In the musical “Hamilton,” my former sixth-grade student Lin Manuel Miranda muses, “Who tells your story?”
His words are significant and meaningful to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) individuals, whose health and wellbeing are dependent on living our lives and telling our stories openly and without judgment. For too long, the majority has silenced or marginalized our stories, negating our role in history and perpetuating the stigma that undermines the physical, emotional, and social health of the LGBTQ population.
Stigma prevents LGBTQ people from seeking healthcare, even when they are in need of services. For decades, we have known that discrimination and homophobia lead to poor mental health, including heightened suicidal ideation, greater reliance on avoidant coping strategies, heightened alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, as well and more pronounced risky sexual behaviors. Conversely, research has documented improvements in LGBTQ health when laws are enacted that bestow LGBTQ individuals these same rights as their heterosexual peers.
Recently, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took an important first step in guaranteeing the LGBTQ narrative is told by signing a law requiring public school students be taught the societal contributions of notable LGBTQ people throughout history, making it the second state in the nation after California to legislate such a curriculum. Other states should follow suit since LGBTQ history is history.
Because of Gov. Murphy’s initiative, New Jersey students we will be able to learn about and honor our LGBTQ heroes and their accomplishments, including the father of the modern computer, British mathematician Alan Turing; tennis great Billy Jean King, who equalized the playing field for women in the sport; and James Baldwin, a black gay man whose brilliant writing gave voice to the African American experience. By including LGBTQ history as part of the history we teach to the children of New Jersey, we will also bring to light the wrongs faced by so many LGBTQ people who have been forced to remain in the closet and hide their identities at the cost of their own health, such as was the case with Turing, who was subjected to chemical castration because of his sexual identity. Perhaps with these lessons, we will avoid making the mistakes of the past.
This is not the first time New Jersey has sought to affect change for underserved and marginalized groups. In the 1960s, it was one of the first states to require Black history to be taught in public schools. New Jersey’s legislation, while not perfect, makes strides toward destigmatizing LGBTQ people and honoring their lives. It has the potential of improving the health and wellbeing of the population, something my own research has studied and fought for nearly two decades.
Members of the LGBTQ community are often victims of vitriol and violence at the hands of perpetrators who have deep-seated hatred toward this segment of the population they don’t know and don’t understand, which is the direct result of societal stigmatization of the LGBTQ community. Since 2017, under the Trump administration, LGBTQ hate crimes have been on the rise—after reaching an all-time low in the Obama administration.
It is within this climate that President Trump has stated he plans to end the HIV epidemic in the United States. While a noble and lofty aspiration, HIV—a disease that disproportionately affects gay men and trans women—is not simply a biologically produced disease. It is an epidemic driven by societal stigma, poverty, racial discrimination, and homophobia. Under the Trump administration, these social conditions have heightened with their attacks on people of color, immigrants, the poor, women, and the LGBTQ population.
Gov. Murphy’s legislation may have a more powerful effect on curbing the epidemic by normalizing and celebrating the lives of LGBTQ people. Stigma has been shown to be a driver of HIV and reducing it through initiatives such as LGBTQ-inclusive curricula is a significant step in ending AIDS.
Other states should follow the leads of New Jersey and California, which was the first to enact such legislation, to make LGBTQ history a standard part of their public school curriculum to ensure the stories and contributions of LGBTQ individuals are heard. Such storytelling can inform the ignorant and perhaps dampen the hate and stigma that undermine the individual and collective health of this population.
If the sharing of our experiences is undertaken thoughtfully and honestly throughout the nation the health of LGBTQ people and of our population will undoubtedly improve. Our stories also will reveal the social and emotional paths that we as LGBTQ people have taken, the challenges we have faced at the hands of an often-hateful majority, and how, despite these conditions, we have shown resilience while contributing to the building of American society.
Related Video: How will LGBT history be taught in New Jersey’s schools? (NJTV News)
We celebrate the full expression of gender and sexuality all year long. But for Pride Month, it will be front and center. #LoveEqually
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