I am a history nerd.
I love visiting historical places, reading up on history and even enjoying a book or film classified as historical fiction.
In fact, years ago, before I decided to pursue a career in journalism, I came very close to becoming a history teacher.
So it’s no surprise that recent headlines about the inclusion of LGBTQ history in school textbooks caught my attention. The Illinois Senate recently approved a bill that requires public schools to teach LGBTQ history, following in the footsteps of California which approved a similar measure last year. I’m a fan of the decision—because it just makes sense.
We have black history month. We have women’s history month. Both fall within the normal school year—February and March, respectively—and provide an opportunity to learn about the history of cultures with which not all students may be familiar.
LGBTQ Pride month is in June, when most students are out of class for the summer and learning about their local LGBTQ communities through Pride events. I’m by no means knocking Pride, but learning about the historical contributions of LGBTQs would be well-served with some kind of official curriculum.
Not surprisingly, conservative talking heads have expressed shock and disgust at the idea of teaching our younger generations that LGBTQ people have actually contributed to, well, anything. Some on the right have also accused academia of trying to “normalize homosexuality.”
Well, duh. Isn’t that the whole point? African-American history, Asian-American History, Hispanic history —all of these focuses give students a chance to see a culture with which they may not be familiar in a different and relatable light. Why would it be so bad to do the same for LGBTQs?
Humans learn from our history, or at least we hope to. Presenting LGBTQ history gives students an opportunity to understand the extreme discrimination and successes LGBTQs have experienced.
And there is plenty of history to study—more than enough to fulfill curriculum requirements and showcase the contributions of LGBTQ people going as far back as ancient times.
When I first came out I had never heard of the Stonewall Riots. I didn’t know why a rainbow flag was a thing and I certainly didn’t know that LGBT people were just like so many other people I knew. Gay people were only on Pride floats or dancing on boxes in my mind. No one told me that they were authors, farmers, politicians or even actors.
Education comes in all forms. I’m old enough to remember the drama surrounding Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out in the 1990s. That classic moment fueled a conversation and eventually led to other LGBT programming, such as “Will & Grace” and “Queer As Folk.” While those were helpful and remain iconic, it still didn’t make LGBT culture totally relatable for everyone. Even though the characters were familiar, they were still characters—personalities made up in the writers’ room.
Seeing the direct impact that LGBT people have had on society gives a whole new perspective to the conversation. As a young gay man, I can only imagine what impact learning that gay and lesbian couples existed in ancient Egypt or ancient Greece would have had. I do know I would have learned I wasn’t the first boy to ever have the feelings I had.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that LGBTs were targeted in the Holocaust alongside the Jews. Why wasn’t that ever mentioned in previous courses? I remember studying the Holocaust many times throughout my middle school and high school years but the inverted pink triangle was rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, playwright Oscar Wilde and writer Gertrude Stein were all part of the LGBT community and are now seen as classic historical figures. A nod to their sexuality wouldn’t hurt anyone and would show young LGBTs that greatness can be achieved by anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. My hope is that most students today would give an indifferent shrug to learning about the sexuality of a historical figure and argue that sexuality or gender identity is only part of a whole.
There’s also Margaret Mead, Marlene Dietrich, Langston Hughes, Harvey Milk…the list can go on-and-on. LGBTQs are everywhere today and it is obvious we were everywhere in our shared past.
Some of those opposed to an LGBTQ history curriculum have written that putting a spotlight on LGBTQ history is a way of recruiting or pushing an agenda. I half agree with that statement. Recruitment? No. But if the agenda is providing a way to more fully understand the LGBTQ community and push for equality and respect, then yes, there is an agenda here.
My hope is that more states follow the lead of California and Illinois, and teachers who are afraid to teach this because of religious beliefs are only doing a disservice to their profession and their students.
History, as they say, isn’t always pretty. It’s also not only white, black, straight or LGBTQ.