In 1948, the United States Congress passed an act “for the treatment of sexual psychopaths.” That law combined with an executive order from President Eisenhower began a systematic and legal purge of gays and lesbians from government employment.
It is events like this that many people have forgotten—and it is also events like this that have been “erased from our history.” Preventing that erasure is one of many goals for teachers Deb Fowler and Miriam Morgenstern, the co-founders of History UnErased. ( HUE ). The program, currently in use in public and private schools in Massachusetts and New York, is “in response to the urgent need to present LGBTQ-inclusive history to all students as a method to address the educational disparities between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students and to mitigate the staggering statistics relating to LGBTQ youth,” Fowler told Windy City Times.
The aim of HUE is not to “out” people in the past who may have had same-sex relationships. “That is not LGBTQ history; that is gossip,” explained Fowler. “People who we label and understand today as LGBTQ have always existed; therefore, LGBTQ history has always been woven into our shared historical narrative, but until now has been invisible.” Fowler does not see a division between an exclusively LGBTQ history and a heterosexual history. Rather she has found a relationship and interconnectedness. “For LGBTQ youth, learning a more accurate and inclusive history demonstrates that they are not alone, and that others like themselves have championed for LGBTQ equal rights. For non-LGBTQ identifying students, learning the stories and history of LGBTQ people develops an appreciation of human diversity, which in turn creates safer schools and communities,” said Fowler.
Fowler and Morgenstern’s method for bringing the LGBTQ topic into the classroom has a multiple-pronged approach. There are workshops where educators are trained to bring LGBTQ history into classrooms. “We have to help them unlearn some of the prejudices or assumptions they bring into the workshop and give them the methods and strategies they can use to bring this erased history into their classrooms,” said Fowler.
HUE also provides educators with “academic inquiry kits.” The kits introduce students to an inquiry-based method of history to “broaden the context of what currently is presented in curriculum and encourage a rich exploration of historical sources. All materials are designed to be age- and grade-appropriate,” explained Fowler. “Policy change in education is important and will continue to evolve, but real change happens when teachers are empowered to make changes in their classroom practice.” In addition to these tools, HUE has begun a collaboration with the Making Gay History podcast.
Eric Marcus launched Making Gay History in 2015. “This topic has been my life’s work,” said Marcus. He began pursuing the topic of LGBTQ history while at Vassar College in 1976. The work eventually led to the book Making Gay History, and this included research with more than 300 hours of audio interviews that are now archived in the New York Public Library. “It’s that archive of interviews that I’m now mining for the Making Gay History podcast,” added Marcus.
But writing about and speaking about gay history was not easy for Marcus, who told WCT, “I had to create a timeline from scratch. Many of the people used pseudonyms during the years they were involved in the movement. If you wanted to find out about Lisa Ben today, who published the first newsletter for lesbians in 1947, you can just Google her name and you find out that her real name was Edythe Eyde. I didn’t have that option in 1988.”
Making Gay History, like HUE, is about uncovering the narrative of LGBTQ people. “So much of LGBTQ history has been hidden that unless you looked very hard you’d never know how integral our stories are to the American story,” said Marcus. “For young people today, there are lessons to be learned in how the early LGBTQ civil rights advocates achieved what they did.” History, explained Marcus, is “our story” and “gives us a sense of place.” Marcus added, “it roots us in a narrative- in a proud history. For straight people, knowing our history gives them some insight into why we are the way we are and why we have an ax to grind with all the people who have tried to bury us and continue to try to bury us.”
Given that Making Gay History has a diverse audience that includes both gay and straight youth, it is not surprising that HUE and Making Gay History began to work together. “I was introduced to History UnErased by Andrew Wallace, who was then working at StoryCorps. He thought that Debra and Miriam would be interested in knowing about my archive,” said Marcus. Fowler could not agree more: “It was kismet. We began discussing our vision of LGBTQ inclusive curriculum that incorporated Eric’s stories. When Eric told us about the archive of his oral history interviews that had been living in the library for years, we almost jumped out of our skin!”
Although HUE is currently in operation in limited jurisdictions in the East, Fowler stressed the need for parent and teacher advocates across the United States. “They bring HUE to the attention of their schools and communities and recommend HUE’s workshops and materials. We are scaling the organization and building capacity so we can reach schools across the country.” Fowler added, “we understand that this work is a long game. Policy change often occurs more rapidly than the evolution of hearts and minds.”
For both HUE and Making Gay History are bringing to mind the history of LGBTQ men and women who, whether purposely or merely by virtue of being less glamorous than other topics, has been hidden. Unerasing gay history is not about creating something new but calling to modern audiences’ and students’ attention the contributions that LGBTQ people have brought to the American story. “If teachers are not prepared, then coverage takes the place of exploration and compliance takes the place of deep learning,” said Fowler. She added, “This is a visionary approach to disrupt the cycle of bullying and harassment, advance the equitable treatment of LGBTQ people and continue the path toward lasting LGBTQ equality.”
For more information on History UnErased, visit Unerased.org . For more information and where to find the Making Gay History Podcast, visit MakingGayHistory.com, or stop by Apple or Spotify to download and listen.