School is in: LGBT history is history

By Elizabeth Gartley

Most educators are familiar with African American History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, but LGBT History Month is often overlooked in October, and the experiences and contributions of LGBT people throughout the world are omitted from most history classes. But there are a wealth of opportunities to integrate more diverse perspectives into the history curriculum, and school librarians are in an ideal position to support LGBT inclusive curriculum.

GLSEN, the GSA Network, and the California safe schools coalition have all found that LGBT-inclusive curriculums support school safety, school climate, and can even have a positive impact on student achievement. However, in many of the conversations I have had with classroom teachers regarding LGBT-inclusive curriculums, many teachers feel limited by prescriptive state or local curriculum standards in which LGBT topics are notably absent.

But LGBT history shouldn’t be approached as a discrete discipline, something separate or extra to add on to straight history. LGBT history is history. Indeed, some of the most significant moments in LGBT history are already common topics of study in U.S. History and World History classrooms, but LGBT experiences and lives have been erased from the history books.

I’ve highlighted here just a few subject areas that I know are mainstays, commonly taught in-depth in history classrooms, which align with significant topics in LGBT history. With each historical area of study, I have included books and other resources that librarians and teachers may use to support a more LGBT-inclusive history curriculum. The topics I’ve included here  (World War II, the McCarthy era, and the Civil Rights Movement) are jumping off points. I don’t want to suggest that LGBT history begins in the 20th Century, so I have also included some general LGBT history resources which have more information.

World War II and the Holocaust

In Nazi Germany, more than 100,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175, a broadly interpreted law which outlawed homosexuality. Of those, about 50,000 served prison terms, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were imprisoned in concentration camps. Under Allied occupation, some were still forced to serve out their prison terms, regardless of time served in concentration camps. Men imprisoned in concentration camps under Paragraph 175 were the only group of Holocaust survivors not be to legally recognized as such and were deemed ineligible for compensation. Branded by the Pink Triangle by Ken Setterington was a Stonewall Book Award honor book in 2014 and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an exhibit, including an online exhibit, on the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945.

McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare

When students learn about Senator Joseph McCarthy and his role during the Cold War, they learn about the Red Scare and McCarthy’s determination to root out and expose communists. But even most history teachers never learn that during this time, more Americans lost their livelihoods because of accusations of homosexuality than due to accusations of communist sympathies. The Lavender Scare, as this movement became known, is also the name of a feature-length documentary in production. Although the current status of the documentary is unclear, the 3-minute trailer is eye-opening in its own right, and the film’s YouTube channel features clips and interviews. More general LGBT history resources, including some of the titles below such as A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski and Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History edited by Leila Rupp and Susan Freeman feature sections on the Lavender Scare.

Civil Rights Movement

U.S. History classes that cover the 20th Century will learn about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, often centering around the role of Martin Luther King, Jr., but the role of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and gay man, is omitted. Rustin was the chief organizer behind the March on Washington which featured Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio is a Stonewall Book Award winner, and would make a positive addition to high school collections. No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin and The Civil Rights Movement by Calvin Craig Miller and We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry Dane Brimmer are good choices for younger readers.

Of course, the 1960s and 70s saw a variety of civil rights struggles, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Red Power Movement, and the Delano grape strike. For those teachers who try to integrate wider perspectives around the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, the Stonewall Riots was a pivotal moment for LGBT rights in the U.S. Gay Power! The Stonewall Riots and The Gay Rights Movement, 1969 by Betsy Kuhn is part of a series on civil rights movements around the world, and Ann Bausum, an award-winning author of nonfiction for young adults, recently published Stonewall: Breaking Out in The Fight for Gay Rights.

More Resources

GLSEN’s LGBT History Month page with links to documentaries and other LGBT history resources, including Don’t Erase My History, a half-hour documentary in which a group of Bay Area students investigates the history that has “no name” in their schools, a series of videos which examine the experiences of Coming Out In The 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and Unheard Voices: Stories of LGBT History, a collection of curriculum resources and lesson plans from the Anti-Defamation League.
Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History edited by Leila Rupp and Susan Freeman features chapters on challenges associated with integrating LGBT history into general history classes, topics within LGBT history, approaches to teaching LGBT history, and supporting resources. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, a Lambda Literary Award winner and Stonewall Book Award winner, explores the lives and experiences of LGBT people in the United States, from pre-contact Native Americans to post-Stonewall by examining the shifting cultural values and perceptions of gender roles, throughout the course of American history. Transgender History by Susan Stryker is a fascinating look at the history of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the United States from the dawn of the 20th Century into the 21st Century, particularly, their role in wider LGBT rights movements. For a legal perspective, The Right To Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools by Stuart Biegel outlines the history and legal precedents which have been used to support and protect LGBT teachers and students, as well as short sections curriculum inclusion, pedagogy, and notable events in LGBT history. A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R. B. Parkinson was a Stonewall Book Award honor book for nonfiction and highlights items from the British Museum’s collection to examine sexual diversity across cultures and throughout history from antiquity to the modern era.


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