As many people nationwide celebrate National Coming Out Day and LGBTQ History Month this October, there is a burgeoning movement to cover the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals in public schools.
“They don’t think this is a radical thing to talk about it, and that’s been just beautiful to see,” says Alicia Guzman, a history teacher at Santa Cruz High School in California, of her student’s response to learning about LGBTQ history. She started teaching her students about the topic last year while working on a committee to shape her district’s LGBTQ history curriculum.
Still, learning about LGBTQ topics in high school is uncommon. About 63 percent of students said they’ve never learned about LGBT people, history or events at school, according to a 2015 survey from GLSEN, an advocacy group for LGBTQ issues in K-12 education.
High school teachers nationwide may have questions before they teach this topic to their students. Here is some guidance to help them get started.
1. Why should teens learn about LGBTQ history? Guzman says in her progressive community it’s not a big deal to have a different sexual orientation, but it’s important for students to understand the extreme discrimination, struggles and successes of LGBTQ Americans in past decades.
All students do better when they receive a full picture of the past – and that includes LGBTQ history, says Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN. “There are periods of U.S. history that make a lot more sense when you include LGBT history,” she says.
LGBTQ youth, in particular, benefit tremendously from seeing themselves accurately presented in the curriculum, says Byard.
“Research has made clear that LGBTQ students who see themselves reflected in the curriculum do better in school, are more likely to feel connected and invested, and have a better and clearer sense of themselves,” she says.
Guzman adds that LGBTQ youth tend to feel ostracized and are at a higher risk of suicide – anything teachers can do to present validation and support is a huge benefit in helping them feel less invisible, alone or uncomfortable.
2. How can teachers navigate restrictive school policies? Several states have laws that restrict LGBT content in schools. While these laws primarily prohibit discussions of LGBTQ topics in health education, they can have a chilling effect on teachers who wish to cover LGBTQ history, Byard says.
“It’s important that people not be silenced inappropriately by these laws,” she adds.
Teachers who plan to cover LGBTQ history should be able to demonstrate why learning this content is important and connect it to other curriculum, Byard says.
Guzman says learning about LGBTQ history is the first step. She recommends, among others, “A Queer History of the United States,” by Michael Bronski and “Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities,” by Jerome Pohlen.
Then Guzman advises teachers to speak with their school administration to get support.
3. How should teachers incorporate LGBTQ history? Weaving LGBTQ history throughout the class curriculum is the best approach, says Guzman.
For example, in a recent lesson on the Harlem Renaissance, Guzman taught students about the burgeoning queer community and how individuals were exploring their new freedoms, including sexuality, in different ways. She also talked about how many prominent artists that emerged during this era were gay or bisexual.
She says she tries to acknowledge LGBTQ history whenever possible as a matter of fact.
While LGBTQ history fits in naturally in a U.S. history course, Guzman says teachers of other subjects could look for ways to incorporate this information into their lessons, such as using articles from gay scientists in science class or incorporating musical compositions from LGBTQ artists in music class. Byard adds that teachers planning field trips could include visits to historical sites relevant to LGBTQ history.
School administrations and others may be hesitant to incorporate LGBTQ history into school curriculum. But Guzman says her students didn’t skip a beat. “For the kids, it’s not going to be as big of a deal.”