The history of LGBTQ people isn’t being taught in our schools

Understanding LGBTQ history beyond Harvey Milk and Stonewall.

Eleanor Roosevelt at Democratic National Convention in 1940. CREDIT: AP
Eleanor Roosevelt at Democratic National Convention in 1940. CREDIT: AP

“Everyone in the world needs to know about this. This can change the world,” a 12th grade student named Mohammad told his social studies teacher at the time, Deb Fowler.

Mohammad shared these thoughts after Fowler’s LGBTQ-inclusive history lesson during the 2014-2015 school year, but she learned later that the class continued to shape his perspective on the LGBTQ community. She said a couple years after he went to college, she caught up with Mohammad and he shared a story with her. He told her that he had two close male friends and that one of the men came out as gay.

“The third young man completely disassociated from the friend who came out as gay,” Fowler said. “Mohammad said to me that because of what he had learned in our class, he could understand his friend better and that they became even closer. That is the point of this. It’s to create better connections between friends and safer schools and communities.”

History teachers, advocates, and academics agree that very few students are exposed to historical events about LGBTQ people and the struggle for LGBTQ rights beyond Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, and the Stonewall riots. Nicholas Ferroni, a 10th grade social studies teacher at Union High School in Union, New Jersey, said he sees evidence of this in his classes all the time.

“I had a student literally say to me, ‘I thought gay people just showed up in the ‘70s.’ Because our history books kind of dictate that,” Ferroni said.

But teachers, state governments, and nonprofits are trying to expand that knowledge. Teachers want to expand their history lessons to earlier periods in U.S. history, sometimes as early as when European settlers first arrived and brought their very specific ideas about gender roles with them, and ensure that English, art, and music classes acknowledge the accomplishments of LGBTQ people.

When students in the LGBTQ community learn about their history, they feel more included and accepted at their school and the world at large. But straight students also benefit by learning about the accomplishments and struggles of the LGBTQ community and often become better allies as a result.

Some of these lesser known figures include Baron Von Steuben, a gay man who served in the Prussian army and left Europe after he was dogged with accusations about his relationships with men. He played a pivotal role in the American revolution by teaching soldiers how to fight, such as how to attack in formation and use bayonets. An evangelist known as Publick Universal Friend, once known as Jemima Wilkinson, claimed to be a prophet. After becoming ill with Typhoid in 1775 and recovering, the person said they were neither male or female and refused to go by their birth name or use he or she pronouns. And of course, there are famous historical figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and George Washington, whose sexualities are often surrounded with speculation.

How teachers and LGBTQ education advocates are paving the way for an inclusive history

One major step forward for LGBTQ history has been California’s FAIR Education Act, which requires teacher to include the political, social, and economic contributions of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities into social studies curricula in the state’s public schools. The bill passed in 2011, but the California State Board of Education only voted to implement the law and adopt a framework that would be inclusive last year. It was implemented this year. That slow and frustrating pace is partly responsible for inspiring Deb Fowler and Miriam Morgenstern to leave their teaching jobs and start their nonprofit organization, History UnErased, to give teachers the resources and professional development to teach an LGBTQ-inclusive class.

“Looking at what is happening in California in response to the FAIR Education Act, we knew that we had to extricate ourselves from the glacial pace of bureaucracy and put ourselves in a position to allow for a real grassroots movement to do this work,” Fowler said. “… We were in contact with many educators from across the country, who want to do this but did not have access to the resources or the training.”

Their organization provides “academic inquiry units” that include interactive games and independent project ideas. One of their units includes access points for LGBTQ-inclusive history such as background information, primary sources to use, and suggested topics to explore further. The group focuses on education from kindergarten all the way to community college. The founders say that community colleges are particularly hungry for this content. But beyond the actual historical content and ideas for projects, teachers need to know how to present that information and start discussions, Morgenstern said.

“Even when teachers know something, they don’t always know how to present it to their students, because this is a complicated topic,” she said. “I think teachers and sometimes communities are concerned about the right way to introduce this. For us, good pedagogy is as important as the content.”

History UnErased suggests teachers present an inquiry, facilitate students’ exploration of the topic, challenge students by looking at students’ assumptions, and ask questions that require them to support their ideas with evidence and research.

It doesn’t serve teachers to put LGBTQ rights in a silo, either, scholars and teachers say. Michael Bronski, professor of practice in media and activism at Harvard University, made sure his 2011 book, A Queer History of the United States, addressed the ways in which the institution of slavery, colonialism, and the beginnings of what was considered American culture and the idea of the all-American man and woman affected LGBTQ history. 

“What are the paradigms of how we think about oppression and how do they function for better or for worse in American society? Clearly slavery had the most profound effect on our culture in terms of how we think about groups and assimilation and access and citizenship,” Bronski said. “Everything is connected somehow, and the intriguing and important and, I think, vital task is to find out how those connections work and why those connections matter.”

Bronski added that it’s about more than simply pointing out that figures such as Wilkinson and Charlotte Cushman, a famous 19th century actor whose relationships with women were not a secret, existed and accomplished things. He also wants to point out how the person’s being queer or trans affected their lives and sometimes allowed them to do things other people couldn’t. Bronski gave the example of wealthy women who did social work and participated in many same-sex relationships.

“The point for me is not that they may have been lesbians, and I mean they were, but the point for me is what about that relationship allowed them to do this good work,” he said. “If in fact, lesbians were not married to men who expected them to stay at home and cook for them, they could actually go out into the world and do things.”

Ferroni said he often has to remind straight students that LGBTQ history is relevant to everyone and that resistance to these stories reflects the fact that dominant social groups control the people and stories about which students are accustomed to learning.

I used to joke with my students, but in a very serious way, that I teach white history to minority students and I teach male history to girls and I teach straight history to LGBTQ kids,” Ferroni said. “Because those are the people who decide what goes into most school textbooks. And I always believed and I believe it more now that we indirectly teach sexism, racism, and discrimination because we give the impression that one group did everything and that the other groups were basically side notes and contributed very little.”

Ferroni said he looks to organizations such as the Gay Straight Lesbian Education Network and Gay Straight Alliance for resources on LGBTQ history, as well as Bronski’s book. Ferroni said his students have been appreciative of his inclusion of LGBTQ history.

“I have students who come out to me every year and students who thank me every year [thanks to LGBTQ-inclusive lessons],” Ferroni said. “I have adults who thank me because they wish their teachers would have been more outspoken in the classroom.”

The challenges to teaching LGBTQ history

Parents are still very sensitive to the idea of bringing LGBTQ subjects into the classroom. In 2015, a North Carolina elementary teacher, Omar Currie, resigned after parents protested his decision to read children a fairy tale about a prince who falls in love with another prince. Last year, parents and conservative media outlets expressed their ire after Washington state released learning standards for health and physical education, which included gender expression and identity. Conservatives have even railed against pro-LGBTQ messages outside of the classroom. In Winchester, Tennessee, parents and community members protested a high school’s new Gay Straight Alliance, a student organization that encourages LGBTQ students and straight, cisgender allies to improve school climates for LGBTQ people.

Fowler and Morgenstern said they haven’t received many complaints from parents, and which they say has something to do with the methods they advocate for. They make sure everything teachers present is well-documented and that students are challenged but not dictated to.

“What we do is ground our work in primary sources and because of that we think we avoid some of that controversy or what people determine is controversial,” Morgenstern said. “We’re not telling students what to think. We’re allowing them to look at history, to look at events, and then make decisions for themselves.”

Ferroni said he has listened to Christian parents complain that the inclusion of LGBTQ people in history goes against their religious beliefs. He always points out that parents can’t pick and choose whose lives their children learn about.

“A lot of people use their religion to cover up their bigotry and their prejudice,” Ferroni said. “You can’t say we can’t talk about LGBTQ historical figures for religious reasons and then accept that the [textbook] is made up of murderers, adulterers, and brutes. So to me, you can’t be selectively religious. Either it’s all OK or none of it is OK.” 

Another challenge to teaching queer history is the predominant idea that all same-sex relationships must be proven but that relationships between men and women are assumed to be real. There is often a higher bar for scholars and teachers to prove that historical figures were indeed queer. Bronski opposes what he calls a double-standard for proving relationships between historical figures were real. If the language for a love letter is similar to the love letters of the period, why not call it a love letter?

“I would argue you just get rid of the double standard. If it works for straight people, it works for gay people,” Bronski said.

He gave the example of the different ways people interpret letters between people of the different genders and people of the same gender.

“We have these incredible letters between Dwight Eisenhower and Kate Summersby, who he had an affair with,” Bronski said. “And they never say [anything about] sex, but they are clearly love letters between them, and no one has ever contested that they were just good friends. So I would say if we have similar letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Renee Hickok, why not presume that they are lovers?”

It’s vital for LGBTQ students to see these representations of themselves in the classroom, educators say, whether it’s someone who challenges the gender binary or an influential military leader who had relationships with men. But straight students benefit too, Ferroni said.

“I’m not only doing it for LGBTQ students but for straight students, to let them know that it’s OK to support these causes,” Ferroni said. “I’ve had more straight students open their mind and talk to me after school and say, ‘I never realized it was like that,’ or ‘I never realized LGBTQ people contributed that much.'”