign — particularly in making straight people the public faces of the campaign and pushing Queers into the closet in their own civil-rights struggle — and whether the group, whose expertise is as a lobbying organization, is the right one for the very different task of running an election campaign. Also, at least two people — one of them both blind and Queer — urged the campaign to focus on the disability community because repeal of SB 48 will sanction educational discrimination against them as well as against Queers.
Palencia conceded that Equality California doesn’t have the expertise to run a ballot campaign but said that the “regionally based structure, focused on experience” they’re creating to fight the repeal will draw in people who know how to run campaigns. As for whether Queer people will be relegated to the background of the campaign, Palencia said, “This is going to be a referendum on our community. We really have to be front and center as to who we are and what our values are.” Elsewhere during the meeting, though, he and Zander boasted that most of the current coalition-building efforts are focused on non-Queers.
According to both Palencia and Zander, they are involving disability groups in the campaign from the get-go. “We learned so much from the past,” Zander said. “The organization we have helped create is mostly straight. [The disability issue] is clearly part of it. What we’re talking about now is organizing. It includes the disability and Pacific Islander communities. This campaign is not Gay-based. We’re here [at the San Diego Democratic Club] because you’re the organizers and we need you now in San Diego.”
“If I were to message a series of ads right now, I’d say the opposition hates the LGBT community so much they’re willing to hurt the disability and Pacific Islander communities,” said former San Diego Democratic Club president Craig Roberts. “They’re going to try to make this about our community, and it’s not just about our community. That actually adds to our viewpoint that non-Gays could benefit us by reminding the voters that this isn’t just about the LGBT community. It’s about the disability community and the Pacific Islander community also.”
Another audience member asked what outreach they’re doing to the African-American and Latino communities — who voted for Proposition 8 in higher percentages than whites or Asians, largely because of the power and influence of the churches in their communities. Palencia named the Jordan Rustin Coalition and Latino Equality Alliance as groups they’ve already reached out to, and said they “expect to expand the coalition to non-Gay Black and Latino groups” — but he admitted they don’t yet have the NAACP on board.
Responding to a question from former club president Jeri Dilno about the influence California and Texas, as the two largest purchasers of school textbooks in the U.S., have on the content of the books and what students are taught from them, Beiser explained that at least as far as adopting books is concerned, “in Texas they don’t have separate local school boards. There is one school board, and it’s statewide, so it’s hyper-influential nationwide.” According to Beiser, the Texas board’s war against non-traditional depictions of gender have gone so far that “they wanted to take out pictures of women in souits and put in pictures of women in aprons holding plates of cookies.”
Beiser warned that the public schools will be an ideological battleground for as long as they exist. “There are a lot of groups trying to [use the schools to] control minds,” he said. “The plastics industry is trying to put into textbooks information on how great plastic bags are.” He compared the Queer rights struggle to the efforts of women in Saudi Arabia who are committing civil disobedience by getting into cars and driving, in defiance of a Saudi law making it illegal for women to drive. “Our struggle is for freedom,” Beiser said, “and we have to stand up against censoring anyone, whether it’s Filipinos, disabled people, or LGBT people.”
The San Diego Democratic Club unanimously passed a resolution fully supporting the implementation of SB 48 and urging people “to refuse to sign petitions entitled ‘Referendum to overturn non-discrimination requirements for school instruction’.” At the suggestion of former club president Stephen Whitburn, the resolution also contained a commitment to oppose the referendum should it qualify for the June 6, 2012 ballot — meaning that the club will have to urge its members and supporters to vote yes to keep SB 48 in place.