NJ’s LGBT inclusion mandate, and your school curricula 

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

Who’s writing curricula this summer? 

As local school districts begin to identify which grade levels, content areas and courses need to have their curricula updated, teachers are often invited in an extra-work-for-extra-pay capacity to write new curricular documents. At “Rainbow Connection,” we invite you to consider reasons and ways to advance the LGBTQIA+ curriculum mandate in your districts at the local level using a simple three-step test. But first, some context… 

What’s the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Lesbian cartoonist, graphic memoirist, MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and Vermont cartoonist laureate Alison Bechdel was first known by us for her must-read comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The serial comic strip began in 1983 and was featured in gay and lesbian newspapers before eventually being published into 11 collections and now The Essential DTWOF, which we can’t recommend highly enough. 

As early as 1985, Bechdel featured a comic strip born from a conversation with her friend Liz Wallace that described the difficulty moviegoers have in finding films that don’t marginalize women characters. From it, the Bechdel-Wallace Test was born, with these three simple criteria: 

  1. The film must have two or more female characters. 
  2. Who talk to each other. 
  3. About something other than a man. 

If you can believe it, the only film found in theaters that passed that test at the time was the movie “Alien.”  

Over time, the three-criteria model for inclusion of women in film expanded to analysis of women who write, direct, produce or are crew members of films. The explicit purpose of this expansion was to draw attention to the inherent manifestations of sexism in the film industry. [See QR code for resource links.] In 2015, only 58% of Hollywood films passed all three criteria. In 2020, only six of the 10 biggest Oscar winners did. 

While Hollywood’s need to eradicate implicit biases against women in film continues, the Bechdel-Wallace gives us much to consider as teachers. In the Pop Culture Classroom blog, Molly Tanzer writes that the Bechdel-Wallace Test: 

  1. Promotes critical thinking about media. 
  2. Illuminates the concept of unconscious bias. 
  3. Can lead to discussions of quality representation. 
  4. Fosters discussion about representations beyond simply “women.” 

 What’s the Vito Russo Test? 

Many other tests have modeled themselves after the Bechdel-Wallace Test to similarly examine media for exclusion of voices, experiences and contributions by historically marginalized people. GLAAD (founded in 1985 as The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has worked to influence media toward positive social change. Borrowing from Bechdel and Wallace, GLAAD co-founder, celebrated film historian and author of The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo developed criteria to guide filmmakers to create more multidimensional characters and provide a metric for wide-scale representation. 

To pass the Vito Russo Test, these requirements must be in place (from GLAAD’s website): 

  • The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. 
  • That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, i.e., they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another. 
  • The LGBTQ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should “matter.” 

Testing our own work for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity 

But what about making the curricula we write this summer explicitly inclusive of the experiences and contributions of LGBTQIA+ people? Using the Bechdel-Wallace Test for inclusion of women and the adaptive Vito Russo Test for including queer people and issues in film, let’s look at how we might borrow from both to test our own curriculum-writing work for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. In doing so, let’s ask: 

  • How could we assess what we’re teaching for authentic LGBTQIA+ representation? 
  • How do we make room for critical conversations around gaps and lacks? 
  • And what’s the harm in not doing it? 

 The Moran-Okeson Test for LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Curricula 

As we consider how to write curricula this summer that honors queer members of school communities, works to support and expand safer school cultures, and upholds the spirit of our state’s LGBT inclusion mandate, we need to represent LGBTQIA+ people and issues in a rich, three-dimensional way. This means that whether the queer person or issue being featured is a character in literature, an author, a historical figure, a professional contributor to a field of study or a specific event, it’s important that they’re not solely included because it checks off a box. Instead, while queer sexual orientation or gender identity is the reason that the individual or work is being studied, the work or person’s contribution is all the more critical because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Furthermore, because all teachers create contact points for their students, it is never about perfect implementation or totality of knowledge. It instead becomes about a regular and normalizing approach to language that includes empathy for others and ways of seeing folx and the world. This way of seeing is enriched by those who have historically been silenced and examining those silences. This elicits wonderful questions that aid our young scholars in taking about who has been missing in their “histories” and learning how to apply critical questioning skills in those instances.  

So as many of us embark on the curriculum writing journey this summer for our districts, and even more of us work individually and with our colleagues toward queer inclusion in our classrooms, we offer this reinterpretation of the Bechdel-Wallace Test for curriculum writing for grades K-12, including classroom resources, texts, and individual lessons.  

The Moran-Okeson (*MO) Test: 

  1. LGBTQIA+ people and contributions (and/or issues) are explicitly included in course curricula. 

  2.  LGBTQIA+ people and/or contributions are studied at least once per school year in each grade, content area, and class. 

  3.  LGBTQIA+ people are represented in a way that’s accurate, affirming, compassionate and three-dimensional. 

 This kind of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, among other representative curricular mandates, should also spur districts into providing professional development that allows educators to explore and share resources that create a depth of knowledge and practice. Such professional development affirms the approaches we need when preparing intentional lessons. It also enables educators to pivot and address challenges to inclusive work. 

*The abbreviation of Moran-Okeson (MO) serves as a tip of the hat to the main character ‘Mo’ in Bechdel’s DTWOF.

Some thoughts on tokenism 

Writer and magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler notes that there’s a risk in creating works with inclusion slapped on, essentially “gaming” the test by adding just enough elements to pass but continuing to offer only formulaic representation. Here, we’re concerned that simply mentioning an LGBTQIA+ person without the critical complexity warranted for developmentally appropriate pedagogy is an attempt at passing the test without authentically affirming our LGBTQIA+ students. Such uncritical inclusion also fails to expansively inform our cis/straight students about the contributions of LGBTQIA+ people to our diverse and vibrant society. 

When we identify and prevent tokenism—differentiating it from “heroes and holidays,” which can be an intentional approach—we help to prevent the fatigue of people who are typically marginalized. Too often women, LGBTQIA+, and People of Color are put into situations where they are expected to speak for everyone who shares their identities. Avoiding tokenism puts the onus on those working toward authentic representation, such as educators and curriculum writers.  

Furthermore, being “exceptionalized” and being asked to perform work for all people who share a single trait/feature of identity is also something to avoid. Perhaps this is a way to talk about Pride marches, celebrations, the difference between them, and how we “other” the community at times and only “accept” them when they “perform” for us as queer people.

Let us know how it’s going! Share your journey with writing authentic curricula at RainbowConnectionNJEA@gmail.com!