On Columbus Day weekend in 1987, I ventured to Washington, D.C. for an event that would forever change my life: the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. My friends and I joined 200,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from across the country in a bold public display that altered the course of history.
We marched to demand help for our brothers and sisters dying of AIDS. We marched to protest the Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding the criminalization of physical intimacy between consenting adults in their own home. We marched to demand protection of LGBT people from discrimination at work. We marched to be treated like human beings.
One outcome of the march is that thousands of people—including me—returned home with the courage to come out to their families, friends and colleagues. As a result, October 11 is now celebrated as National Coming Out Day. And the month of October is now designated LGBT History Month.
We didn’t think of ourselves as heroic or know that we were making history. In fact, many of us were scared that we’d be arrested in front of the White House or outed to our unsuspecting friends and colleagues. Yet somehow, the circumstances were so dire that thousands of ordinary people were willing to take the risk.
That’s the funny thing about history. We tend to think of it as momentous events (battles, speeches, Supreme Court decisions, etc.) made by heroic figures. Certainly those events and people are important. But history is more complex. It is the sum of thousands of individual actions taken by ordinary people that ultimately leads to change.
How Should Educators Approach LGBT History Month?
In a perfect world, LGBT history would be considered just regular history. It would be included in curricula and state tests across the country. In the real world, states that are still debating the need to teach evolution are unlikely to make such progressive curricular changes. So how should educators approach LGBT History Month?
We could take the traditional momentous-events-and-heroic-gay-figures approach. A quick Google search would provide myriad options. Math teachers could share the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped break the Enigma Code and was later arrested for being homosexual. Science teachers could speak about Sally Ride, the first female astronaut who had a female partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years. English teachers could highlight authors like James Baldwin or Rita Mae Brown; students would enjoy reading their works.
History teachers could mention Bayard Rustin, the man who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Likewise they could include a brief lesson on Tammy Baldwin, the first openly-lesbian person elected to the U.S. Senate, or Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay person elected in California.
Physical education teachers might include a discussion about the effect openly-gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Michael Sam have had on our culture. Music teachers could introduce their students to the work of Billy Tipton, a famous transgender jazz musician. Health teachers could create a lively lesson on the concept of gender by talking about Renee Richards, the transgender tennis player who came out in 1975, or Ru Paul, the television host who brought drag culture to the masses.
For queer students these lessons would offer visibility and hope. For all students, these lessons would offer a broader understanding of our world.
Another possibility would be to use LGBT History month as a way to observe history in the making. While great strides have been made in the last decade for LGBT rights, clearly the fight for acceptance is not over. The news is filled with stories of transgender bathroom bills and merchants wishing to deny service to gay people based on religious freedom. Which means history is being made right now. And the opportunity to study today’s historymakers would be relevant and exciting to our students.
Teachers could ask students to research or interview a local same-sex couple that got married when the law changed allowing them to do so. Likewise, teachers could come up with a lesson about a local gay couple that decided to have children (biological or adopted) before same-sex marriage was legal. Teachers could ask students from a high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) to speak to their classes about the struggles of queer youth.
Teachers could bring in parents from a local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) group to discuss their contributions to the fight for LGBT rights. Teachers could ask a local cleric to speak about the history of LGBT rights in their faith tradition. Teachers could even find an openly-gay educator in the area to speak about the challenges of coming out in the classroom. The possibilities are endless.
“History,” as Winston Churchill famously said, “is written by the victors.” Minority voices are often omitted in traditional historical texts. And minority students do not get to learn their part of the human story. LGBT History Month is an opportunity to correct this injustice.
If all educators made one small effort to include a lesson related to the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, our world would become more embracing of human differences. For thousands of queer youth, that would make school a safer place. It might even save their lives. In the end, is there any academic outcome more important than that?