LGBTQ experiences stand as integral strands in the overall multicultural rainbow. Everyone has a right to information that clarifies and explains these histories.
As the new school year begins in our nation’s elementary, middle, and high schools, and in our colleges and universities, educators and school administrators have an excellent opportunity to resurrect the lives, the stories, the histories that have long been intentionally hidden from students, from us all, by socially dominant individuals and groups through the draconian processes of neglect, deletion, erasure, omission, banning, censorship, distortion, alteration, trivialization and other means.
Because of this, as is still often the case for many other minoritized communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer (LGBTQ) young people grow up in a society without an historical context in which to project their lives. They are weaned on the notion that they have no culture and no history. And the result has been vast and devastating. In the famous words of African American social activist Marcus Garvey: “A people without a history is like a tree without roots.”
Examples of this erasure of LGBTQ history abound. Historian John Boswell cites an example of censorship in a manuscript of The Art of Love by the Roman author Ovid. A phrase that originally read, “A boy’s love appealed to me less” (Hoc est quod pueri tanger amore minus) was altered by a Medieval “moralist” to read, “A boy’s love appealed to me not at all” (Hoc est quod pueri tanger amore nihil). In addition, an editor’s note that appeared in the margin informed the reader, “Thus you may be sure that Ovid was not a sodomite” (Ex hos nota quod Ovidius non fuerit Sodomita).
One of the first instances of an unauthorized changing of pronouns signifying gender occurred when, according to Boswell: “Michelangelo’s grandnephew employed this means to render his uncle’s sonnets more acceptable to the public.”
We know about the figure of Sappho and her famed young women’s school on the Isle of Lesbos around the year 580 BCE, where we find the earliest known writings of love poems between women, and other important writings. Unfortunately, only one complete poem and a number of poem fragments survived for us today after centuries of the Catholic Church’s concerted effort to extinguish the works of these extraordinary women. An order in 380 CE of St. Gregory of Nazianzus demanded the torching of Sappho’s poetry, and the remaining manuscripts were ordered by Papal Decree in 1073 CE to be destroyed.
Radclyff Hall’s semi-autobiographical 1928 British novel, The Well of Loneliness, depicting characters coming to terms with their lesbian identities, was declared “obscene” by United States Customs officials and banned for a time in both the United States and England. It violated the British Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which stated: “The test for obscenity is this—whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”
In 1934 in the United States, motion picture producers and distributors passed the “Motion Picture Production Code,” the so-called “Hayes Code” named for Will H. Hayes—the leading advocate for its passage—prohibiting any depiction of homosexuality in film until the Code was overturned in 1968.
October each year we celebrate LGBT History Month. It originated when, in 1994, Rodney Wilson, a high school teacher in Missouri, had the idea that a month was needed dedicated to commemorate and teach this history since it has been perennially excluded in the schools. He worked with other teachers and community leaders, and they chose October since public schools are in session, and National Coming Out Day already fell on October 11 each year.
Though this may have been a good beginning, I see this as only a meager supplementary or additive measure of history that belongs to everyone regardless of sexual and gender identities and expressions. It comprises an historical cannon that must transform and infuse the curriculum, which needs to be taught and studied all year, every year, age-appropriately across the academic and non-academic disciplines pre-kindergarten through university graduate studies, from history to literature, from mathematics to natural sciences, from agriculture to consumer sciences, from the arts and humanities to engineering. Why do I feel this way?
Among the infinite number of reasons, a few years ago, the LGBTQ Student Alliance at a Boston-area university asked me to give a presentation on LGBTQ history at one of its weekly meetings. During my introductory remarks, in passing, I used the term “Stonewall,” when a young man raised his hand and asked me, “What is a ‘Stonewall?’”
I explained that the Stonewall Inn is a small bar located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City where, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, during a routine police raid, patrons fought back. This event, I continued, is generally credited with igniting the modern movement for LGBTQ liberation and equality.
The young man thanked me, and he stated that he is a first-year college student, and although he is gay, he had never heard about Stonewall or anything else associated with LGBTQ history while in high school. As he said this, I thought to myself that though we have made progress over the years, conditions remain very difficult for LGBTQ and questioning youth today, because school is still not a very “queer” place to be.
In my own high school years during the 1960s, LGBTQ topics rarely surfaced, and then only in a negative context. Once, my health education teacher talked about the technique of electro-shock treatment for “homosexuals” to alter their sexual desires. In senior English class, the teacher stated that “even though Andre Gide was a homosexual, he was a good author in spite of it.” These references (within the overarching Heterosexual Studies curriculum at my high school), forced me to hide deeper into myself, thereby further damaging my self-esteem and identity.
I consider, therefore, erasures from the larger society and filtered into the schools as a form of violence. I am seeing increasingly an emphasis within the schools on issues related to bullying and harassment prevention. Current prevention strategies include investigation of issues of abuse and unequal power relationships, issues of school climate and school culture, and how these issues within the larger society are reproduced in the schools, among other concerns. Often missing from these strategies, however, are diversity curricular infusion, and in particular LGBTQ issues. Unfortunately, still today educators require courage to counter opposing forces, for example, the ongoing attacks on Ethnic Studies programs currently underway in states like Arizona.
Throughout the United States, under the battle cry of “preserving traditional American family values,” conservative and theocratic forces are attempting to prevent multicultural curricula from being instituted in the schools. On the elementary school level related to LGBTQ issues, they are targeting books like And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, a lovely true story about two male penguins in the New York City Central Park Zoo raising a baby penguin; also, King and King, by Linda de Haan, about a king meeting his mate, another king. Not so long ago, the right went after Daddy’s Roommate, written and illustrated by Michael Willhoit, about a young boy who spends time with his father and father’s life partner, Frank, following the parents’ divorce, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride by Lesléa Newman, with illustrations by Russell Crocker, a portrait of young Gloria who lives with her two mommies: Mama Rose, a mechanic, and Mama Grace, a nurse.
For LGBTQ violence- and suicide-prevention strategies to have any chance of success, in addition to the establishment and maintenance of campus “Gay/Straight Alliance” groups, on-going staff development, written and enforced anti-discrimination policies, and support services, schools must incorporate and imbed into the curriculum across the academic disciplines and at every level of the educational process, diverse perspectives, including LGBTQ because LGBTQ experiences stand as integral strands in the overall multicultural rainbow, and everyone has a right to information that clarifies and explains these histories.
I was encouraged to see one state, California, leading the way. The California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, SB48, the first in the nation statute requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other educational materials in social studies courses that include contributions of LGBT people.
For LGBTQ, questioning youth, and allies, this information can underscore the fact that their feelings and desires are in no way unique, and that others like themselves lead happy and productive lives. This in turn can spare them years of needless alienation, denial and suffering. For heterosexual students, this can provide the basis for appreciation of human diversity and help to interrupt the chain of bullying and harassment toward LGBTQ people. For all students, this content area has the potential to further engage students in the learning process from multiple perspectives.
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