“Did you know he was gay?” Those were the words I heard one classmate say to another in my high school Spanish literature class. I turned my head, fearful that he had discovered that I was gay. In fact, they were talking about Federico Garcia Lorca, author of Bodas de Sangre, a play we were reading.
The Spanish teacher furiously responded. “His sexuality has no bearing on the quality of his work. End of discussion.”
The student persevered. “Ok, but was he gay?”
The teacher was flustered. “…We are not … going to talk about this.”
At the time, I was grateful for my teacher’s response. Still in the closet, like many queer teenagers in the early 2000s, I avoided discussions of homosexuality. I feared that I would say something that would give people reason to suspect that I was gay.
Even now, as a gay high school teacher, I realize that the teacher was in an impossible situation. Lorca was indeed gay, and his queer sensibility provides another layer of meaning to his work. Nevertheless, had she answered honestly, the teacher probably would have caused an uproar in my very conservative suburban community. Many teachers still avoid discussions of homosexuality for fear of upsetting parents.
Unfortunately, this fear of upsetting parents is doing great detriment to all students. Most K-12 schools in the United States are still not serious about supporting LGBTQ inclusion. Even in schools with LGBTQ student groups, there are often few if any opportunities for most students to learn about LGBTQ people or topics in classes. While LGBTQ student groups nobly build community among LGBTQ students and allies, the groups primarily serve the students who have the confidence to come out at an early age.
The challenge of creating inclusion and acceptance in the classroom remains. How can LGBTQ students who are not ready yet to come out learn to accept themselves? How can straight and cisgender students learn to support and accept their LGBTQ classmates? The need for LGBTQ inclusive curricula is obvious. Until every student learns about LGBTQ acceptance through inclusion in the curricula, bullying and discrimination will continue.
Challenges to LGBTQ inclusion exist even in the most progressive places, primarily because of the ignorance or timidity of adults. When I worked in a progressive, urban high school, we always celebrated Black History Month. After I posted a picture of Bayard Rustin on my classroom door, an administrator asked me who Mr. Rustin was. This administrator is very intelligent and capable, and she happens to be a woman of color. Sadly, one has to be forgiven for not knowing about the gay, black civil rights activist whose accomplishments (including organizing the March on Washington) were erased from public memory once his sexual orientation became widely known. Clearly, most people do not know much about LGBTQ historical figures because LGBTQ identity is rarely discussed in the classroom.
I recently worked as a teacher in Belgium, which has some of the most progressive laws regarding LGBTQ rights. The students in the LGBTQ group convened a powerful meeting with teachers in which the students asked the teachers to make more connections to the LGBTQ community. One economics teacher replied that she did not know how to discuss the fact that the famous economist John Maynard Keynes was gay and what the relevance of that fact was. Another teacher responded, “It is about representation. We would mention the significance of other marginalized groups like women and people of color achieving success, and we should also do so for LGBTQ people.” The comment heartened me and made me believe that committed educators can and will do a lot to advance LGBTQ inclusion.
English classes are perfect places to learn about LGBTQ people, as students learn about themes, identity, and characters. Many classic novels include queer characters, including Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. Most American students already read these books completely unaware of the queerness of these characters. Moreover, there are countless classic novels prominently featuring queer characters that are not commonly read in schools. A few examples include E.M. Forster’s Maurice and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
It is no coincidence that I mention novels with queer male characters. In my experience, boys still struggle the most to accept their queer classmates. Perhaps they want to prove their masculinity, or perhaps they are simply immature. Regardless, it is critical that boys learn at an early age to accept queer male identity in order to escape a vicious cycle of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and transphobia.
I have created The Queer Male Canon Project as a resource for educators to teach great novels that include queer male characters. I write about these novels and I create resources for educators with the hope that schools can become more inclusive.