Larah Helayne of Mount Sterling, Ky., always knew she was attracted to women, but she planned to become a nun until about a year ago. Falling in love changed her plans. She didn’t know much about LGBTQ history — mostly just what she’d learned about the HIV/AIDS crisis from Rent and The Normal Heart — but it didn’t take long to realize that the past could help her understand her own experiences.
While driving to see her then-girlfriend, she heard an episode of the podcast Making Gay History about Jean O’Leary, a former nun who organized the first meeting of lesbian and gay-rights activists at the White House on March 26, 1977, and co-founded National Coming Out Day, first marked in 1988.
After listening to that episode, Helayne, 18, began to come out to friends, family and classmates. As she opened up, others opened up to her in turn, sharing their own stories of their genders and sexualities — and she saw that her own realization about history could help them too. Soon, Helayne started an LGBTQ affinity group at Montgomery County High School.
“I just realized that all of these people who came before me didn’t fight so I could hate myself and so I could just hide,” she says. “It helped give me the courage to come out publicly. I realized how much history there was that was being kept from me and from everyone.”
Helayne is one of countless American students and teachers searching for material on the historical roles of people with diverse gender and sexual identities. And increasingly, that material is moving into the classroom, with five states having announced in 2019 that LGBTQ history must be taught in public schools. California became the first state to require schools to teach LGBTQ history in 2011, with the first K-8 textbooks approved to meet new state standards emerging six years later. Even so, mechanisms for enforcement, funding and teacher training are often unclear.
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