Why LGBTQIA+ History Needs to be Part of “The History”

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

In August 2019, Illinois became the fourth state in the United States to require that educators teach about LGBTQIA+ history in the K-12 curriculum in public schools; California, Colorado, and New Jersey previously passed similar mandates. People from across the country, representing both sides of the debate, took to Twitter to share their opinions about the new educational policies. Given the current objectives for history and social studies classrooms to include a multicultural perspective, as well as the shifting political and social culture toward greater acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people, LGBTQIA+ history should have an important place in public school curricula. Teaching LGBTQIA+ history aligns with the goals of promoting citizenship education, and cultivating tolerance, respect, and other skills necessary for success in a diverse and rapidly changing world. It also fits naturally with the topics, themes, and questions that educators are already grappling with, including how to foster a more inclusive worldview for modern generations of students.

LGBTQIA+ History and Citizenship Education

Central to the current K-12 history and social studies curriculum is the goal of preparing students to be educated and engaged future citizens. Educators encourage students not just to vote when they reach 18, but to do so responsibly. This means not only understanding the practical tasks of voting (registering, finding a polling place, and filling out a ballot), but also having a basic knowledge of history and political trends so that one can make informed decisions. When voting for a political candidate whose platform includes a position on LGBTQIA+ rights, it would be helpful if all voters had at least basic knowledge about the people and issues affected. Many modern candidates include statements about LGBTQIA+ rights in their formal political platforms, so it is important that educators enlighten their students about these topics, just as they address other central political issues. Some voters may select political candidates without understanding their full platforms; some may even simply fill out ballots because they have an interest in one or two areas and then indiscriminately make the rest of their selections. Twenty-first century students need to be prepared to take responsible and informed action.

Providing Representation

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history would also better engage the current generation of students with stories that relate to their lives, experiences, and concerns. Student populations have evolved, and curriculum likewise needs to evolve to reflect the diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities of students today. Studies estimate that 1 in 10 people fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. A 2017 study estimated that there were about 10.7 million LGBTQIA+ adults in the United States and that between 2 million and 3.7 million children under 18 years old had an LGBTQIA+ parent. Recent research also suggests that, on average, young people are “coming out” when they are around 14 years old. As a result, educators’ awareness of diversity in the classroom and people’s disclosure about their identities and backgrounds have become more open in recent years. This awareness can and should be reflected in the classroom.

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Expanding Notions of Diversity

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history helps educators broaden students’ (and the publics’) conception of diversity to include often overlooked groups. From talking to different colleagues who teach in elementary, middle, and high schools, it is clear that in some classrooms, educators diversify the curriculum by including the stories of just one or two racial minorities because of time restrictions. In other cases, instructors present diversity by simply including women in their lessons. Educators need to reconsider how they define “diversity” and move to a more multi-dimensional approach that reflects the changing times. Including diversity in the classroom should mean talking about many—not just one or two—groups, depending on the topic, and helping to give voice to the differences that are becoming more and more apparent and less “hidden” in the modern world. Some people question the value of the liberal arts and social science subjects, including history and social studies, because they do not understand how training in these important yet overlooked topics can translate into employment. At such a time, teachers of these subjects need new strategies to wage a battle to keep the next generation of students engaged in this important material. Shifting the narrative to speak to this new student body and their families aids such efforts.

Building Self-Confidence

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history makes classes more pertinent to the modern student, who either does not identify as, or knows people who do not identify as “heterosexual.” Many teachers already make classes more relevant by providing figures and stories through which students can learn about topics and themes with which they identify. Teaching LGBTQIA+ history helps LGBTQIA+ students strengthen their sense of identity by recognizing their existence and place in America’s past and present. LGBTQIA+ students deserve to have role models, feel a sense of pride in their achievements, and empathize with the struggles that people like them have experienced as they sought to build a better life and as they shaped American culture. Sharing these stories of LGBTQIA+ success and contributions builds self-confidence in our LGBTQIA+ students and tackles long-standing issues of invisibility and erasure that have historically left LGBTQIA+ youth feeling neglected and out-of-touch in schools.

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Preparing Students for the Present and Future

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history also prepares all students for the realities they will face in the workforce. Making students more aware of various forms of diversity fosters important qualities in them by raising their consciousness of differences; by cultivating acceptance, tolerance, and respect; and by preparing them for the personal and professional lives that await them in the modern world where they are likely to live or work with persons of different sexual identities. Twenty-first century adults must adapt to these realities in order to be successful; they not only need communication skills, but knowledge of diverse communities, and a diplomatic disposition to interact respectfully and productively with those around them. Exposure to diverse peoples and cultures at a young age does not detract from a students’ education. In fact, teachers and administrators have demonstrated that diverse curriculum strengthens students’ learning, experiences, and training for the future, particularly for success in the workplace.

Transcending Past Opposition

The current movement to include LGBTQIA+ history in the curriculum means that schools are evolving to meet the changing political and social attitudes of modern society. It does not, nor does it intend to, plot to “corrupt the youth,” but seeks to give voice and visibility, and raise awareness for a large and growing population. Historically, opponents of LGBTQIA+ people and rights argued that non-heterosexual educators or non-heterosexuality in general threatened children. However, these arguments have repeatedly been proven false. Moreover, the debate over LGBTQIA+ acceptance has shifted in the last decade to the point that even some conservatives have taken publicly progressive stands on LGBTQIA+ rights. For pro-LGBTQIA+ conservatives, having known and come to respect LGBTQIA+ people in their own families, neighborhoods, and communities has facilitated their acceptance and advocacy of LGBTQIA+ rights.

An example of debate on Twitter over teaching LGBTQIA+ history.

LGBTQIA+ History and Sex Education

As the Twitter exchange above suggests, teaching LGBTQIA+ history does not necessitate having in-depth conversations with young people about sex and sexuality in history or social studies classrooms, which has been a concern for opponents of LGBTQIA+ curriculum. LGBTQIA+ history, on the one hand, and sex education, on the other, are separate subjects. Hence, while educators could combine them depending on grade-level and district attitudes and objectives, these discussions do not have to go hand in hand. For example, history and social studies teachers can share that a person promoted LGBTQIA+ rights as an activist or identified as an LGBTQIA+ person without introducing conversations about sex or sexual encounters. Sharing the history of an event, a social or political movement, or even a biography of a heterosexual individual generally does not include a foray into that person’s sexual liaisons, habits, or practices, and teachers can choose not to discuss these topics when teaching about an LGBTQIA+ person.

Depending on age, grade-level, and district objectives, however, teaching LGBTQIA+ history could support other school-wide initiatives, including those in health and adolescent education that tackle topics of sex, identity, and bullying. Recognizing LGBTQIA+ people in the classroom acknowledges that there is more than one sexual orientation and that sexuality is currently and historically complex. Thus, teaching LGBTQIA+ history could (if desired) lead to important early conversations about sexuality and attraction, a natural part of human development often talked about in public schools. Young people do and have historically begun experimenting sexually earlier than adults are or were ready to admit. Teaching LGBTQIA+ history thus could facilitate open conversations about differences in sexual attraction and expressions, if educators wanted to address these topics as part of larger school-wide goals. These discussions advance efforts to reduce rates of alienation, suicide, self-harm, depression, and conflict among LGBTQIA+ youth and can also help students learn to accept themselves and understand others at a younger age.

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Fostering New Understandings of Intersectionality

Including LGBTQIA+ history in the curriculum helps students understand interconnections among social and political movements throughout history and rethink their understanding of “civil” rights in ways that are more inclusive. The stories of different groups of oppressed peoples and their struggles to move from “outsider status” to “insider status” have historically been intertwined. Rarely did a campaign, leader, or organization completely innovate all their tactics and arguments without the help or influence of other people or movements. For example, leaders of the gay rights movement adopted the slogan “Gay is Good” in the late twentieth century, inspired by African American activists who proclaimed, “Black is Beautiful.” Gay rights campaigners started to call their movement a “liberation” movement, adopting the term used by second-wave feminists and other organizers during the same period. Indeed, distinct social and political movements have paralleled and shared similar trajectories with one another. They have always been more interconnected than typically presented in classrooms.

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history helps students re-examine the civil rights movement in particular in a broader framework, given that the true meaning of the phrase has always been more inclusive and expansive than traditionally presented in the classroom. The civil rights movement is not only a movement for the improvement of race relations, but a movement for gender equality, LGBTQIA+ rights, and more. Further, some leaders active in pushing for African American rights during the late twentieth century, such as Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin, did not conform to heteronormative gender roles, but that aspect of their stories has traditionally been overlooked. A more comprehensive and inclusive curriculum can reveal to students that the struggles of one group of oppressed people have never existed in a vacuum.

Teaching LGBTQIA+ history and its connections to other social movements does not mean erasing, sacrificing, or minimizing the histories of other minority groups, but enriching our understandings of them. The historical figures students learn about in class often have complex and layered intersectional identities that link them and their histories to multiple communities. For example, a leader or activist discussed in class might be a racial or ethnic minority, a member of the working-class, a woman, and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. A given historical actor and their story might entangle with and be representative of the histories of several different groups. Identities are not mutually exclusive. For instance, with someone like Bayard Rustin, LGBTQIA+ history intersects with African American history; with Jane Addams, LGBTQIA+ history, women’s history, and working-class history intersect, and recognizing this fact helps us gain a broader understanding of their identity and struggles. Furthermore, many historical figures already included in state curriculums possess an LGBTQIA+ identity that only needs recognition. Teachers do not need to necessarily “reinvent the wheel.”

Twitter users discuss intersectional teaching.

Opportunities for an Inclusive Curriculum

The inclusion of LGBTQIA+ history does not require implementing sweeping and impossible changes to a curriculum. LGBTQIA+ history can be easily integrated in almost every movement and period in both American and world history courses. In a lesson on early America, teachers can point to the examples of Native American two-spirited people who did not conform to European ideas about gender or sex, or such stories as Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, two female life partners in antebellum Vermont. When discussing the nineteenth century, teachers can note the development of homosocial spaces that nurtured passionate friendships between men and between women. Close relationships, for example, developed between upper- and middle-class women in the late nineteenth century United States in sex-segregated spaces such as all-female institutions of higher learning.

It is perhaps easiest to include stories of LGBTQIA+ peoples in histories of twentieth-century America. During the Progressive Era, educated women entered “Boston Marriage” arrangements with their female partners instead of taking husbands. Moreover, the “New Woman” and prohibition in the 1920s fueled a passion-focused culture of new bars, jazz music, and speakeasies, where sexual experimentation occurred after the consumption of illegal alcoholic drinks and other substances. The era of the Great Depression was a more conservative time in which people challenged traditional gender norms because of the realities of the economic crisis—one that threw the United States and other countries into chaos. In Europe, the global effects of the Great Depression brought a prolonged period of economic instability, which made it possible for groups such as the Nazis to gain power; many students do not understand the full scope of Nazi repression and extermination, which actively targeted not only the Jewish population but the LGBTQIA+ population as well.

By the time teachers reach the mid-century, the number of examples becomes even greater. Educators can discuss LGBTQIA+ people in the military and on the home front during World War II, as well as the Lavender Scare as an extension of the Cold War, and the role of LGBTQIA+ people in the social and political movements of the era. In addition to the sexual revolution and landmark events like Stonewall, teachers can discuss LGBTQIA+ people in post-1960 history in terms of the AIDS epidemic, as well as anti-bullying and anti-hate crime legislation. Educators can include conversations about policy decisions in recent history and the present, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of gay marriage.

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Resources and Media for Educators

To date, there are many sources available and easily accessible to teachers who wish to add LGBTQIA+ voices to their lessons. Many websites, free of charge, discuss teaching LGBTQIA+ history, including the Queer American Podcast on Teaching Tolerance.org, the Making Gay History podcast, the ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Digital Transgender Archive, Google’s Pride Archive, OutHistory.org, materials from the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, the History Un-Erased website, the University of California Berkeley’s History-Social Science Project, and the UCLA History-Geography Project. These websites link to articles, primary sources, and other materials for educations, and offer lesson plans, discussion questions, activities, and assessments.

In addition, educators and scholars from different fields have published textbooks, books, and articles about the topic. One of the most readable textbooks on LGBTQIA+ history and culture is the book Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBTQ Studies. For teachers, the most comprehensive study of sexuality in United States history would be the text Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America and Understanding and Teaching US Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. The new Routledge History of Queer America would likely prove useful as well. Teachers can learn a great deal about LGBTQIA+ history in different periods from examining scholarly monographs such as Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II; The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America; The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government; Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality; or the works of scholar Lillian Faderman. Teachers and professors can also assign memoirs about LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences throughout history, such as the book I, Pierre Steel, Deported Homosexual or assign Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters to a close female friend, which are reprinted and analyzed in many texts. Again, the many digital resources and books available in 2019 make including LGBTQIA+ history easier than ever.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Changing the curriculum to require the teaching of LGBTQIA+ history in schools requires action on the part of district administrators, educators, and others in positions of influence. These necessary changes to the curriculum can productively lead to conversations about the goals of citizenship education and the skills and values that educators hope to foster in younger generations. The question of whether to include LGBTQIA+ history in the classroom is controversial for some because it links to larger and more difficult questions, such as “What are core American values in the twenty-first century?” and “what constitutes American identity in the modern world?” LGBTQIA+ history also raises the age-old question of who is considered a full citizen in the current body politic. These questions connect back to education, and the project of building a more equitable, tolerant society. How we educate our children will shape that future.

To teach LGBTQIA+ history, educators must be proactive in aligning course material with new state mandates that reflect the changing realities of the world. While many educators and administrators preach inclusion and respect for difference, when confronted with the challenges of putting their ideals into practice, they sometimes shy away from making the necessary moves. The question about whether to include LGBTQIA+ voices in the history and social studies curriculum challenges administrators and educators to do the necessary work to make the new mandates or desired changes a reality in public schools and to align their actions with their institution’s updated mission and values. Teaching LGBTQIA+ history is ultimately only one dimension of broadening the U.S. curriculum to create a more inclusive educational environment in our modern classrooms. Not teaching LGBTQIA+ history in public schools means keeping our educational institutions stuck in the past, preventing them from evolving with the changing population and times. LGBTQIA+ history will keep history curricula relevant, up-to-date, and meaningful to younger generations facing different realities in their public and private lives than past generations, including exciting future possibilities for which they deserve to be prepared.

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