Lyndsey Schlax, a teacher at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and the creator of the first LGBT studies class in the United States,  sits inside the Castro Theater in San Francisco on June 10, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Lyndsey Schlax, a teacher at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and the creator of the first LGBT studies class in the United States, sits inside the Castro Theater in San Francisco on June 10, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Trailblazing LGBT studies class expands in San Francisco

The first LGBT studies class at a public high school in the nation is expected to expand to two more schools in San Francisco next fall after a successful semester at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, according to the school district.

The course, which featured lessons on LGBT history, community, writing and culture with a focus on San Francisco, is slated to be offered as a yearlong elective for students at both Mission High School and Thurgood Marshall High School in the Bayview.

“I’m really excited to see it expand,” said Lyndsey Schlax, who taught and created the curriculum for the original iteration of the course at SOTA. “My students told me again and again and again that this class changed their lives, changed their understandings of the world.”

The school district decided to offer the course elsewhere after surveys and analysis following the first semester of the class last fall showed students experienced a decline in bullying and use of homosexual slurs on campus, according to Board of Education President Matt Haney.

“The demographics of Mission High School are very different than Asawa SOTA,” Haney said. “We want to be able to expand the course to a broader set of students that represent the full diversity of San Francisco students.”

SOTA has the highest percentage by population of LGBT students out of all other high schools in the district.

Fifteen percent of students at SOTA identified as LGBT in 2013-14 compared to just under five percent of students at Marshall and almost 9 percent of students at Mission, according to the district.

The class was based on student inquiry into subjects such as the importance of visibility and voice for the LGBT community, the definition of gender — a social term that refers to a person’s identity rather than biology — and historic events both in The City and beyond.

For instance, longtime politician Tom Ammiano spoke to the students about his experience working with former city Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the U.S. Milk was assassinated by another supervisor in 1978.

At another point in the semester, notable transgender activist Felicia Flames came to talk with students about Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 against transgender violence in the Tenderloin.

The students did not take quizzes.

Instead, they listened to their homework on MP3 players and wrote their thoughts, including in a column for the San Francisco Bay Times, a newspaper that serves the LGBT community. Sometimes that homework meant listening to songs like “Tainted Love” while learning about the AIDS epidemic.

“I was trying to design this in a way that was not just the same old class, but just a new topic,” Schlax said.

Even the class demographics were unconventional. Schlax said she taught ninth through 12th graders in one room at the same time, and it “worked out fairly well” because “all of the kids who were in the class chose to be there.”

While the curriculum she created is unique — there are no textbooks for teaching high school students LGBT studies — it was not born in a vacuum.

The San Francisco Unified School District had laid out at least a decade of groundwork for Schlax to create such a class.

Erik Martinez, the LGBT program coordinator for the school district, traced the history of the course back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when teacher Barbara Blinick started to craft lessons around the role World War II played in LGBT history in San Francisco.

“I have this whole set of primary sources from right around World War II and after,” Schlax said of the materials now in her curriculum, like newspaper articles and love letters written from one soldier to another.

Learning about gay soldiers prompted students to ponder why they hadn’t learned about them in their history classes, Schlax said, a worry which at least some in the district seem to share.

“There’s a lot of interest and support in expanding [the course],” Martinez said. “There’s also a lot of desire to make sure these topics are infused in other subjects.”

The momentum for the course began to grow alongside the desire for an ethnic studies program in The City’s public schools, Martinez said. About 10 years ago, the district offered a pilot LGBT studies class for students on Saturdays at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

Then in 2010, school board Commissioner Sandra Fewer sponsored a resolution in support of adding an LGBT studies course at any high school in the district.

Next school year, the course will be taught at Marshall and Mission by two veteran teachers, both of whom identity as LGBT, Martinez said.

Martinez plans to meet with all three teachers throughout the summer to plan out the coming school year.education

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