What We Lose When We Don’t Teach LGBTQ History In Schools

The first time I read about someone like me in a classroom setting, I was a junior in high school. It was the tail end of my U.S. history course, late April, and I was skimming through the night’s reading when I noticed a short section about how queer people, especially queer women, formed communities in the military during World War II. It couldn’t have been more than two paragraphs, but it stopped me because it was so unexpected.

Prior to then, I didn’t think queer people belonged in history. Or, rather: I didn’t think we had a history to tell.

To be a queer teenager is to exist in a vacuum. We are cautioned of a darker time just a decade or so ago when, by the popular telling of it, openly queer Americans seemingly didn’t exist. We are so often reminded of how quickly the world changed, and how lucky we are to live in the present, that it often feels like we are a new phenomenon.

Of course this isn’t true; the freedoms that LGBTQ+ Americans enjoy today were made possible only because of queer activists who spent decades fashioning a disparate social identity into a vocal, proud community. But how many of us can name them?

When we don’t grow up learning this history, our only point of reference for what it means to be queer in the U.S. becomes the ever-complicated present. There is something deeply isolating in that. History is a mirror. Every person looks to the past to find those exceptional people who have altered their way of life, who validate both their distinct identities and their ability to change the world. Discovering your heroes, no matter who you are, is an act of hope.

But queer kids are hard-pressed to find someone like us to venerate, because we don’t learn about LGBTQ+ people in school. According to a newly released GLSEN survey of high school students, only 20.8% see any positive representations of LGBTQ+ people at all included in their curriculum. It is safe to assume that the percent of students who see queer representation specifically in their history courses is even smaller.

Still, the trend is positive: 20.8% represents an increase from 18.5% of high school students in 2013 and 16.8% in 2011. And as recently as July, California passed a new K-12 framework, becoming the first state in the U.S. to mandate the teaching of LGBT history in schools. The framework “comes after the passage of the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, a 2012 California law that requires better representation of the LGBT community — along with other minority groups — in history education,” wrote the LA Times. Activists in states like New York are pushing for similar educational standards.

This matters because history is essential not only in terms of representing and validating marginalized people, but also in giving them a lens through which to understand — and survive in — their world.

When you’re repeatedly told that you’re alone — when you grow up never seeing anyone like you on TV, when you hear friends talk about queerness as if it is a new invention, when you go to history class every day and find yourself excluded from the larger American story — and then you flip on the news and watch as your livelihood is debated on the public stage, you start to internalize it all. History is a guide: It is the lens through which each of us makes sense of our world. When we want to explain our personal stories, we trace our family history as far back as we can go. When we need to evaluate privileges in our society, we look to the past to see how power has evolved. And when we want to shake up our political system, we turn — once again — to history.

Queer people, especially young queer people, don’t get this privilege. We grow up watching as our marriages, our sex lives, and our ability to work day jobs without being fired (or without being denied basic bathroom access, as in the case of the trans community) are attacked by strangers on TV. We witness the ups and downs: We watch as our marriages are legalized, and then, not a year later, as we are massacred in a nightclub. But we have no context for any of it. Without history to look back on, we can’t make sense of this precarious position society has put us in, such that navigating daily life feels all the more confusing and isolating.

Those of us who are lucky live in parts of the country that offer us a precarious kind of acceptance — one that tolerates before it embraces, that both treats us as spectacles and demands that we moderate ourselves. Queerness is provocative, a plot twist in a TV show — yet at the same time, queer people can only go so far in challenging gender norms, publicly displaying affection, or correcting pronouns before they are once again deemed unacceptable. Elsewhere, meanwhile, queer people simply have to hide.

It is an incredibly odd, sometimes jarring position to be in, and without context — without history — it is difficult to navigate. We live under a microscope, and we don’t know why; we see attitudes changing, and we don’t understand how.

The little things matter. The name of a queer activist, the date of a significant court decision, a timeline of major events — these put into context the world we live in. Society is much less scary when you know how it can be challenged; being yourself is so much less daunting when you know you aren’t the first.

It isn’t that there is no history to tell. It is that few people are willing to tell it on a mainstream level, especially in schools. The recent GLSEN survey reveals that we are on the right track, but we have much further to go.

On some level, I get it: U.S. history classes have a lot of information to pack into a small amount of time. I don’t expect a detailed synopsis of queer U.S. history, but if we as a society are serious about embracing the queer community, we have to stop erasing the role that they have played in the growth of our nation. It’s irresponsible for any coverage of the AIDS epidemic to ignore the essential part queer people played in fighting the disease, or for a section on McCarthyism to neglect the widespread scapegoating of LGBT people it engendered. When we talk about the 19th-century Western frontier, we should talk about the challenges to gender norms found there; when we talk about the Harlem Renaissance, we should talk about the black queerness that propelled it; when we talk about second-wave feminism, we should not forget the fight by queer and trans women for visibility. Queerness and queer activism are entangled with the biggest themes of U.S. history, yet in school it is repeatedly ignored.

Though I believe we also have room to teach historical events that are queer-specific — the Stonewall Riots, for instance — we first need to stop erasing queer people from the larger historical trends that every class in the nation already covers. Kids should not go through school never learning the name of a single activist, a single place, a single event that is wrapped up in LGBTQ+ history. Queer kids should not grow up only to have their heroes hidden from them. Queer kids should not grow up feeling alone.

To accept LGBTQ+ people into mainstream society, we have to acknowledge that queerness — especially queer activism — is not a new phenomenon. LGBTQ+ Americans have existed from the start, and for decades they have fought legalized discrimination and government scapegoating. Queer history is as rich and as complicated as any other, and it is our duty to ensure that every kid grows up knowing at least some of it. For straight, cisgender kids, this means leading a more empathetic life. And for queer kids, this means validation in a society that remains hostile to them.

It makes a world of difference to be able to cling to the name of someone who looks like you, who loves like you, whose gender matches yours — a hero from America’s past, a queer person who changed everything.

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