Published May 13, 2022
To simplify the many complexities of our world, humans naturally reach for labels. We use them to categorize others and describe ourselves. But labels evolve over time: some fall out of favor, others are redefined, and new ones are introduced. In this episode, you will meet Stephen Guerriero, a veteran middle school social studies educator, who will take us back to ancient times to help demystify labels and shed new light on sexual orientation and gender identity.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
To simplify the many complexities of our world, humans naturally reach for labels. We use them to categorize others and describe ourselves. But labels evolve over time: some fall out of favor, others are redefined, new ones are introduced. In recent years, that’s been especially pronounced when it comes to identity labels related to sexual orientation and gender identity. And keeping track of the growing LGBTQ+ glossary can be challenging.
Many teachers worry about keeping up or making mistakes. To help demystify labels and put them into perspective, I recently spoke with Stephen Guerriero. Stephen has 20 years’ experience as a middle school social studies educator and teaches ancient Greek and Roman world history.
Have a listen.
Deb Fowler: Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me.
Stephen Guerriero: Hi, Deb. Thanks for having me. I’m really happy to be here.
DF: Steven, labels have benefits and downsides. They present limitations and opportunities. When it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, why do labels matter?
SG: Generally, what the labels try to get at is that they try to give a voice to a specific kind of identity that has previously been marginalized.
You know, you think of the time of Oscar Wilde and he used the term “the love that dare not speak its name,” and literally he meant that. Like, you could not speak about it publicly—um, about gay relationships. And this “love that dare not speak its name” meant that these people had no distinct identity.
Then, when we get into the early pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, having labels was important as part of an attempt to, to make real, this kind of identity, because gay, lesbian, queer people had been, um, erased. If something has a name, it makes it real.
What people now try to do is try to figure out what’s the best way to have words that are both inclusive but also individualistic that can speak to a certain person’s lived experience.
DF: Oh, and that’s such a delicate titration, trying to be inclusive without too much specificity.
DF: But given that there is so much specificity, it seems now—you know, we have the ever-growing, uh, LGBT to LGBTQ to LGBTQ+, LGBTQ2IAA, which can be really daunting... Um, oftentimes it’s met with confusion and even derision... What do you make of that?
SG: Yeah, I don’t want to date myself, but I, I kind of get it, you know. It’s definitely in a lot of ways a generational thing. It’s also a result of the growing kind of awareness and outspokenness of all different kinds of people that might have previously been quieter or didn’t have the vocabulary to express their complex identity in the way that they can now.
When I see the LGBTQ, like, initials growing or people are using, um, you know, “nonbinary” or “gender nonconforming,” those to me are new terminology that I need to, um, be a little bit more comfortable with after I first hear them, and I think that’s okay.
You know, we’re all very complex folks, and we’re all trying to figure out this world and who we are, and the labels are tools to kind of help you express to other people how you feel and who you are.
My, what I keep in front of mind, especially as a teacher, is I don’t let the labels dictate my attitude to the person.
DF: Stephen, a lot of teachers express worry about making mistakes, of causing offense, of unintentionally doing harm. What would you tell them?
SG: I think the first thing is don’t make assumptions. We have lots of discussion around labels, especially in terms of gender identification, um, that leads to a hyper-awareness and a heightened worry about getting things wrong that may lead us to make assumptions about the students’ either sexual orientation or gender identity. So you want to try to resist that. If a male student shows up wearing traditionally female article of clothing, you don’t want to make the leap and say, oh, this person’s transgender.
A student may dress in a certain way, that doesn’t mean, for example, they’re nonbinary or that their pronouns are different from something they may have told you before. As a teacher, you want the student to teach you. Because they are the expert on themselves. I, I would say, you want to start by saying, “Listen, I want to understand and get this right.” That’s huge.
SG: For instance, you know, some teachers like to give out a private questionnaire asking students, for example, if they have pronouns they like to use. First of all, you’re, you’re signaling to them that this is a safe place where we take into account all different kinds of people. And the second thing is you’re giving them an opportunity to tell you information they want you to have.
And so that also goes for, like—and I do this with my own students—you know, I have the name that comes through on my, uh, roster from the office, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what a student wants to be called. And so I give students an opportunity—what do you want me to call you, what’s the name that you prefer that I call you?
Of course, for middle and high school teachers, the big thing to keep in mind is these are teenagers. So they might not have all the answers. That student that shows up in an article of clothing that is not traditional to their gender, they might be just trying that out. They are seeing how they feel. They’re seeing what kinds of reactions they get. And it doesn’t mean that they’re trying to tell you that they are trans or that they are gay.
Your role is to create a space that makes it safe for them to try and figure that out that’s based on, uh, respect, uh, and openness.
DF: That’s so true.
SG: Of course, when I’m talking about kids trying things out, I’m not implying that students who do identify as trans are just trying something out. That’s something different.
I’m referring to the fact that a hyper-awareness of gender identity labels can cause us to lose sight of the fact that teenagers by definition are seeking, testing the grownups around them by pushing boundaries.
And so, um, that’s one of those fun things that we can see actively in our classrooms and we can easily tie it back to history. So, you know, you think about even a hundred years ago, it was almost unheard of for, like, women to wear pants. Um, but then you think of Celtic cultures and men are wearing kilts.
When I talk about the ancient Egyptians to my students, I tell them, the height of Egyptian manliness was wearing a wig, all kinds of eye makeup, and a kilt. Uh, wearing perfume and jewelry, that was seen as the highest status person.
DF: Yeah. So it’s, modern-day perceptions of gender norms and dress and clothing really turns on its head when we look back in time.
SG: Yes, yeah. The ancient Greeks who used to wear tunics, they would make fun of the Persians for wearing pants. They thought men wearing pants was the most ridiculous thing they ever saw.
And think to like Louis XIV, the most powerful man in Europe of the late 17th century. And you see images of him and he’s in these flowing robes and he’s got this big fancy pompadour wig. And, in fact, high-heel shoes were invented for the men of the French court. And that was seen as, like, the height of male attractiveness.
Of course, clothing’s only a small marker. It doesn’t encompass the entire complexity of what it is to be an individual. So what we as teachers can also teach our students is that ideas about what’s normal, ideas about, uh, expectations of men or women, or of just people in general, those are artificial. They are culturally determined.
I can go back, you know, a few thousand years and think, um, we know gay, lesbian, queer people existed, but ancient people were less interested in giving someone a definite label. They would talk about behaviors, not about identity, and they would be much more fluid and not defined by a single behavior or a single relationship or a single way of dressing.
That’s the kind of thing that we see now. Young people are much less interested in holding onto kind of this very binary set of descriptions that now might be a lot more complex.
DF: But what’s so cool is that young people today, in, in their efforts to refuse to be pinned down by any one label, they are connecting to the sophistication of the idea of fluidity from ancient civilizations.
SG: Yes. Yes, definitely. And so when we see kids who are kind of using different labels or exploring different aspects of their identity, it’s not really something that new. People have been doing that for a very long time.
DF: So thinking about ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, et cetera, why do you think it’s important to bring examples like this to students’ attention?
SG: The reason that I talk about these kinds of gender norms that were different in ancient times, or that we know that ancient Greeks and Romans had relationships in all the different ways that we have them now—what’s so important, especially for LGBTQ folks, is to know that there has been a purposeful erasure of representation in the way that history is written. And it had to do with morality and judgments and just kind of this, uh, attempt to tamp down anyone who wasn’t conforming.
And when you don’t see yourself reflected in the curriculum that you’re learning about, it gives you the false impression that you are alone, that you are the only one who feels like this and that you are the only one who has ever felt like this. And what’s so powerful, when you are marginalized and you are not sure about yourself, is knowing that LGBTQ people in the way that we think of them have always been part of every society, whether it’s, um, a third gender in India, two spirits in Native American culture, uh, the poet Sappho who wrote love poetry in ancient Greek to other women. You know, these folks were there, they were real. And in a lot of ways they were like us.
And I think that’s probably one of the most powerful lessons you can get in a classroom is that, you know, people have walked this path before and they have so much to teach you.
DF: Beautifully stated, Stephen. Do you have any final words of advice as teachers are navigating this terrain?
SG: I would say teachers sometimes forget just how powerful we are in a classroom. And so when we talk about labels and we talk about pronouns and, you know, LGBTQ… Don’t worry so much about the labels, worry about the student. In many ways, let them tell you. And by the way, it might not be the kids that you think are listening and watching, and it might not be the kids that you think are gay or nonbinary or transgender. It may be that those kids are still so unsure they’re just hoping they could blend into the background. And I know that was my own experience. I was extremely closeted in high school, but I was taking everything in. And so, um, just always hold the tremendous responsibility you have. Don’t get wrapped up in labels, always focus on the student. That’s what matters.
DF: Thank you so much, Stephen.
SG: Ah, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
DF: Stephen Guerriero is a veteran middle school educator with 20 years experience teaching ancient Greek and Roman world history. He is also a member of the Educator Advisory Board of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by me, Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; and Eric Marcus.
The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.