By Amber Carlson and Elise Ertl
Brayden has known he was different since the fifth grade. But it wasn’t always something he could be open about.
“I’ve been in a private Christian school my whole life. So I mean, in middle school, it was kind of like this taboo topic,” Brayden said. “Nobody talked about it, nobody knew about it. So I honestly—I didn’t know I was gay until I was, like, a freshman in high school.”
Brayden is a senior at a Christian high school. He asked for his school not to be named in the piece because he said if school administrators were to discover his sexual orientation, he could be expelled. His last name has been omitted from this piece to protect his identity.
Inclusive education has not been a hallmark of Brayden’s experience at the school, where he said a majority of students are white, affluent and straight.
“My school does not highlight the stories of a diverse population,” Brayden said. “It’s a lot of white Europeans. It’s a lot of white Americans. I mean, obviously, we talk about, like, Harriet Tubman a little bit, we talked a little bit about MLK. It’s a lot of just presidents—it’s a lot of white, affluent people and the economy.”
Meanwhile, Brayden said, he’s had to learn his own history because students at his school don’t learn about the Stonewall riots. They’re taught that the queer movement is a “big, bad thing.”
The school has also held assemblies about how same-sex marriage is “wrong” because it goes against Biblical teachings, or how COVID-19 is “God’s punishment because of gay people,” according to Brayden.
“I thought that was really funny,” Brayden said.
But Brayden also said he’s been bullied by schoolmates.
“I’ve personally experienced true hate from other kids, which is really surprising,” Brayden said. “Just seeing 16-year-olds saying horrible things about people—like, that’s kind of sad to see them act like that. But also, I’ve experienced kids who show support, who show love, who, who still identify as Christian and are very accepting of me, you know, love me for who I am.”
Brayden’s experiences of being excluded and othered is not uncommon among LGBTQ+ students—studies have found these young people face an increased risk of bullying, violence and victimization compared to their straight, cisgender peers. According to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, significant percentages of transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are threatened, injured, and even driven to attempting suicide.
“When you’re in high school, you’re just trying to get through it,” said Sam Long, a science teacher at Denver South High School, as he reminisced about his own time in school. “No matter how bad or good things are, you are just trying to get through it.”
But for Long, those years proved to be a defining period in his life: It was during high school that Long realized he was not the gender he had been assigned at birth. And he began his gender transition in a hostile and unsupportive environment.
Long, a child of Chinese parents living in Toronto, Canada, started his transition in 2007, near the end of his 10th grade year, as inconspicuously as possible, anticipating that others around him would not react well.
“I shared things only to the extent that people needed to know,” Long said. “For example, if I wanted people to call me by a different name, I would say that, but I didn’t go beyond that and say that ‘I’m transgender, this is what it means and this is what I identify as.’”
Some teachers and peers at school called him by his correct name and pronouns, said Long, but many did not. And when Long became involved in the school band, he was not allowed to participate in overnight trips or other activities where students were sorted by gender.
Research has found that teaching LGBTQ+ inclusive content in schools can help create a more positive school experience for LGBTQ+ students by promoting their social and emotional well-being while fostering greater empathy among their peers. Yet teaching about LGBTQ+ people and concepts in the classroom has proven a controversial topic, with numerous states across the country passing laws restricting how gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation and similar topics can be taught in classrooms.
Even in Colorado, one of the few U.S. states with a law requiring funding for inclusive education in public schools, the culture wars over school curriculums have raged on as the Colorado State Board of Education has weighed arguments about exactly how inclusive the state’s social studies and history standards should be.
Last year, a commission established for the specific purpose of recommending inclusive education standards to the State Board suggested adding references to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups to content from preschool through high school. This year, after facing public backlash over the proposed changes, a separate committee recommended removing all LGBTQ+ references in classrooms younger than the fourth grade on concerns that the content might not be “age appropriate” for young children.
According to experts and advocates, what’s at stake in the debate over inclusivity in schools boils down to much more than political ideology. Without inclusive education in schools, they say, LGBTQ+ identity is in danger of being erased, and students and community members who differ from the heterosexual, cisgender norm remain at risk of harm.
In some respects, Colorado may seem a surprising place for such a debate. The state’s openly gay governor, Jared Polis, was just elected to a second term in office on Nov. 8. And a 2020 report by the Human Rights Campaign found that Colorado has some of the most robust legal protections and policies for the LGBTQ+ community of any U.S. state.
Phil Nash, a longtime Denver resident and LGBTQ+ rights advocate, said he and his partner moved here from Michigan in 1976 to find a sense of community and acceptance that was lacking in his home state.
“When I finally, maybe at age 12 or 13, discovered that there was such a thing as homosexuality, I said, ‘That’s me.’ But there was no place – there was no one around that would even acknowledge that this existed,” Nash said. “The information I got was, homosexuals only exist in a few places in the United States, and there aren’t very many of them. And I thought right away, ‘I have to go there.’”
At the time when Nash and his partner moved to Denver, one of the epicenters of LGBTQ+ culture and community in Denver was the Cheesman Park and Capitol Hill neighborhood. Nash said that area was very attractive to the gay male community, helping transform what had become a run-down neighborhood following white flight away from the city into the suburbs.
Nash characterized the neighborhood at the time as a “gay village” for its high concentration of gay people, businesses, bars, and religious organizations. People of the LGBTQ+ community, and gay men in particular, were buying properties, renovating homes, and building businesses in attempt to preserve older neighborhoods and landmarks.
But Cheesman Park’s thriving LGBTQ+ community didn’t get built overnight. The history of rebuilding the park goes back more than 50 years, when it began to grow from a run-down, abandoned neighborhood that had a left-behind, dug-up graveyard to match. It was a place long forgotten, but one that held onto its potential. The potential would be brought to life by people like Nash, who was the first director of the GLBT Center.
From here, they built the first organized church for the gay community, the Metropolitan Community Church of Denver, a church that would later open branches all over the U.S. Local residents saw the beginning of both the GLBT Center, now known as The Center on Colfax, and the Gay Coalition of Denver. Today, the reminiscence of the “gay village” still stands with LBGTQ+ businesses, bars, restaurants lining the streets. Even Denver’s Pride Parade starts from Cheesman Park every year.
And while the significance of the area being an LGBTQ+ hub is not necessarily as important as it once was due to more widespread acceptance, that doesn’t stop the fear that the right to be seen and treated as equals could slip away.
“One of the things that is very concerning, I think, to LGBT people—wherever they live in Colorado—is feeling like victories we’ve had in the past may be going away,” said Nash. “All this talk about school boards limiting what kind of info is given to students, taking certain kinds of books off the shelves, telling teachers what they may or may not teach about—these are broader concerns than what affect the neighborhood.”
One development to address these concerns is the introduction of inclusive school standards. Since 2019, funding for inclusive history and social studies content in public schools has been mandatory in Colorado. The goal is to ensure minority groups, who have been traditionally left out of American history education, are represented in the classroom. Some groups in Colorado, such as the Civics Alliance, have opposed inclusive classroom content and have favored more conservative education standards, such as the American Birthright Standards.
“I think that many times the people raising these concerns about the way kids are taught have— they’re feeling very protective,” said Nash. “They don’t want their kids to feel hurt, they don’t want their kids to feel guilty—so in the name of child protection or instilling patriotism or things that are really good values, they are crushing other values that are just as important, such as telling the truth or letting us know that not only were there good, virtuous things in our history (as Coloradans and Americans), but there were shameful things—I would call it erasure.”
Colorado is one of only seven U.S. states that have laws with provisions for inclusive state education standards. In February 2019, a trio of Democratic state legislators—state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, state Rep. Bri Buentello and state Sen. Julie Gonzales—introduced the Inclusion Of American Minorities In Teaching Civil Government bill, also known as House Bill 1192. It was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis just three months later.
House Bill 1192 requires educational standards in Colorado to contain history and civics material that’s inclusive of communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and members of religious minorities. Additionally, the bill enables the state of Colorado to provide funding for inclusive content to be taught in schools.
But one other key provision of the law was that it established the 1192 Commission—a commission on history, culture, social contributions, and civil government in education—whose job is to make inclusive recommendations for history and civics standards to the State Board of Education during its periodic reviews.
By law, the Commission must be made up of members of marginalized communities, and these members oversee the inclusivity recommendations specific to their community, according to 1192 Commission co-chair Sam Long, a Denver South High School teacher. This rule means that an LGBTQ+ Commission member reviews and makes suggestions for educational content related to the history, culture and social contributions of the LGBTQ+ community.
Long said his LGBTQ+ and Asian identities both informed his content recommendations.
“We have, and had, people on the Commission who are part of more than one community,” Long said. “[It’s important] to honor the intersectionality of our identities.”
Research has shown that curricula inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, as well as other marginalized groups that have been excluded from the curricula, have positive impacts.
“We know that if we have more diverse representation that more students will feel reflected and they’ll feel safer at school,” said Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They’ll feel like they have a belonging, and we know that’s really important for school climate, which impacts academic achievement.”
Research has also shown the impacts of laws that explicitly exclude LGBTQ+ students in school curricula. There are seven states that have enacted “No Promo Homo” laws, which means schools are not allowed to discuss anything related to homosexuality in a positive light.
“What the research has shown is that the students in schools with ‘No Promo Homo’ laws have higher rates of bullying and harassment, higher rates of suicidality and drop outs, and higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, especially if they are LGBTQ identified,” said Meyer.
And even students in more supportive school environments say they don’t always feel understood or seen by fellow students or teachers. One queer student, advocate and drag queen said that although they are gender-fluid, they typically identify as male while at school because it’s easier to have teachers “just know what I am.”
Jameson, a senior at Grandview High School in Aurora who preferred not to give their surname, said that not being able to fully express their gender identity at school has left them feeling like “an imposter” during the school day.
“I’ve been luckier recently, with being able to teach students and teach even my own teachers kind of what gender fluid is, and how to best handle that, because most of them are supportive,” said Jameson. “But it is frustrating when you kind of have to change yourself just to appease the masses.”
In November 2021, the 1192 Commission generated a 74-page report for the State Board of Education with its finalized recommendations for how to implement inclusive content in each grade level from preschool through high school.
The proposed changes in the standards have provoked a mixture of public support and backlash. Parents and community members wrote hundreds of emails and public comments to the State Board of Education, and while much of the feedback was positive, there were plenty of messages expressing outrage at the new proposed standards, and many comments specifically mentioned sexual orientation, gender identity or LGBTQ+ issues.
Some of the negative messages claimed that LGBTQ+ content was not “age appropriate” for young children, while others claimed that LGBTQ+ issues and sexual identity should not be taught in classrooms at any grade level, with some saying it amounted to “indoctrination.”
“If you force children to explore these topics pre-maturely [sic] it could lead to gender confusion and other mal adjustments [sic]. They are too young to understand such issues,” read one email.
“Sexual identities should not be part of the curriculum at all,” another email read. “Parents do not want their children indoctrinated nor confused by these issues!”
Other emails complained that the changes to the standards were “aggressively woke” and usurped parents’ prerogative to teach children about LGBTQ+ issues privately.
One main theme of some of the comments was the idea that young children, especially, should not be learning anything about the LGBTQ+ community.
Although including LGBTQ+ references in younger grade levels sparked public controversy, Long clarified that the Commission’s recommendations for the earlier grades were simply meant to introduce the concept of family to young kids, especially in a time when families have become more diverse and many children have LGBTQ+ parents.
“In civics, one of the expectations is that students learn about their families. What role does family play in our experience? That’s one of the places that we thought LGBTQ identity should come in,” Long said. “In kindergarten, our suggestion was basically to include LGBTQ people in how we discuss family … [but] that was one change that the committee that serves the State Board of Education wanted to remove.”
Nevertheless, in response to the public feedback, a separate committee serving the State Board, the Standards Review Committee, suggested revisions to the 1192 Commission’s recommendations that included removing all LGBTQ+ references in the content standards for preschool through third grade.
Jenny Pettit and Sarah Hurd, co-chairs of the Standards Review Committee, emphasized the committee’s decision was in part because there was “a lot of negative feedback” about the LGBTQ+ references in younger grade levels. And by Colorado law, taking stakeholder feedback into account is a requirement in the standards review process.
Young children already are receiving messaging about family and gender roles, even if they’re not being taught about these concepts in the classroom, according to Bethy Leonardi, who co-founded A Queer Endeavor, a center for gender and sexual diversity in education at CU Boulder.
Leonardi said she has heard anecdotes about young kids from diverse families who had already internalized the message that their family was not normal.
“We had a teacher tell a story where a kid is in second grade, and they were drawing their families, and the kid comes up and, like, tugs on the teacher’s sleeve and was like, ‘Is it OK if I draw my family? Because I have two moms.’ In second grade, a kid already knows that that’s not a thing to have. It’s heartbreaking.”
Meyer emphasized that learning about family structures is part of the process that all children go through as part of their process of growing and maturing.
“Students since the beginning of time—preschool through all grades—are learning about family structures, they’re learning about who am I in the world, and we know when we talk about families, we have to talk about all families. And there’s lots of families that don’t follow the heterosexual husband, wife nuclear family model, so [it] is explicitly part of the early childhood curriculum to talk about family,” said Meyer.
“If it’s OK for a class of kindergarteners to hear that their teacher is married, then it should be OK for them to learn that there’s lots of different kinds of families out there,” said Hayley Vatch, a social studies teacher at Denver South High School. “And lots of different ways that people feel safe being in the world.”
Young students may also become aware that they are different in some way from their peers, and they may lack the language for understanding who they are. Jameson said they knew, even at a young age, that they liked dressing in feminine ways, even though they didn’t have a framework for understanding who they were yet. They said it could be beneficial for younger kids, who are exploring and learning about who they are, to learn about the different identities a person might hold.
“When I was six years old, and all of those things, I didn’t know what queer was, but I knew who I was,” Jameson said. “I didn’t have a definition to it. But I think if we give kids and students that definition, they’ll be more comfortable in themselves, and it’ll be easier to go through the arduous process of American education, just to feel more of themselves.”
Despite the vitriol of some of the pushback against the LGBTQ+ inclusive standards, advocates note that the resistance to the new standards has primarily come from a minority of community members.
“There is resistance, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s very small, but very loud and well organized,” said Meyer.
While there is fear surrounding the integration of an inclusive curriculum, Meyer says educating the public on what it means to talk about LGBTQ+ people is critical to understanding its importance.
“The problem is when people misunderstand what it means to talk about LGBTQ people. They assume it’s sex education and that’s generally not what we’re talking about. Sex education is a totally different thing and has its own set of laws and regulations,” said Meyer. “What we’re talking about is making sure people’s identities, people’s history, the communities, and the contributions of different groups are included.”
Vatch said she sees a lot of these misunderstandings stemming from fear.
“There’s people who are equating being queer, being gay, being a person in the LGBTQ community with, like, the 1950s idea of deviant behavior or something that’s bad for society when we know that that’s not the case,” Vatch said. “So these old fears and stereotypes that are not correct, I think, are feeding a lot of the fear mongering today.”
Brayden, the Christian high school student, said his school could do a better job of embracing diversity, and that he has to do his own learning outside of school to be exposed to differing points of view.
“I just wish that my school was preparing its students better for the future. Because I think a lot of students here say the things they do, and think the things they do, because they’re not challenged on it,” Brayden said. “It’s just what they hear at home. And it’s just getting reinforced at school. And then when they get challenged, it’s an attack on them. And it’s [an] attack on their faith but in reality, it’s just, somebody’s challenging their beliefs, because they believe something different.”
Ultimately, it fell on the State Board of Education to make the final decision on the statewide social studies standards for schools. After hearing the 1192 Commission’s recommendations as well as the Standards Review Committee’s suggested revisions, the State Board voted on Nov. 10 along party lines to approve many of the inclusive recommendations the 1192 Commission had put forth (the four Democrats voted yes, while the three Republicans voted no). Many, though not all, of the LGBTQ+ references in younger grade levels were added back into the standards.
But according to Leonardi, there is much progress still to be made in implementing inclusive material in classrooms. “I think we have a long way to go,” she said.
With the standards approved, it’s now up to individual school boards and teachers to create curricula that meet these standards. Unlike states such as North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, where at least some curriculum requirements are statewide, Colorado allows teachers broad latitude to decide what they will and won’t teach in their classrooms.
“We have local control in Colorado. So even if there’s a House bill that says ‘Do this thing,’ it’s up to the local communities to actually do it,” said Leonardi.
Before the State Board vote, a number of school districts had passed resolutions saying they would follow the revised, inclusive standards, even if they didn’t pass at the state level. But Leonardi said she’d heard stories about teachers in those districts being “completely attacked,” and that school boards need to advocate for and support their educators.
“I’ve heard just so many stories about teachers following the revisions and getting blasted by parents, and that is not—it’s not OK,” Leonardi said. “It’s not fair, and it’s not ethical for teachers to have to stand on their own.”
Vatch, the Denver South High School social studies teacher, said, “I teach high school, but I know people who teach elementary and kids are so much smarter than adults sometimes. So I don’t think the issue is with the kids. I think it’s with the grownups.”
The vehement public backlash to the proposed revisions may foreshadow a long road ahead for implementing inclusive content in classrooms. But Jameson, the Grandview High School student, said they see a brighter future ahead if schools can become more accepting of diverse identities.
“I think that if schools can get more inclusive, it will be better for the next generation because we won’t be held in our groups,” said Jameson. “It will be more connected and more people will be more appreciative of each other’s identities rather than, you know, ‘Your personality doesn’t fit with mine, so I’m not going to bother to get to know you.’”
Brayden said he has already seen some of his friends’ attitudes become more tolerant simply from spending more time around him.
“I’ve had friends who are incredibly homophobic, and then the more I hang out with them, the more they’re around me, they realize, like, gay people aren’t what they really thought,” Brayden said. “Like, gay people are just people, we just happen to like the same gender. That doesn’t change anything about me, you know—I’m still me.”
But Brayden also spoke to the importance of seeing people with his identity represented in what schools teach.
“I want to see somebody who has a similar life story as me so that I can kind of know that there’s hope for my future. I believe there’s a hope for my future, but just being able to see other people, like, older people, go through something and come out of it OK—to me, that’s just a positive reinforcement of what I believe about my life,” Brayden said. “Being able to hear a diverse array of stories truly inspires people. So by only presenting one story and one side to everything, I think it’s only hurting kids. I know it only hurt me.”