Combating Course Content Segregation

An LGBT student’s gratitude reminded this instructor to include diverse voices in her teaching all year.

October is LGBT History Month—something I have mixed feelings about. I’m concerned that because some instructors cover gay and lesbian history at a certain time every year, they don’t regularly point out how LGBT history is woven into the fabric of the United States. Subject matter segregation is a fairly routine practice in history courses; during an entire semester, it’s not uncommon for only a handful of lectures to address the history of women, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and American Indians. And it’s not uncommon for the first mention of LGBT Americans to occur only when the textbook’s narrative reaches the social movements of the 1960s.

I used to follow suit. At the start of my career I was one of those professors who segregated topics, largely because I was interested in political history, and politics in the United States has been dominated by wealthy and powerful white men. But my awareness of the way I had segregated gay and lesbian Americans in my teaching was brought home to me through the gratitude of a student—gratitude that I did not deserve.

I had just delivered a lecture on the emergence of the gay liberation movement following the 1969 Stonewall riots. The Stonewall riots—violent demonstrations that signaled a new refusal to submit to discriminatory anti-gay laws and the criminalization of LGBT lives—signaled to communities across the nation that LGBT Americans were ready to fight for recognition and equal treatment under the law.

After I finished my lecture, one young woman came up to the podium and said, “I just want to thank you for talking about gays and lesbians. You are the only teacher I’ve ever heard do that.”

I was taken aback: No other teacher in her entire education had ever mentioned gay and lesbian history? I started to feel self-righteous—what a great, inclusive and thorough history professor I was becoming!

That self-satisfied feeling lasted only a few minutes, because it suddenly occurred to me that this lecture was the first time in the entire semester that I had mentioned gay men or lesbians, let alone bisexual or transgender Americans. And yet their history, their struggle, was an inseparable part of all U.S. history. This student, who indicated that she identified with the LGBT community, had been forced to wait all semester for coverage of those who paved the way for her to live a more free life, because I had inadvertently “segregated” LGBT Americans in my lectures.

Since then, I no longer give a single, separate lecture on the gay liberation movement. Like the history of African Americans, women, Latinos, Native Americans and many other groups, I now include LGBT history as a routine part of as many lectures as I can. For example, when I teach the way that the American West was conquered, I emphasize that there was an active gay culture among cowboys. When I discuss World War II, I explain how women’s new freedom allowed them to leave home and forge new relationships with other women, including the opportunity to more freely explore their sexualities.

Students love hearing about a history that is not the usual endless parade of presidents and power brokers; they can identify with the stories of those who lacked institutional power but who, nonetheless, became important forces in expanding American democracy. The stories of women like Sarah Norman, who was convicted of lesbianism in 1650 in Plymouth Colony, and men like Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society 300 years later, also show students that everyday men and women share similar concerns regardless of the era in which they live.

While LGBT History Month is an important way to raise awareness, integration of LGBT history throughout our teaching takes us beyond awareness and creates inclusion. And if we want an inclusive society, we have to teach inclusively. I can best demonstrate that by making sure that my content reflects that goal.

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

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