LGBT History Gets Short Shrift in Schools. There’s an Effort to Change That
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.
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.
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 cross-disciplinary connections. (Sourced from History UnErased)
• 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.
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.
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.”
Vol. 37, Issue 03, Pages 1, 14-15
Published in Print: September 6, 2017, as Teachers Carve Out a Place in the Curriculum for LGBT History
Great History Curriculum (Grades 9-12)
Monday, July 24, 2017
“Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do,” proclaims the poster for the hit film Hidden Figures. From tagline to title, it’s clear that this story, about the black women who led NASA’s team of mathematicians during the “Space Race,” was previously cast in the shadows of American history. Shining a light on these hidden histories, and broadening the spectrum of inquiry into the past, is not just a winning formula at the box office. It’s also an endeavor that’s resonating in K–12 classrooms, with teachers seeking ways to provide more accurate, complex, and engaging history education.
Mirror and Magnify
Instructional specialist Aruna Arjunan has spent the last three years working with New York City public school teachers to develop a U.S. history curriculum using open educational resources, which supports teaching content and literacy skills simultaneously. Now, Arjunan and her colleagues at New Visions for Public Schools are launching a curriculum project called “Rewriting History: Expanding the Story of the United States.” Their goal is to make U.S. history more relevant to their “extraordinarily diverse” student population by finding the overlapping core in a Venn diagram of high-interest untold histories, contemporary connections, and the content commonly tested on the New York Regents Exams. Arjunan thinks this new grounding will help students better understand their world and “be more interested in a curriculum they can see themselves in.
Using historical topics as both a mirror and magnifying lens for understanding the present is an important pivot from the singular perspective, “dead white men” history lessons most of us learned. It’s a shift also reflected in policies like California’s FAIR Education Act (which mandates the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities in the state’s curriculum) and in the work of education pioneers Debra Fowler and Miriam Morganstern.
After collaborating with a student to create the film Through Gay Eyes, which spotlighted the experiences of students and staff at Lowell High School in Massachusetts, Fowler petitioned the community to include LGBTQ topics and individuals in the curriculum. The success of that petition led Fowler, joined by colleague Morganstern, to form History UnErased, an organization that prepares educators to teach about the vital role of LGBTQ history and people. “Students are surrounded by LGBTQ topics everywhere—social media, recent legislation, music—except in their classrooms,” Fowler notes. She sees a correlation between this glaring absence and the worsening statistics for LGBTQ youth homelessness, suicidality, risk behaviors, and dropout rates, despite undeniable advancements for LGBTQ equality.
Rooted in History, Rooted in School
Iowa State University education professor Katy Swalwell encourages social studies educators to pursue critical inquiry with local connections. How many Iowans, for example, know that their own Alexander Clark was an influential figure in black civil rights, effectively desegregating Iowa’s public schools nearly 90 years before Brown v. Board of Education?
“Every corner of the country has a story like that,” says Swalwell. “Any time you can connect what kids are learning to their community—that immediately hooks kids in a completely different way.” For marginalized groups, history is often about other people, happening someplace else. “It’s easier to see yourself in someone from your hometown,” explains Swalwell. “It’s less abstract and more personal.”
In Seattle, public school teacher Jon Greenberg is championing a grassroots movement to make ethnic studies part of the district’s required curriculum. Where ethnic studies has taken hold in California and in districts like Portland and Tucson (with its short-lived but acclaimed Mexican American Studies program), Greenberg points to the academic, social and emotional, and civic benefits for students of color and white students, alike. “Ethnic studies has the ability to transform our society by exposing people to multiple perspectives, an understanding of race, and white privilege.” Absent these types of inclusive, culturally responsive curricula, students of color are likely to see their ancestors represented narrowly, if at all.
Teacher Alecia Walker recalls turning to her history textbook for a lesson on Japanese internment during World War II, and found “nothing there.” Although Walker turned this into a class discussion on the absence of certain groups from history, she laments that these curricular erasures drive students in marginalized groups to disconnect from school. “There’s power in knowing your history,” says teacher Keanya Clifton-Roach who, along with Walker, founded the Education Equity Project, an organization focused on parent advocacy and teacher diversity. “For students to be engaged in school and for a fully functioning democracy, culturally responsive teaching in social studies is essential,” adds Walker.
To achieve this civic goal, educators must make professional decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. But first, they must contend with the oldest player in history: time itself.
Continue reading . . .
Rushing to Reagan
In her 20 years in the classroom, Morganstern says teaching history was “always a rush to the finish line. Am I going to get to the Vietnam War? Will we talk about Ronald Reagan?”
Even if historical content were injected into other subject areas—by manipulating data sets under a historical lens, for instance, or reading first-person accounts like the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakemen, who fought in the Civil War as a man—it would be impossible to cover every aspect of a nation’s history in a school year (or two). “How we teach history has to change,” Morganstern asserts.
Instead of a date in time, Swalwell says historical pedagogy should start with a question: “What’s the purpose of looking into the past?” Focusing on facts and trivia, without a broader sense of the systems and factors that have shaped the past, won’t prepare students for participatory citizenship, she argues. “To be able to list off all the Kings of England, in order—that’s a parlor trick, not a civic goal.”
History classes can give students a much deeper context for present-day social issues, such as Black Lives Matter, immigration, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. “You can ground discussion of these issues in history, and make the story much richer,” says Arjunan.
In an age where information is ubiquitous, Morganstern believes the history teacher’s role is more important than ever. Students can “Google what date a battle happened, or what kind of musket got used,” adds Swalwell. “You can’t really Google why problems persist and how people have grappled with similar issues, over time.”
Rather than an incomplete chronology, teachers can “curate a context for student-driven inquiry” by organizing history curriculum thematically and around big understandings, says Morganstern. Swalwell recalls observing a U.S. history survey class where the teacher divided content into overlapping units—one on the effects of industrialization over time and another on gender. “You keep layering understanding of different eras by looking at them through the lens of different social issues,” says Swalwell, noting that students were fascinated and able to connect issues along a continuum of history that included present day.
“If we just gave up on thinking coverage is a good idea, it immediately opens up all these other things you can do,” notes Anne Hyde, history professor at the University of Oklahoma. Centering social studies in a skill-based approach—teaching students to consider big ideas over time, recognize bias, and interpret sources, for example—”opens up a lot of space for including different kinds of documents and people,” says Hyde.
Start Small, Go Deep, Repeat
But how do history teachers ultimately decide who and what to include? For Arjunan and the teachers at New Visions, setting granular goals for the curriculum they’re developing has been a lifesaver. “We didn’t try to take on all of U.S. history at once.” Using the formula of high-leverage, often-tested topics, plus student interest and contemporary connections to expand the narrative of a marginalized group, Arjunan’s team landed on the Negro Motorist Green Book. These guides, created in the 1930s by Harlem postal worker Hugo Green, helped black southerners find safe travel routes in the Jim Crow era. Not only will this 11th-grade unit connect with tested topics (automobiles, industrialization, Jim Crow), it will share a slice of history that goes largely untold—the experiences of the black middle class in the 1920s–60s.
“During Jim Crow, public vehicles were very segregated, so the car was this liberating, alternative form of transportation,” Arjunan explains. “But how do you travel in a country that is as divided as the U.S. during Jim Crow? That’s not often taught.” Not to mention, she adds, those experiences are not so different from what many kids face today. They are echoed in the Trayvon Martin killing; the deep divisions in communities like Ferguson, Missouri; and even in the opening scenes from the movie Get Out.
Students can relate by talking about which neighborhoods feel safe to travel in and which don’t. This pedagogical approach puts social problems like racism on a continuum that extends beyond King’s Dream speech, and gives students a critical context for the modern world and their place in it. There are also Green guides for Jewish and LGBTQ people, so the topic has intersectional connections, as well.
Keep doing that—focusing on a marginalized group during a small slice of history and looking for topical tie-ins—and slowly but surely, you’ll have a bank of lessons. The curriculum will be constantly evolving, Arjunan adds, but there are steps to support sustainability—like using Google Drive to share and store documents and establishing guiding principles that can be passed on to new team members.
Confidence for the Long Run
Educators committed to bringing high-quality, inquiry-based, inclusive history education to the classroom will have to grapple with their own gaps in background knowledge, and build the language and confidence to teach new material. A lack of teacher diversity (according to federal data from 2011, 84 percent of social science teachers in the U.S. are white) presents one hurdle for the profession; another is lack of formal social studies training, especially at the elementary level.
As a general resource for inquiry-based social studies teaching, Swalwell recommends the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework. She also encourages elementary teachers to engage young students with primary sources, readily accessible from the digital archives of cultural institutions like the U.S. Library of Congress or the Smithsonian. “Examining photographs or letters—that’s a good training wheels approach to getting students more engaged and focused on historical inquiry.”
Zinn Education Project, History UnErased (which hosts the Making Gay History podcast), Facing History and Ourselves, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Teen Vogue’s OG History column, and countless other sites offer lessons and multimedia to help educators expand their repertoire of relevant and rigorous history curriculum. Morgenstern suggests that teachers receive training to develop the confidence to teach this content in a way that the school or the community will support.
Arjunan agrees, and that’s why New Visions will conduct a slow rollout of its Rewriting History curriculum next year in select 11th grade classrooms. “I think a lot of teachers struggle with how to bring responsive and inclusive curriculum into the classroom because they don’t have the language to talk about it—they don’t know what words are appropriate and which aren’t, and how to walk the fine line of showing multiple sides of an issue,” she says. With lots of training, feedback, and support for teachers, Arjunan hopes to reduce some of the fear associated with taking a complex and culturally responsive look at the past as a way of understanding ourselves and the present.
“The story of America isn’t finished,” says Arjunan. “You have to be able to investigate that in the classroom, while looking into the past.”
Debra Fowler, an English teacher at Lowell High School in Lowell, Mass., at the time, was hesitant to come out to her students. “For a great number of years, I believed that if my students knew I was gay, it would somehow compromise our purpose together, or make them uncomfortable,” she said.
That all changed after she set out to produce a documentary film about her school’s refugee students. In an interview with NBC Out, Fowler recalled an interaction with a student who helped work on the film, a student named Conner, who confided in her that he was tired of the prejudice against gay people.
“I said, ‘Conner, do you know I’m gay?'” Fowler recalled. The film they ended up creating was titled “Through Gay Eyes,” a film about LGBTQ students and teachers of various ages and ethnicities.
“I had the lightning bolt of realization,” Fowler said. “I had been disrespecting my students’ capacity for understanding. I had been disrespecting their needs and expectations for me to tell the truth.”
As a result of the film, Fowler was spotlighted through the school committee, and she took that opportunity to put out petitions to include LGBTQ voices and history in the school curriculum. This was the beginning of History UnErased.
Together with her business partner, Miriam Morgenstern, a social studies teacher at Lowell High School, Fowler set out to create an organization that would prepare educators to incorporate LGBTQ-inclusive history and academic content into their curricula.
“We recognize that, despite undeniable advancements, the statistics related to LGBTQ youth homelessness, suicide and drop out rates are worsening,” she said. “As a young person, I grew up with a lot of shame. I know just one lesson in elementary school or high school can help someone.”
Today, she collaborates with expert historians, archivists and organizations, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, to develop education initiatives designed to help teachers introduce LGBTQ history into their lessons.
“We know that all students, every student will benefit from a more collective historical narrative,” Fowler said.
Fun Fact: I enlisted in the Army and was a Korean linguist.
Pride Means: “Standing up for personal rights in defense and education, that’s what pride means to me today. Securing personal rights for everyone through education.”
Debra Fowler was nominated to NBC Out’s #Pride30 list by transgender model and advocate Carmen Carrera.
History Unerased aims to cast light on gay Americans in schools