California teachers have a rough road ahead. Mandated by new laws to teach about LGBT people in history classes, teachers are uncertain about how to plug the new information into tight curriculum. And they have to do it by January. I sympathize with them. From a gay teacher perspective, let me tell you what I would do.
The problems at the outset:
1. Teach the teachers. Just as teachers were taught history, literature, math, etc., asking them suddenly to know things they were never taught in schools is asking a lot. My first step if I were a principal of a school is to have a Teacher-Training day where you bring in an expert on LGBT history or LGBT information in general. Even us gays don’t know our history well–because it’s been hidden. But teaching the teachers about our history is the most important first step. Until THEY see how prominent gay and lesbians have been in history, they won’t be able to teach it.
A good start is Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, which addresses everything from pre-first contact with North America, on through the history of the US. It just gives a few brushstrokes of color to a queer history that had been erased.
2. Awkward to talk about heterosexual and homosexual people in history class. I rarely had a history course where ANYTHING was known about sexual orientation. No one talked about historical figures dating, or marrying. Most of the founding fathers, as far as we knew, were single and devoted to politics… no one bothered talking about who they slept with, because, frankly, it didn’t matter. Will teachers be required to emphasize that George Washington was “straight” or that he had a wife? I don’t know, but it’s awkward to just label people’s sexual orientation.
3. Time. I can’t imagine that a comprehensive curriculum will be developed for you that will include all of California and US history with its gay members polished up and shiny by January. Don’t worry right now about having to plug a litte bit of gay in every history lesson. No gay person expects that all will be suddenly be apparent–that every gay will be uncovered.
4. The importance of teaching it. The best quote I ever read about the importance of teaching LGBT history in schools was this one:
“Within the typical secondary school curriculum, homosexuals do not exist. They are ‘nonpersons’ in the finest Stalinist sense. They have fought no battles, held no offices, explored nowhere, written no literature, built nothing, invented nothing and solved no equations. The lesson to the heterosexual student is abundantly clear: homosexuals do nothing of consequence. To the homosexual student, the message has even greater power: no one who has ever felt as you do has done anything worth mentioning.” -Gerald Unks, editor, The Gay Teen, p. 5.
It’s for this reason, that I think just putting a little LGBT into your curriculum is worth so much.
Because it’s an easy framework, and not a heavy re-writing of current curriculum, I’m going to suggest Hidden Histories as a way to bridge the interim until you get more curriculum.
1. Start off with a few weeks of curriculum that outlines hidden histories–the ways history has been written to emphasize certain races, beliefs, peoples over others—and how we are just now uncovering lots of hidden histories. Talk about the black experience, the Hispanic experience, immigrant experience, women’s experience, Asian experience, the Jewish experience, and the gay experience—map out a few days of WHY their histories might have been submerged in the histories of others. Put it in context that the gay history is just the latest of hidden histories that need to be revealed.
2. In the gay experience section, give a broad overview with good details of some of the hidden folks that you never knew were LGBT: a list can be found here. Check that peope you use are actually LGBT; I give that site as a place to start. Talk about their accomplishments—and be as positive about them as you would be towards the uncovered black, women’s, Asian, hispanic, immigrant or Jewish histories. Three days discussing is not a lot, but is more than I ever had in my curriculum.
3. Build a Bulletin Board with a theme of a Mystery…. Hidden Histories could be designed to create a whole bulletin board of things that were left out of history—things the students themselves find, and things you add. As the year progresses, you will add things to the bulletin board. Some of those things might be gay people.
4. Now that you’ve set the tone of Hidden Histories–invite students themselves to become researchers uncovering the hidden sections of history that you will be covering. It doesn’t have to all fall to you to be the expert here. Let them uncover what they want about these figures and these events. Emphasize that there’s been a cover-up–and that parts of history are unknown to the regular school curriculum. And that you, and them, will seek to find out what’s missing. If a student wants to find out which historical figures were gay, they can pursue that. They can then add that to the bulletin board if they want. But you have already put some of them up there. And other students can find other hidden little-known facts of history and put them on the board.
5. What you end up with is a bulletin board of mysteries–of things you are solving as a class to uncover the Hidden Histories of California and the United States, and the World.
If I had just SEEN gays even mentioned in history, I would have known that we were not horrible, sinful, perverts whose tendencies stopped them from ever doing anything worthwhile. When schools don’t cover the positive side of gays, the history is left for religious groups to define. Since most children are exposed to religion early (and most of it is currently not gay-positive), and LGBT-positive stuff so late, the damage towards LGBT people is enormous. Sometimes gays are poisoned against themselves for 18 years before they hear anything positive about gay people. I encourage you to be the difference.
Hidden Histories provides a curriculum that puts the LGBT experience alongside others in the American experience, or in a World Experience, and so you are not left to come up with naming every gay person in every historical situation. LGBT experience isn’t ghettoized. It also isn’t emphasized over other groups that have been just as hidden. I imagine that not hearing in the 50s and 60s about what Blacks had accomplished in history had a detrimental effect on black communities–and the lack of women’s history devastating to young women. Gay history is almost completely unknown, or obscurely written down. It’s just coming to the surface because being gay isn’t something you can see in a picture–like all the other hidden histories.
Turning your classroom into a detective agency uncovering Hidden Histories is a good, positive, solid first step in implementing gay-positive historical curriculum. It’s also EASY. It doesn’t involve radically changing the curriculum you have right now. It just employs a framework that will bring out the LGBT parts of history alongside other groups, making both you and your students fellow researchers.
Some basic ideas for other classes and curriculums:
Literature will be easy. As I said in my post, I could teach a whole year of literature with just LGBT writers and hit most of the major American writers.
Elementary students only need what the article in the LA Times mentioned: an understanding of diverse families, anti-bullying information, a breakdown of gender stereotypes.
Gay kids also need to be praised for the things they enjoy doing—boys who excel in art, music, theatre, writing shouldn’t be made to feel inferior to boys who excel in sports. Girls who excel in sports, automechanics, woodwork should not be made to feel inferior to girls who excel in art, music, theatre and cheerleading. Just overall praise for what students are doing well.
Examples: Just as I noticed that women were finally used equally as examples in writing, math, English, science class for on the board exercises and in tests, a similar recognition for examples that involve human relationships might include two people of the same sex. Instead of always “John wants to ask his girlfriend for a date. He has fifteen dollars…” why not, occasionally, “John wants to ask his boyfriend for a date. He has fifteen dollars….”
Health and Human Relationships: make sure the health and human relationship classes (formerly sex-ed, Health, etc.) include LGBT orientation as normative, and positive. You may have to fight for this one–but you can’t have Walt Whitman mentioned in class and his sexual orientation called sinful, abnormal, or not mentioned in a health or sex-ed class.
All the Other Stuff that Counts as much as Curricula: All teaching doesn’t happen in the classroom. A lot of what a school puts in its newspaper, models in its hallways, in its relationships betweeen teachers, between students, tell gay kids that they are accepted too. We don’t have to just hear facts about gay people—we also would love to see gay teachers, articles that mention other gay students, relationship advice that includes gay students. A Gay-Straight alliance on school grounds (this should be in every school right now); positive LGBT stuff in the counseling office (posters, brochures, etc.); gay parents helping out at school functions.
Hidden Histories, as a curriculum for California schools, could be a way for students to engage history in a new way; it’s also a way to affirm gay people in your classroom by saying that they did count, they do make contributions to society; the rest of my advice is about forming a positive place for gay students which is the HEART of the new law. The new law isn’t about getting everything right historically—it’s about making sure gays don’t disappear from history, or from life.
If you use this curriculum, all I’m asking in return is to be mentioned as the source of your curriculum. My name is Jerome Stueart and I’m a gay educator living in the Yukon Territory. (And hey, I was born in San Diego!)