Larah Helayne of Mount Sterling, Ky., always knew she was attracted to women, but she planned to become a nun until about a year ago. Falling in love changed her plans. She didn’t know much about LGBTQ history — mostly just what she’d learned about the HIV/AIDS crisis from Rent and The Normal Heart — but it didn’t take long to realize that the past could help her understand her own experiences.
While driving to see her then-girlfriend, she heard an episode of the podcast Making Gay History about Jean O’Leary, a former nun who organized the first meeting of lesbian and gay-rights activists at the White House on March 26, 1977, and co-founded National Coming Out Day, first marked in 1988.
After listening to that episode, Helayne, 18, began to come out to friends, family and classmates. As she opened up, others opened up to her in turn, sharing their own stories of their genders and sexualities — and she saw that her own realization about history could help them too. Soon, Helayne started an LGBTQ affinity group at Montgomery County High School.
“I just realized that all of these people who came before me didn’t fight so I could hate myself and so I could just hide,” she says. “It helped give me the courage to come out publicly. I realized how much history there was that was being kept from me and from everyone.”
Helayne is one of countless American students and teachers searching for material on the historical roles of people with diverse gender and sexual identities. And increasingly, that material is moving into the classroom, with five states having announced in 2019 that LGBTQ history must be taught in public schools. California became the first state to require schools to teach LGBTQ history in 2011, with the first K-8 textbooks approved to meet new state standards emerging six years later. Even so, mechanisms for enforcement, funding and teacher training are often unclear.
On Friday, the news aggregator Newsela, which brings together news articles and primary sources for classroom use, announced the launch of the Newsela LGBTQIA+ Studies Collection. Newsela is used by more than 25 million students and 2 million teachers in 90% U.S. school districts, and this collection is the first time the company has assembled a collection of articles on a single topic, with material at various grade levels and accompanying lesson plans. The collection comes after a successful pilot program in 12 school districts in New Jersey, one of the five states — along with Maryland, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon — that have added LGBTQ history requirements in the last year.
“Our priority was to get something into teachers’ hands as fast as possible,” says Walt Peters, Senior Business Manager of Content Solutions at Newsela.
The Road to a Curriculum
The history of LGBTQ people in the U.S. is as old as the country, but the history of this kind of curriculum is relatively short. From the creation of LGBT History month in 1994 to the National Park Service’s first report on LGBTQ historic sites in 2016, the last few decades have seen a dramatic increase in mainstream interest in teaching LGBTQ history.
There is no national standard for teaching the topic, but the five 2019 state mandates led the National Council for the Social Studies to put out its first Position Statement on LGBTQ History in September of this year, urging the “contextualizing of LGBT+ history within the story of America,” not teaching it as a separate unit. For example, teachers are urged to discuss the “Lavender Scare,” the U.S. government’s purge of gay and lesbian federal employees, alongside discussion of the Cold War’s Red Scare.
Amer Randell, 49, an 8th grade social studies teacher at DSST:Conservatory Green Middle School in Denver, points out that this approach can also help assuage any resistance to teaching the subject. For example, he weaves LGBTQ history into lessons on landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, noting that the 2015 Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriages was grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Discussing same-sex marriage in the context of the Constitution, he says, shows that the curriculum isn’t a result of any teacher’s “personal bias.”
The Newsela collection is primarily focused on the history of the LGBTQ rights movement, covering milestones such as the Stonewall uprising — with articles about the role of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a video on misconceptions about the event, and discussion questions on its impact — as well as lesser-known moments like the 1966 “Sip-In” protest at the New York City bar Julius. It also extends to newer readings, including for example an adaptation of a 2013 Los Angeles Times article about a transgender girl running for homecoming queen of her California high school. That particular article offers a window into the changing way the subject is being taught, and is part of the reason why Newsela decided that its users would be receptive to the collection: In the 2013-14 school year, it was the platform’s article that teachers blocked from students the most; in the 2014-15 school year, teachers clicked the “assign” button more than the “hide” button.
Participating in workshops on designing the Newsela collection inspired Derya Kurt of Bloomfield Middle School in Bloomfield, N.J. to do a lesson on Alan Turing, a pioneer of modern computing who helped the Allies decipher Nazi codes during World War II, but who killed himself following his chemical castration after police discovered he had a male lover. “They wanted to know why they had never knew of him, and some students whispered, ‘because he’s gay,'” says Kurt, who followed that lesson with a discussion of why LGBTQ stories have been excluded from classrooms in the past.
“A lot of us grew up with history taught to reinforce the idea that that only certain ways of being are natural,” says historian Eliza Byard, Executive Director of The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). “It is hugely important that every child understand the complexity of human history in all different dimensions in order to have a full understanding of the past, present and possible futures, and that’s what this is ultimately about.”
Learning a Lesson
Students aren’t the only ones who’ll be learning from new materials about LGBTQ history. Few teachers learned it in school themselves. Newsela addresses this by including a glossary of terms and guidance for moderating classroom discussions, but some teachers are hoping for more professional development training before they bring the subject to their classrooms.
“I’m happy that Illinois is one of the states passing this requirement, but I’m concerned. Is the state going to provide some type of guidance for what’s appropriate and inappropriate?” says Katie Ahsell, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services and Assessment at a school district in the Chicago suburbs.
Bethy Leonardi, co-founder of A Queer Endeavor, which trains Colorado teachers, gets that question a lot. People worry that lessons will be “inappropriate” or focused on sex. But, she tells them, “people are not ‘inappropriate'” and it’s possible to teach about the many ways LGBTQ people made history without getting into their sex lives any more than one would when discussing straight people in history. “There’s a moral and sexual component that really doesn’t need to be there,” she says, “but it’s the way the narrative has been created over time.”
Still, some teachers worry they’ll stir up controversy, that students will make assumptions about teachers’ sexuality based on the curriculum, or even that they could lose their jobs. LGBTQ teachers do have some reason to worry. More than half of LGBTQ people live in states without state or federal protections on the job, and more than half of states don’t have statewide laws protecting people from discrimination in the workplace on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Laws in six states ban “promotion” of “homosexual lifestyles” and laws geared towards sex-ed classes can also deter LGBTQ history efforts. Other teachers may resist making this change to their lesson plans for more mundane reasons, simply reluctant to spend time on material that’s unlikely to show up on standardized tests.
But advocates say those challenges are worth facing. According to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, LGBTQ students in schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum — compared to their counterparts in schools without that curriculum — were “less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation (41.8% vs. 63.3%) and gender expression (34.6% vs. 47%).”
In fact, that dynamic is part of the reason why these standards exist. Parents of LGBTQ students pressured San Diego Unified School District, California’s second-largest school district, to do more for their students after the suicides of four such students nationwide made national headlines in September 2010. “When you don’t move quickly enough, students’ lives are on the line,” says Superintendent Cindy Marten. Now that district is considered supportive of LGBTQ students.
State directives to teach LGBTQ history are a “great mark of progress” but create “an illusion that the policies have been implemented,” says Debra Fowler, co-author of the NCSS’s position statement on LGBTQ history and the co-founder and Director of Development of History UnErased, a LGBTQ-inclusive history curriculum. “This is a long game,” says Fowler. “We probably will never live to see our mission truly fulfilled.”
“I see education as the leading edge of the LGBTQ civil-rights movement,” echoes Eric Marcus, host of Making Gay History. Marcus’ audio interviews with LGBTQ history-makers are used in classrooms.
And for Larah Helayne, learning about that history has reinforced her call to activism. She has been accepted to the University of Kentucky, and, as a singer-songwriter who performs Appalachian music on the banjo, she can’t picture herself living anywhere else. Even so, she says she still doesn’t feel safe walking down the street holding a date’s hand.
“This place is never going to get better if no one is going to risk anything for it,” she says. “Just existing in this town as a queer woman is incredibly difficult and incredibly exhausting, but to see other people went through that and did something incredible says to me I can do the same thing. I’m filled with the courage of hundreds of people who came before me. By knowing their histories, I now know my own. And there’s nothing better than that.”