The dawn of each new decade brings with it hope and optimism. I can’t help but be optimistic for the future of the queer community given how far we’ve come in only the last decade. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2012, Marriage Equality in 2015, and the military’s lifting of a ban that prevented transgender people from serving are just a few of the achievements of the LGBTQ movement over the past ten years.
The mass inclusion of LGBTQ curriculum in American schools is something that sadly did not occur during the last decade. And I’m not just talking about in history classes, but also in English classes, a subject where there is a plethora of queer literature, and sex education, a subject that needs to take an inclusive outlook given the stake. For too long, students, gay and straight/transgender and cisgender alike, have been graduating from high school without having heard as much as a single mention about the LGBTQ community in any of their classes. The exclusion of the LGBTQ community from K-12 curriculum sends the message to straight and cisgender students that LGBTQ individuals don’t exist and causes gay and transgender students believe that they don’t have a right to exist, both of which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Subjects that are ideally suited for LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum include the following:
Learning about history is important because it provides us with a sense of self. It tells us who we are and where we came from. It also helps us learn from the mistakes of previous generations. Because we were taught about Nazi concentration camps, we know that anti-Semitic sentiments are unacceptable and dangerous. Because we are taught about the Civil Rights Movement, we know that everyone, no matter their skin color, should have access to the same opportunities and resources. If LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum had been the norm when I was in school, I would have learned that I was deserving of dignity and respect no matter my sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although entire courses could be taught on, and are taught on, LGBTQ history, some of the events that should be taught to high school students include the Stonewall Inn Riots, the work of the Daughters of Bilitis, the beginnings of the transgender rights movement with the Queens Liberation Front, the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in the military, and the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
As for the people who should be found in LGBTQ-inclusive history courses, Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, Barbara Jordan, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera immediately come to mind.
Additionally, state history courses shouldn’t be exempt from teaching LGBTQ history. Even the most conservative of states have produced noteworthy LGBTQ figures who have impacted our world. In my home state of Virginia, Amaza Lee Meredith, an African American educator who founded the fine arts department at what is now Virginia State University, and her partner Edna Meade Colson, an African American educator who increased access to education for African American Virginians, are perfect examples of LGBTQ individuals who have earned their place in history.
History is of vital importance, but the role that English plays in providing students with a well-rounded curriculum should not be underestimated. The power of literature is immense. I’m specifically reminded of the E.M. Forester quote: “What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote it.” But with that in mind, is it enough to simply teach works by LGBTQ authors? No, I don’t think so. Students should also be exposed to work that reflects the LGBTQ experience as described by LGBTQ authors. When in doubt about whether or not a specific poem, book, or play should be taught as part of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, instructional designers should utilize “The Russo Test,” a modified version of the Bechdel Test that GLAAD created. Does the work contain a character that identifies at LGBTQ? Is the character solely or predominately defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity? If the LGBTQ character is removed, will the plot be significantly impacted? Those are the questions that should be asked before a text should be enshrined in K-12 curriculum. And if a specific work fails to meet that fairly basic standard, it should be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism.
As with LGBTQ historical events and people, the possibilities for LGBTQ authors and texts are almost too great to fathom but as a college English instructor, I recommend starting with Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando,” Walt Whitman’s poetry collection “Leaves of Grass,” Audre Lorde’s autobiography “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” and Tennessee Williams’ plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “A Street Car Named Desire.”
Sex education curriculum has woefully underserved students for years by insisting that abstinence is the only appropriate way for young adults to behave. In reality, we know that abstinence doesn’t always occur. As a result, risky sexual behavior occurs. According to information from the National LGBTQ Task Force, men who have sex with other men have the highest risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, with fifty-seven percent of people living with HIV in the United States identifying as gay or bisexual men. That figure is alarming, which begs the question: Why? Why are gay and bisexual men more likely to be infected with HIV? The answer is simple—their identities are invalidated by current sex education classes. Without proper information, they’re left feeling ashamed and don’t properly protect themselves because of it.
Common sense topics that should be included in sex education include discussions on protection, like condoms and PrEP, sexually transmitted infection testing, including where to go and how often testing should occur, and how to have open and honest conversations with their sexual partners, including consent.
Additionally, students should be taught about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity and expression, and how to be respectful to people of different sexual orientations and gender identities than their own.
Over the course of my brief, yet eventful time, as a public school teacher in North Carolina during the midst of the so called “Bathroom Bill” controversy, I made many attempts to sprinkle LGBTQ-related topics into my theatre and choral curriculum. I had my students read several works by Oscar Wilde and taught them about the horrendous way that he was treated because he dared to fall in love with a member of his own sex. I also selected “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway music “Rent” for my chorus students to sing at our fall concert. The song allowed me to broach the topic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and why the lyrics stress the importance of valuing every single second that we have. But despite my best efforts, my hands were tied. I was closeted and broke the law every single time that I visited the women’s room. I refrained from coming right out and embracing the LGBTQ community in my teaching out of a concern that if I did so, I would be accused of brainwashing my students.
In order for the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in K-12 curriculum to be successful, we will have to work to dispel notions that an inclusive curriculum is the same thing as brainwashing or indoctrination from the minds of students, parents, and all the way up the educational chain to secretaries of education on the state and national level. An inclusive curriculum isn’t brainwashing or indoctrination, it’s an acknowledgment that the LGBTQ community is valued and worth learning about.
With all that in mind, I generally I favor the right of local school districts to make decisions about the curriculum that their students will be taught. School divisions know the needs of their students better than far removed bureaucrats who have more than likely never set foot inside a classroom. But with that being said, that freedom can, and has been, abused. Many rural school divisions refuse to allow teachers to teach about evolution and are instead instructed to tell students that the world is the way that it is because of creationism.
Local school divisions and state lawmakers must stop the inequity of ignoring the contributions of those they deem as being undesirable. Based on the majority of history textbooks and required readings in American schools, one might assume that only straight cisgender white men have contributed to our country and the world, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
So far, only four states have mandated LGBTQ history state-wide: California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Illinois. The proof of the effectiveness of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is evident. According to a 2017 survey by GLSEN, a national education organization that works to raise awareness around LGBTQ issues, LGBTQ students in schools with LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum are less likely to feel unsafe at school.
It’s important to note that the LGBTQ community isn’t the only community that is being ignored by many schools across the country. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, indigenous peoples, and disabled people all find themselves not being reflected in the curriculum that is currently being taught. The question we should ask ourselves is: Why? Why aren’t these communities being represented in our public school curriculum?
The answer is because a large-scale grassroots effort to demand change has yet to occur. Activists in all forty-six states that don’t have such curriculum will have to lobby their state legislatures and governors. They will have to illustrate the importance of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum to state representatives and senators the same way that marriage equality activists had to prove that same-sex marriage wouldn’t upend the moral fabric of society to the Supreme Court.
Will it be easy to mandate an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum nation-wide? Absolutely not. But I have every reason to be hopeful. If someone would have asked me in 2010 if I thought the we would have nation-wide marriage equality by the middle of the decade, I would have surely laughed in their face. Hopefully I’ll be able to look back on 2020 in 2025 or 2030 and think how silly it was to even doubt that an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum where every student learns about Harvey Milk and reads Virginia Woolf would become a reality.