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LGBT History Gets Short Shrift in Schools. There’s an Effort to Change That

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 05, 2017 8 min read
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, front left, accompanies Martin Luther King Jr., at a gathering in Los Angeles in 1965. Teachers studying LGBT history use primary and secondary sources on Rustin to learn how his sexual orientation influenced his work.
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Lowell, Mass.

Teachers sit at square tables in a college classroom here poring over primary and secondary sources about the civil rights icon Bayard Rustin.

There’s his 1987 obituary in The New York Times, which avoids any mention of his sexual orientation. There are copies of FBI documents from the mid-20th century, which, in coded language, talk about his male companions. There’s a piece about an interview with Rustin’s longtime partner, Walter Naegle, detailing how, in the absence of any other way to secure legal protection for their relationship in the 1970s, Rustin adopted him.

Leading the teacher training are Debra Fowler and Miriam Morgenstern, asking probing questions like good history teachers: How might his sexual orientation have helped Rustin’s civil rights work? How might it have complicated it? Would an obituary today mention his partner?

Fowler and Morgenstern are the co-executive directors of History UnErased, or HUE. It’s a small group with a huge aim: to chip away at the nearly total absence of LGBT individuals from the K-12 liberal arts curriculum—and teachers’ hesitation to teach about them—which the group does in part by having teachers from coast to coast and many different grades engage with a rich array of historical resources.

See Also: LGBT Lessons Spread Slowly, Despite Mandate

There is a rock-and-a-hard-place element of their work: LGBT issues remain sandwiched between a culture war on one side and the tendency to treat them as an “add on” in the manner of women’s history or black history on the other. But ultimately, Fowler and Morgenstern argue, gay history is a misnomer. It’s simply history, and that is the best argument of all for teaching it.

“The argument is really that this is not a value judgment. It is objective,” Morgenstern said. “It is part of our collective, shared historical narrative, whether or not that makes one uncomfortable. It needs to be included and explored.”

A New Approach

Perhaps no other civil rights advance has proceeded as swiftly as LGBT rights, most recently in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision affirming a constitutional right for gay men and lesbians to wed.

But when it comes to their place in that most American of American institutions—public schools—LGBT issues remain fiercely contested. Just last month, the Fresno, Calif., school board president created controversy by saying that students are “moldable” and implying that the state’s sex education curriculum might encourage them to become gay.

'Unerasing' Content

The nonprofit History UnErased is drafting examples of how teachers can infuse LGBT issues into their lessons. Each includes background information, suggested primary and secondary sources, and crossdisciplinary connections.

• If you teach about how to delineate and evaluate an argument, infuse Huey Newton’s speech from Aug. 15, 1970, “A Letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements.” The topic intersects with U.S. history, including the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement.

• If you teach President Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal, infuse U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan’s address to the House Judiciary Committee on the articles of impeachment during the Nixon impeachment hearings. Background information includes the fact that Jordan’s domestic partner of 20 years, Nancy Earl, was an occasional speechwriter for Jordan. The topic intersects with standards for analyzing how rhetoric contributes to an author’s point of view or purpose in a text.

• If you teach the Japanese internment camps, infuse actor George Takei’s TED Talk and transcript, “Why I Love a Country That Once Betrayed Me.” Included in the background information is a reference to George Takei’s husband, Brad Takei. The topic intersects with literature—for example, David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars.

Source: History UnErased

HUE’s approach marks a subtle turning point in the debate about LGBT students in schools. Most K-12 policy on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students focuses on safety and bullying—important work that nevertheless contains a subtext of victimization.

Fowler and Morgenstern agree that discrimination remains a reality, but equally insidious are schools that purportedly embrace LGBT students and then fail to include their history or experiences in the curriculum. “Sometimes the perception is that everyone is all set, all fine about LGBT students,” Fowler said. “But diversity clubs are not enough. Gay-straight alliances are not enough. It’s still siloing LGBT students.”

Nationally, LGBT inclusion in the curriculum rivals climate change as a topic that varies geographically in how it’s taught, if at all. California alone requires schools to discuss the contributions of LGBT Americans, while states such as Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas limit what teachers can say about LGBT people. Nor is there an abundance of scholarship on how to integrate LGBT topics into K-12 education, said Stacie Brensilver, a doctoral student at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, who is writing her dissertation on that challenge.

For the most part, teachers have been largely left on their own to determine whether to discuss LGBT issues in their lessons—and, potentially, to deal with any fallout from parents and administrators.

Pushback is not uncommon even in presumably progressive areas. Educator Justin Smith detailed an uncomfortable interaction with an administrator at a previous teaching job in California’s Bay Area after parents objected to some news articles about LGBT students that he used in an English class.

“It was genuinely a ‘please don’t cause me more headaches’ kind of thing,” said Smith, now the director of curriculum and instruction at Forte Preparatory Academy, a charter school in New York City. “It’s often nested in this idea that this isn’t that important and it just ruffles feathers, so let’s not worry about it.”

From a curriculum-development perspective, most teachers themselves were never taught about inclusive history, nor do commercial materials address it in a substantive way.

“They went by the textbook and made the Powerpoint by the textbook, and there was barely anything that touched on it,” said Katie Ly, a recent high school graduate of the Alameda, Calif., district, about her world and U.S. history teachers. “I think our primary issue is a lot of teachers are not informed about LGBT history—or it’s out of their convenience to learn more.”

It was that challenge that gave birth to HUE in 2014. Fowler and Morgenstern were colleagues at Lowell High School, wrestling with how to respond to students’ demand via petition for more LGBT topics in their classes. Morgenstern hesitated at first: “I just knew teachers weren’t ready to do it. They didn’t have the materials or the background knowledge,” she said.

Within a year, the two teachers had set up the organization to supply those resources. Both now work for it full time.

The group has been supported mostly through grants, and it partners with historical archives and a well-respected podcast to locate the primary-source documents and oral histories that form the basis of lesson plans and trainings like this one.

The bulk of the training is devoted to working with historical sources. After all, the HUE leaders reason, if you want to understand the importance of this history, then you must be engaged in practicing historical inquiry. “Everything we do is grounded in primary and secondary sources, so teachers can feel confident that this is real history,” Morgenstern said. “It’s not something we’re making up.”

Engaging students in inquiry is key, they say, but teachers play an important role in helping students separate fact from fiction, navigate a crowded media landscape, and demonstrate the validity of their historical arguments. As to content, HUE has developed resources addressing a range of topics, including the firing of LGBT employees during the Cold War; the Harlem Renaissance, which birthed poets such as Countee Cullen and gave rise to performance and art forms that broke gender norms; and the myths surrounding the 1969 riot at New York City’s Stonewall Inn.

It’s natural to wonder how such curricula can be appropriate at the grade school level, where LGBT issues tend to be more controversial. But as the HUE leaders point out, the curriculum is not about sex, but rather how gender relations and identity have been shaped over time by historical circumstance. In the 19th century, for example, some women assumed male garb to fight in the U.S. Civil War; others joined together in “Boston marriages” that supplied financial and emotional support rather than marry; and here in Lowell, girls who came to work in the city’s own textile mills lived together in close-knit dormitories.

Understanding Context

The HUE educators caution that modern conceptions of homosexuality and gender identity didn’t develop until the 20th century, and so teachers need to be careful when they discuss such examples with students. “We are not assigning today’s language to the past. That would be ahistorical and irresponsible,” Morgenstern said.

Historians agree that that’s a good practice, to help dispel teachers’ concerns about being accused of promoting ideology or an “activist agenda,” said Beth Slutsky, a University of California, Davis, associate professor of history, who has helped craft LGBT-inclusive lesson plans for California teachers.

“We have been telling them, be really upfront with students. It’s OK to say that people have described race and they’ve described gender in different terms over time, and the way we talk about it now is different than in the past, but that doesn’t mean that families and relationships didn’t happen,” she said.

Although they’re history teachers first, Fowler and Morgenstern are also expanding HUE’s teaching resources to other subjects and grade levels.

Often, that means thinking through how to analyze those topics through an LGBT lens. It needn’t be expansive, they point out—just one more critical perspective in a larger discussion.

Take literature, for example. The protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age novel often taught in high school, seems discomforted by a friend’s discussion of gay people and at one point confides: “I kept waiting to turn into a flit or something.” As students wrestle with Holden Caulfield’s struggle to understand himself, why not ask how their perspective changes if they assume, for a moment, that Holden is gay?

So far, there’s a groundswell of interest in their work even beyond K-12; attendees at this summer’s session included a community college activities coordinator and a staffer at a local youth center. But the leaders recognize that their training will take time to bear fruit.

“It’s a long game,” Fowler said. “We will probably not live to see this normalized in curriculum in our lifetime.”

And supporters say persistence matters for the underlying lessons in inclusive curricula to take root.

Smith, the New York City curriculum developer, recalled teaching Shyan Selvadurai’s novel, Funny Boy, a book about a Sri Lankan youth coming to terms with being gay on the eve of that country’s civil war. A year after, he watched as the same teenagers who lovingly dog-eared their copies relentlessly teased a gay teacher at the school.

“These kids really cared about these issues intellectually, but when they had a queer teacher in front of them, that didn’t translate,” he said. “It’s not just intellectual history about queer people, but about how that creates empathy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teachers Carve Out a Place in the Curriculum for LGBT History


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