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LGBTQ History in Public Schools Is the Next Gay Rights Frontier

Teaching LGBTQ history in public schools represents something much deeper than just that—it's the affirmation of the personhood of LGBTQ students.

Illustration by Lili Emtiaz

In an otherwise insane election year, all is quiet on the education front. Due in part to pushback against No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, the presidential nominees from both parties seem to have accepted that the federal government is in a pretty bad position to enact meaningful K-12 educational policy and has resigned itself to letting state legislatures deal with the issue.


But when it comes to teaching minority history, particularly LGBTQ history—those LGBTQ narratives and historical figures that made key contributions toward changing the trajectory of American history—standards enacted at the federal level may be preferable, because individual states have repeatedly obscured and omitted minority narratives from historical curricula.

Last month, California became the first state to include LGBTQ history in its public school curriculum, with the passage of "a new History-Social Science Framework that includes 'a study of the role of contributions' of minority groups, including 'lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans,'" as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

California has shown an unusual willingness to be on the right side of history when it comes to how we teach the subject. While "spirited debate" accompanied the state's decision to include LGBTQ history in its curriculum, the state superintendent of public instruction ultimately announced it as a "big win for our students." The new history standards were only made possible by a 2012 law known as the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, which mandated the inclusion of historic contributions by the LGBTQ community, the disabled and other minority groups in public curricula. It took until this year for the new curricula to undergo public comment and finally see approval.


"History should be honest," California governor Jerry Brown said at the the law's signing. And it should be—on a national scale. But California is the first and only state to include LGBTQ history in its content standards. Similar battles have failed in states and cities like New Jersey and New York, and at least eight states have enacted laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people in sexual education curricula. Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ and HIV-rights legal group, notes that "schools and teachers may misapply these laws, in practice, as barring more than they actually do"—meaning that schools in states like Utah, whose Code § 53A-13-101 prohibits health instruction that includes "the advocacy of homosexuality," may extend such a prohibition to other areas of instruction, like history and social studies.

States other than California have shown a preternatural ability to bungle the teaching of minority history. While the California mandate drew a predictable outcry from conservative media outlets like Breitbart, with right-wing bloggers raising objections about the idea of teaching LBGTQ history to second graders, many children at that age are already learning that slavery wasn't the main cause of the Civil War—in Texas, children learn it was caused by "sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery," in that order.

In six states, the internationally recognized Advanced Placement history curricula has been challenged because lawmakers claim it shows "liberal bias." Similarly, "religious freedom" has been invoked to justify discrimination within school curricula before, or to allow parents to opt out or censor books; for example, in North Carolina, a teacher was encouraged to resign simply for reading a picture book in which a prince falls in love with another prince. This discrimination and fear bleeds over into basic classroom interactions and feeds our reluctance to challenge exclusionary curricula.


"In the US, education in general has a large problem," Tyler Curtain, a professor at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, told me. "The left has imagined that it is not their job to form children into moral beings and to instill moral practices of citizenship that make a strong commonwealth. But the right says our educators should instill moral values, which is to say civic values, which is simply nationalistic pride."

"To take one example," he continued, "Stonewall wasn't a rejection of America and its ideals. Drag queens, gay men, and lesbians threw bricks and bottles, and we demanded to be let into America. To tell our story is to say, this is how we were integrated into the very narrative that is America, built on the strength and perseverance, and claim on equality of law that is the core of the American soul."

The teaching of LGBTQ history is essential in affirming the personhood of LGBTQ students, some 40 percent of whom will consider suicide in a year, as it shows them the full extent of how visible and relevant to the course of 20th-century history sexual minorities really were.

On a national level, the federal government has shied away from promoting specific content standards in history curricula; in fact, the US Department of Education is actually prohibited from determining what's taught in classrooms, per Title 20 U.S. Code § 7907, which states that "no funds provided to the Department under this chapter may be used… to endorse, approve, develop, require, or sanction any curriculum." The agency can still attach financial incentives to encourage state-by-state adoption of specific educational programs under separate legislation, as it did with Race to the Top, a program that awards grants to states that enact federally recommended educational reforms.

A 2013 school climate survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in public schools, found that fewer than 1 in 5 US students between the ages of 13 and 21, of whom 58.8 percent identified as gay or lesbian, said that LGBTQ topics in their schools were covered in a positive way—and the same number said they were covered in a negative way. LGBTQ people must refuse to cower from saying that we have always existed, and we must make the inclusion of our narratives in classroom lesson plans an integral part of our fight for equality. How much will Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor matter 10 years from now if children never learn about those Supreme Court cases in class? Some policy decisions are better made locally or at the state level, but some are too fundamental to our national health to be left to majority rule. If we are to say the lives of young LGBTQ Americans matter, we must prioritize the teaching of our forgotten history in every state in the union.

Adam Kirk Edgerton is a PhD Student in Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.