Queering History: Back to School Edition

In his second inaugural address in 2013, President Barack Obama stated that

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall ….1

As a high school history and government teacher, I love to show my students either the text or video of this speech. Besides containing a nice example of alliteration as an effective rhetorical device, the passage makes direct reference to documents, places, and events we have studied in our classroom! More importantly, in a few short sentences Obama did what all history teachers everywhere try to do every day: he highlighted the relevance of studying history for continued civil rights and social justice struggles today.

The “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” passage also spoke to me as a history teacher in that the specific inclusion of “Stonewall” resonates with a new commitment to teaching LGBT history in California schools.

Just two years before Obama’s speech, the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful) Education Act was signed into law in July 2011 and resulted in changes to the state Education Code for K-12 History and Social Studies instruction. The text of the law, introduced by former California State Senator, Mark Leno, explains that:

“Existing law requires instruction in social sciences to include a study of the role and contributions of both men and women and specified categories of persons to the development of California and the United States.

This bill would update references to certain categories of persons and additionally would require instruction in social sciences to include a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other cultural groups, to the development of California and the United States.”

In 2016 the California Department of Education rolled out its new History-Social Science Framework to comply with the FAIR Act, incorporating new inclusive themes, including LGBT history at all grade levels, in revised textbooks and curricula. This past spring I was invited to join other high school history teachers in my county in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history curriculum development project to educate teachers on the new California social studies standards.

The new curriculum mandate builds on already-existing changes over previous years when histories of women, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans were added to create more diverse instruction. The intention is not to advance an “alternative” or more politicized history (or, as some ultra-conservative critics have even claimed, to encourage kids toward homosexual behavior), but to create a more inclusive history that tells the story of all Americans.

Education serves as both a window and a mirror. When students see themselves in the subject matter, they feel respected and are potentially more engaged in their education. When students see others (their classmates and their larger communities) in that subject matter, they have an opportunity to learn compassion and empathy.

Image of an inverted rainbow colored triangle with a start in the upper right with the text: This is a safe and inclusive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their allies. All students deserve a save and welcoming school environment
GLSEN Safe Space poster. (GLSEN)

Curricular changes toward this goal of inclusiveness require not only adherence to the law, but a larger commitment toward creating a safer school environment.

Indeed, the curriculum development program I attended was organized through our county’s Safe Schools Project,which has a wealth of resources for educators and administrators related to creating supportive and inclusive school policies and culture, as does GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.

The need for changes in school culture are, unfortunately, evident in current and heartbreaking statistics about the school experiences of LGBT youth. The Human Rights Campaign reports the following:

  • 92% of LGBT youth have heard negative messages about homosexuality or transgender people in the media and from their peers at school.2
  • 34% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students report being bullied at school (compared to 19% of heterosexual students).3
  • 43% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have “seriously considered” suicide and 29% have attempted suicide (compared to 15% of heterosexual students seriously considered and 6% attempted).4
  • In 2015, 75% of transgender students felt unsafe at their schools and research shows a marked increase in feelings of safety — and a decrease in negative comments from others in the school community — when positive representation of LGBTQ topics are included in the curriculum.

History is not the past. It is the stories we tell ourselves about the past. And it matters — sometimes as a matter of life and death — whose stories get told, and which stories are left out.

For all of these reasons, both academic and social-emotional, it is important to me as a teacher to start integrating LGBT lessons and themes into the content I already cover in my classes ahead of waiting for formal textbook changes (which could still be years away). In my 10th grade U.S. History class, students read primary source documents on punishments for homosexuality in a study of other colonial American legal and social codes. As a class we read (or listened to) and analyzed poems and music that highlight LGBT themes and individuals in our discussion of the Harlem Renaissance.

During our unit on Cold War domestic culture and repression in the 1950s we viewed a documentary film on the “anti-Communist” purging of homosexuals from the military and from government positions. In my 11th grade U.S. Government class, I added numerous Supreme Court cases and federal legislation around LGBT civil rights, employment discrimination, marriage rights, sodomy laws, and hate crimes, and discussed how equal protection under the Constitution has been applied to cases involving gender and sexuality.

These lessons represent an expansion of topics already taught in the high school curriculum. I found that these new lesson plans not only enhanced my goals to provide a more accurate and more comprehensive history for my students, but also created opportunities for them to see how the broader themes we address in class — such as politics, the law, or the arts — were impacted by and reflected ideas about race, class, gender, and sexuality at different times in history. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of student interest and participation in discussions on these themes.

But I was also reminded (and truly heartened) that, not knowing they were the first cohort subject to new state curriculum, these fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds may take it for granted that our national history includes many diverse voices and experiences. At the end of the semester, I asked students to provide feedback on some of my new LGBT-specific lessons. Some said they were shocked at the long history of discrimination and struggles, beyond the same-sex marriage debates of their generation. Others shared that they didn’t realize this was a new way to teach specific topics and that it wouldn’t make sense to leave these stories out now.

Although California is the first state to mandate the teaching of LGBT History — and although it could still take some time for updated textbooks to appear in all classes — the stakes for our LGBT students are high. Hopefully other states will soon follow suit. In the meantime, I am hopeful that, despite the current national political climate, dedicated teachers can feel empowered to start making changes in their classrooms on a daily basis.

To this end, the curriculum development project I attended included the creation of resources and lesson plans that other teachers can use. Specifically, I am creating a comprehensive list of LGBT-related primary source document excerpts and bibliographies for use in high school U.S. History courses.

The challenge to teachers need not be difficult. New scholarship is being written and new resources are being uncovered all the time. That said, in many cases the resources and documents and stories were always there. We have just ignored them in the classroom for too long.

Resources

Queer History for K-12 History Teachers teaching resources.

Notes

  1. Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address,” Jan 21, 2013. Return to text.
  2. Human Rights Campaign, “HRC Releases Landmark Survey of LGBT Youth,” June 7, 2012. Return to text.
  3. Bullying, Violence and Student Well-Being [PDF],” Welcoming Schools: A Project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Return to text.
  4. Ibid. Return to text.

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