Proposed state legislation, if approved, would add gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders to the list of social and ethnic groups public schools must include in social studies.
At two East Bay private schools the debate has gone beyond whether to include gay history in the curriculum. They have taken the next step, offering a high school class dedicated to gay studies.
Last school year, The Athenian in Danville and Maybeck High School in Berkeley both began classes examining the history, contributions and other cultures' views of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. They said it has been popular among students who want to know more about the issues they see on the news.
Among those timely topics is SB 48, legislation from state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would add gay studies to the curriculum for public schools. It also would prohibit the state from adopting discriminatory instruction and materials.
The bill, which has elicited strong opinions from all sides, has passed through the Senate. California will be the first state with such a law if the bill clears the Assembly and is signed by the governor.
Teachers at both The Athenian and Maybeck High, where the classes are considered advanced and open to juniors and seniors who fulfill other requirements, said they already have provided a supportive environment.
At The Athenian, a monument to diversity includes a rainbow flag that flies next to one for the school and another for the Round Square association it belongs to.
Will Grant, who teaches The Athenian's "Gay Pride, Gender Outlaws and Radical Love" class, said Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, was a catalyst. That law banned same-sex marriage and is being contested in the courts,
"(Students) see this as a critical civil rights issue," Grant said. "They want to know more."
He had 18 students the first time he taught the class and has 16 for the current one-semester class, with a waiting list of five to 10 students.
Eric de Lora, who teaches the one-semester "LGBT (Queer) History" class at Maybeck, said there were 14 students when he first taught the one-semester class last year. He said there are many topics that make the class important, such as the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military and anti-gay bullying that has led to youth suicides. But he said what made the class come about is student interest.
"Students are talking about it," he said.
Both de Lora and Grant said the classes also appeal to straight students. De Lora says about half the students in his class are straight. Grant said most of his students are straight, as well.
The Athenian curriculum includes views on sexuality from cultures around the world and the importance of lesbians in the American suffrage movement that won women the right to vote.
During a recent Athenian class, students discussed the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, talking about the political climate of the time, with the Vietnam War, counterculture and ethic groups fighting for civil rights. They were assigned a reading for the next class, about the 1980s and the impact of AIDS.
Many students said they like getting a perspective they haven't received in previous history classes.
"It's learning a completely different history," said Ian Truebridge, 17, a junior from Danville. "You don't hear about the gay community that much."
Allison Jones, 17, a junior from Alamo, noted how more rights are given during good economic times, with more discrimination during bad ones.
"Gay people have really been hit in hard times," she said.
Both Grant and de Lora said they had little existing structure to go on when putting together the curriculum.
Grant, whose main material is a class reader he compiled, said colleges have such classes, but he had to make sure concepts discussed in his high school class weren't too far advanced.
"There's no curriculum you can just buy," said Erik Martinez, youth program coordinator for the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center, which started the one-semester "LGBTQ Studies Class" last year. It gives credit to San Francisco school district students. He co-teaches the class with two other teachers from the district.
Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, co-sponsor of SB 48, said if the law passes it will be up to districts to implement it. She said the state would have to consider the law when adopting school materials, but districts could decide whether, or how, to use them,
Among those opposed to the state bill is Massachusetts-based MassResistance, which objects to what representatives say is the teaching of morals at school, instead of at home.
But Brian Camenker, the group's president, said they don't object to private school use.
"At least they're not using taxpayer money," he said.