On our season finale, join Learning for Justice Senior Writer Cory Collins and hosts Leila Rupp and John D’Emilio as they offer concrete tips for creating LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms and taking themes from this podcast into your daily practice.
Resources and Readings
- Cory Collins and Jey Ehrenhalt, Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students
- Learning for Justice, Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights
- Senior Writer, Learning for Justice
- Learning for Justice, Teaching Stonewall
- Writer/Host, Digital Literacy Videos
Leila Rupp: Welcome to the last episode of Queer America. When we first began this series, we told you about an attempt in Michigan to censor U.S. history. A group of legislators and advisors proposed stripping references to democratic values, women’s history, the civil rights movement, climate change and the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality from the Social Studies standards for K–12 classrooms.
John D’Emilio: But public outcry forced them to reconsider. The committee responsible for revising the standards went back to work, and in the latest version, the phrase “democratic values” will remain, and so will teachings on Harriet Tubman, Roe v. Wade, climate change—and gay rights.
Leila Rupp: This is good news and a victory for the children of Michigan, who will continue to learn about the rich and diverse history of the United States. This is a victory for all of us who believe that understanding the past in all its complexity and nuance is critical for living in the present and future. I’m Leila Rupp...
John D’Emilio: And I’m John D’Emilio, and this is Queer America, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. LGBTQ history has been largely neglected in the classroom, but it’s necessary to give students a fuller history of the United States and to help them understand how that history shaped the society they live in.
Leila Rupp: This podcast provides a detailed look at how to incorporate important cultural touchstones, notable figures and political debates into an inclusive U.S. History curriculum. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
John D’Emilio: Talking with students about sexual and gender identity can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can discover the history and comprehend the legacy of queer America.
Leila Rupp: For our final episode of this series, we’ve asked Cory Collins from Teaching Tolerance to share a wonderful resource for educators called “Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students.” He’ll walk us through the guide, focusing on how to approach LGBTQ content in the classroom and tips for adding LGBTQ content into a packed curriculum. Cory will also share a sample exercise from the guide.
John D’Emilio: With our podcast episodes in one hand and these best practices in the other, you’ll be more than ready to take on the challenge of teaching your students about queer America. Cory begins his talk by taking us back a few years when his own understanding of LGBTQ history was very different.
Cory Collins: I want to talk about Wikipedia, but first, let me set the scene. It’s 2014. I’m 24 and I, a gay man, am still in the closet. I’m a sports journalist at the time and Michael Sam has just become the first openly gay man selected in the NFL draft, and I want to write about it, and as writers often do, I go looking for a historical allusion that I can use to open the story. That search takes me to a Wikipedia page called “LGBT History,” and that page takes me to a world I had never dared to imagine. I’m Cory Collins. I’m the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance and alongside my coworker Jey Ehrenhalt, I co-wrote our best practices guide for serving LGBTQ students and introducing LGBTQ content to a curriculum. A lot has changed in those five years.
I don’t remember what I ended up writing about Michael Sam, but I remember that feeling as I scrolled and scrolled through stories I’d never seen, stories I’d certainly never learned in a textbook, evidence of queer love and affection, and queer identity from ancient Egypt to revolutionary France to indigenous communities in the Americas, and it’s hard to describe what it was like reading that for the first time; this proof that people like you have always existed despite messages you’ve heard of the contrary, proof that not all of these people were considered criminals, or crazy, or perverse, but instead were sometimes celebrated, often respected. It’s liberating and it’s sustaining. To know that people like you have always had purpose and humanity gives you permission to love yourself as you are and work toward a better world because there’s precedent, and precedent is power. This podcast, Queer America, has been a journey in chronicling that precedent and that power. For me, it has supplemented my self-learning over the past five years and it has opened the door for educators like you to pass that feeling of discovery on to your students and perhaps yourself. Both Jey and I went into writing this guide with a goal: to help queer students feel safe and seen at school, to help all students better understand and respect LGBTQ identity and history, and to help educators like you create an environment where this can happen.
My education in queer history came late, but it doesn’t have to for our young people today, and that’s why teaching the content you’ve learned on this podcast is not just good history pedagogy, it’s vital to the well-being of your students. This matters. According to survey results from GLSEN, that’s G-L-S-E-N, which is a nonprofit that promotes LGBTQ inclusion in schools, more than half of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school. More than half hear negative remarks about their identity not just from students but from school staff, and less than a quarter of them see or hear positive representations of queer people in any of their classrooms. A Human Rights Campaign survey revealed that only a quarter of students feel like they can be their authentic selves at school, and that wears on a young person, and because of those things, we know that queer students are statistically more likely to miss school, to see their grades suffer and to experience suicidal ideation. But there is hope, and much of that hope resides in schools, school leaders and educators doing the right thing. LGBTQ students who go to schools where the curriculum is inclusive and the policies value their identities experience less harassment, period. They feel more valued by the adults around them and they are much more likely to succeed in school and socially.
Non-LGBTQ students also benefit, becoming more understanding of their peers and the world, so as I talk today about ways in which we can center and value LGBTQ identities in our teaching, I hope those facts will stick in the back of your mind. This isn’t just best practices. It’s an act of care, an act that for some of you will require some courage. So as we culminate this season of Queer America, perhaps you’re left with a lingering question. You have all of this content that you can use in the classroom and alongside us you’ve had your own discovery of hidden history, right, but perhaps, at the same time, you still feel some hesitation. “What if I say the wrong thing?” “What if I’m interrupted or students push back?” “How do I do it while teaching what I’m required to teach?” And those are fair questions, and we at Teaching Tolerance want to answer those questions for you. When Jey and I co-wrote “Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students,” we as two queer adults wanted to create something that allowed more students to see themselves in their curriculum and allowed more students to empathize with and respect their queer classmates. And that meant giving educators the tools to feel more comfortable changing their curriculum, so today I want to talk through some of those questions and offer some tips that are detailed in our guide.
You realize now that you have this opportunity to provide your students with a whole new view on the world. Let us help you get there. So, what is the guide? The guide is called “Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students” and you can find it on our website. If you go to tolerance.org/podcasts and click on Queer America, you’ll find it on the bottom of that page. The guide is broken into several sections that can help you with a very practical approach to LGBTQ inclusion in your schools. Now, these sections include policy samples, and these are example policies from dress codes to bathroom access that allow you to make LGBTQ students feel like they not only belong but they are valued. There’s a section on classroom culture, which gives you steps towards creating an inclusive classroom. There’s a section on instruction, which is more about tips for integrating queer voices into your existing curriculum, as well as responding to difficult moments when you have those conversations. And there’s also a family, community and engagement section because we know that there is going to be some pushback from families and there’s going to be some pushback from the community, and we want you to feel prepared to face that. But there’s also a lot of opportunities for families and community members who are pining for this, and to reach out to them, and make them feel like they’re included as well.
Now, if you’re looking at the online version of the guide, there’s also some appendices that we really want to draw your attention to because they’re a helpful, useful resource. One is the glossary of terms that helps you become familiar with the language. One is a list of books from elementary to middle school to high school, as well as professional development for teachers, and that list of books gives you fiction books with LGBTQ characters as well as books about LGBTQ history, and that’s a great way to introduce this content to students and to yourselves. And in the last appendix, there’s a list of LGBTQ historical figures, and some of those are a great jumping-off point for integrating LGBTQ figures into stuff you’re already teaching because you will see people from almost any time period that you can imagine teaching in your classroom.
Leila Rupp: As Cory’s personal experience indicates, knowing queer history is so important. It has the potential to transform the lives of students, both those who are part of the queer community and those who are not. We know that bullying of students on the basis of sexual and gender identity is widespread, sometimes even driving young people to suicide, as Cory mentioned. Any mention of queer people or queer issues in the classroom can increase student safety and improve the climate for queer students. It improves the climate for all students by helping to foster acceptance and civility.
John D’Emilio: And it also makes for better history. For one thing, it helps to undermine the common notion that queer history is a simple story of progress from the bad old days to the much better present. For example, understanding that the Puritans were not so puritanical about sexuality teaches that the past is more complex than we sometimes think, and understanding the complexity of the past along with knowing how things have changed is crucial to understanding and living in the present while working toward a better future. Again, here’s Cory with some important strategies for the classroom to help all of your students thrive.
Cory Collins: Let’s begin by talking about classroom culture. This is Section Two in the guide, because ultimately, no matter how well you know the content, no lesson is going to stand on its own if you don’t have a solid foundation. And that foundation rests on your willingness to learn and it rests on creating an environment where respecting students’ identities is a priority. Now, the most basic way to set this foundation is to begin with something as simple as language. It’s very important that we learn the terms that students are using today to describe their identities. Young people today have a large vocabulary with which they articulate those identities, and we sometimes get pushback when we ask educators to learn these because if we’re of a certain age, we have seen this vocabulary grow and grow and grow, and it can feel hard to keep up, but it’s vital that we meet our students where they are, so if you look at our glossary, you’re going to see terms like “biological sex,” “gender identity,” “cisgender,” “transgender,” “asexual,” “pansexual,” and these are terms that your students are using to describe their identities, and you’ll be able to match the definition with the word, and maybe be able to meet them where they are, understand what they mean when they say that, and talk to them about it.
I also want to talk about something that has come up a lot lately in the cultural discussion about LGBTQ people, and sometimes the importance gets mocked, but we think it’s pretty vital, and that’s modeling inclusive pronoun use. Gender fluidity is expressed in the many pronouns that students will use to talk about themselves, and that goes beyond the “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers” binary that we’ve been using in our culture for a long time. So, in Section Two of the guide, you’re going to see a lot of ways that you can model inclusive pronoun use. This includes using what we call “the singular ‘they,’” so perhaps, instead of sentences that use “he” or “she” as an example or when you’re even reading something for a spelling test, or giving examples in math, whatever you’re doing, you can use “they” instead. Another tip is to decentralize cisgender identity by stating your own pronouns, so maybe you use “he/him/his,” or “she/ her/hers” pronouns, and you think that it’s obvious, so you don’t have to state that. But if you model that, if you introduce yourself by modeling your own pronouns, that tells the student that maybe uses “they/them” pronouns that you’re not singling them out.
You’re having everyone do this. You’re conducting pronoun check-ins with everybody at the beginning of the year so that this is just something people know so they know how to refer to each other, and it normalizes that. It’s also useful, I think, to begin the year with a student survey that asks students about the pronouns they use in different situations, so sometimes it’s not enough just to ask our students what they prefer to be called, what their pronouns are, but that can change situationally. Maybe they feel a certain trust with you or their peers that they don’t feel with other adults in the building. Maybe they don’t live in a home where it’s safe for them to use their pronouns, so they might want to know if you can use “he/him” pronouns to their parents but “they/them” pronouns in the classroom, and it’s really useful for educators to know those boundaries.
Now, once you know your students’ boundaries, once you know your students’ pronouns, it’s also helpful to check in with yourself about what you’re going to do if you misgender a student. So perhaps, in getting used to using different pronouns or getting used to using the singular “they,” you misstep, and sometimes this is something that makes educators really uncomfortable, especially if it’s not something they’re used to doing, and there’s actually some really easy tips in the guide for confronting this situation, and ultimately, it all comes back to don’t overreact, and don’t center yourself in that interaction. So, if you misgender a student, whether they’re transgender or non-binary, the first step is honestly just to apologize briefly. Correct yourself. Move on but don’t call extra attention to it. By doing that, you’re making it about yourself, but you’re also putting that student in an uncomfortable position, so, along that vein, don’t over-apologize. The student is more often than not going to be understanding of the fact that you’re trying, so if you just quickly move on, correct your error, that will do the trick. Now, if you overhear a coworker or a student misgender someone, that’s a good opportunity to be an ally, and there’s a lot of ways that you can do that.
One of those is to correct them in the moment. So say, someone says to you, “The other day I saw Jess and he was saying that his homework was late,” and if you know Jess uses “they/them” pronouns, you can respond right in the moment with a correction that’s not overt but enough to tell them what they have done, so you can say, “Oh, right. So, Jess, they were saying what?” And just by doing that, you are sending the message that you know their pronouns and you want that to be respected in conversations even when that other person isn’t present.
Another way that you can do that is to model the correct pronoun usage going forward, and another way is to address it directly. So if you hear someone misgendering another student, you can directly say, “Hey, just in case you didn’t know, Jess uses ‘they/them’ pronouns,” and from then on, hopefully that situation can be corrected And so now that you have all of those examples of ways that you can model pronoun usage, there are ways to transition that into how you respond to a lot of things, such as a student coming out to you. So, in our guide, you’ll find actually a lot of dos and don’ts about what to say and what not to say if a student comes out to you. For example, listening and being supportive without questioning them or questioning their certainty, and you can find more of that in the guide. But let’s also talk about creating an inclusive classroom culture because ultimately, learning key terms isn’t enough. There are things you can do with your classroom practices that are actually quite simple but they can help you audit yourself for ways that you might be upholding gender norms that would make transgender and nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students uncomfortable, or at worse, they would not feel valued in your classroom.
Now, one of those is to conduct a visual audit of your classroom. Examine your wall posters and your visible materials and ask yourself, “Do these represent individuals with diverse range of gender expressions? Are there nontraditional families? Are there families with LGBTQ members? Are there historical figures, or celebrities, or students represented who do not fit into that boy/girl/heterosexual binary?” Something else you can do is to take note of casual conversations you’re having with students and to not make assumptions based on gender. There are a lot of phrases that we use without thinking about them much, such as “Boys will be boys,” or, “Girls are such gossip queens,” or any number of phrases that make assumptions. Maybe you think about never teasing or joking around with students in a way that presumes their gender identity or that presumes a heterosexual orientation, such as saying that when a boy picks on a girl, he’s flirting with her. These sorts of comments are innocuous and they seem innocent, but when they pile on top of each other, they create a set of expectations that students remember, and they create a set of stereotypes about what it means to flirt, what it means to behave, that are ultimately really damaging to the way we think about boys, girls and all people in our society.
And something else I want to encourage you to do in your classroom when you’re doing this audit of your own practices, is to encourage all students to try different types of activities so that what you’re doing does not conform to gender stereotypes, but instead opens those opportunities to everyone. So for example, if you need help moving heavy furniture or something off a shelf, don’t only ask for boys because you assume they are stronger, or if you are looking to decorate your door or the bulletin board, or to rearrange a classroom library, don’t just ask for girls who you deem creative or neat. Give all students opportunities to fulfill these roles and you, in doing that, model what it looks like to break down gender stereotypes and offer a world of possibilities to your students. I think this world would probably be a better place if more boys felt comfortable and felt like they were allowed to do activities that are stereotypically what we say is “girly” and vice versa—and that’s something you can model right there in the classroom from a young age on through high school.
So how can you set the stage for these conversations, especially as they advance into the territory of talking about LGBTQ history or LGBTQ characters in fiction? The way that we do that is that we set ground rules, and often that begins by creating community agreements with students. This is something a lot of you do already at the beginning of the year, and basically what we have to ask our students to do is to create a community agreement from the beginning that tells us how we have conversations in the classroom in a way that’s inclusive of all students regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. So one way we can get this started with our students is to open that community agreement process at the beginning of the year with discussion prompts that can help them think about what leads to a productive conversation. So ask your students, “What rules would help you have a respectful conversation with each other?” Or, “When someone disagrees with you, how can you stay engaged in that conversation while still being respectful of the other person?”
So when you’re going through this process, if you suspect that LGBTQ perspectives will be new territory for some of your students, begin the discussion with a statement about the importance of being open to ideas that are unfamiliar. And you need to make it clear in creating this community agreement that purposefully hurtful comments regarding a person’s identities or differences is never OK because once you set that ground rule, you can refer to that community agreement throughout the year. And this isn’t a way to squash opposing opinions. This isn’t asking you to censor your students. It’s instead asking your students to come up with a model in which no one is going to feel attacked for who they are and that all discussions will be based on the merits of humanity and the facts, not just visceral, in-the-moment opinions that sometimes lead to attacks. So you need to make sure those ideas of identity and difference are discussed explicitly when you’re making these community agreements, and to post this agreement in a very visible location. And once you’ve done that, you’ve set the tone for the year, and as long as you have that visible backing of “This is an agreement that you all came up with,” you’re putting the power in their hands.
This isn’t just a didactic rule from the teacher at the front of the classroom. This is a community agreement that they came up with and it gives you a lot of power to share that power in a weird way because then they’re responsible to each other and they’re responsible to the rules they created, not just the rules that you set forth. So what do we do once that conversation or that lesson is happening? Because ultimately, even with that community agreement in place, if I’m being realistic, we know that LGBTQ people and topics may raise emotions or may raise uncomfortable moments in your classroom, and we have to be ready for that. And the first thing I want to stress is the importance of remaining calm and diffusing tension rather than reacting in a way that can enhance a negative interruption in your classroom. I want to refer you to another Teaching Tolerance guide here, and that’s a guide called “Let’s Talk.”
Basically, “Let’s Talk” is a guide that gives you very concrete strategies for having what we might call “difficult” or "courageous" conversations in the classroom, whether that’s about race, or sexual orientation, or gender identity or any host of topics that some might deem controversial, but which you know are valuable, and in that guide, you’re going to find a lot of ways that you can check in with your students to make sure that they’re comfortable, but continue to challenge them to think about these critical topics. But in speaking specifically about LGBTQ content, there are some recommendations that we offer in the guide and that I can offer you here. One of those is to never let a homophobic or transphobic remark go uninterrupted. I think sometimes, as educators, there is this idea that silence is neutrality; that if we’re having a discussion that is tough, by remaining quiet or by not interrupting someone’s opinion, we are being neutral in that discussion. But if we go back to the community agreement, there’s a reason that we have instilled the idea that no identity should be attacked, and we’re not asking you to make a political stance in that moment, but what we’re asking you to do is to interrupt for the sake of that community agreement and for the sake of the LGBTQ students in your classroom who are hearing their very essence attacked.
So while it might be tempting or easier to let that comment slide or to laugh it off, or to try to move on as quickly as you can, it’s important that you stop everything in that moment, not let it go interrupted, and remind that student this is our community agreement, and those sorts of comments are not going to fly in this classroom when we’re having conversations. Something else that’s important when discussing LGBTQ content is to prepare for the possibility, and honestly probably the inevitability that religion will arise as a topic, and we don’t want you to send the message that a student’s religion does not matter or that they are not welcome to discuss this aspect of their identity because after all, we want to affirm students’ identities and let them explore what it means to belong to an identity, and that includes religion. But rather, we want to remind students that they cannot use their religion to justify the harassment of another student or a violation of your classroom contract. That’s the clear delineation you need to draw in these conversations. You’re not trying to squash any student’s identity, but you also—and this is really important and I will stress it—never need to present LGBTQ identities as up for debate.
One thing I remember going through high school, and this was before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, was that we would debate gay marriage, which would ultimately devolve into a debate about whether gay people had chosen to be gay or whether they were born that way, and so for much of my school career, in the classroom, I heard the debate as to whether I existed as a choice or whether I existed because that’s who I am. And it’s hard to overstate how damaging that is to our LGBTQ students, so be very wary of the sort of topics that you bring up as a debate as opposed to maybe discussing LGBTQ content in a different way instead of making it a “this versus that” in more a discussion of history, or a discussion of a character’s motivations, which honestly, is more what our history and literature courses are about anyway.
And lastly, I would just underscore the importance of being ready to respond to common myths with facts. The anti-LGBTQ groups that are out there are very effective in spreading misinformation about LGBTQ identities, and if you can educate yourself to some of those myths, such as the idea that being transgender is a mental illness, or that being gay is a choice, or that being gay is linked to pedophilia. If you research those myths and have facts ready, you can respond in a calm, respectful way that affirms LGBTQ students without calling out the student who used those myths in a way that will silence them, because we want to call in our students as much as we can.
Leila Rupp: You’re listening to Queer America. I’m Leila Rupp...
John D’Emilio: And I’m John D’Emilio.
Leila Rupp: Those are such great suggestions. As Cory was talking, I was reminded of a few other classroom challenges and some approaches that might be useful to you in confronting them. The first is that talking about non-normative sexuality and gender can raise the specter of having to talk about sex with your students, which of course, can make for giggles and smirks. In our first episode, Daniel Hurewitz shared a helpful conversation he had had with a high school teacher named Will Grant. Will explained to him why teaching about intimacy and relationships is not the same as teaching about sex. “We talk about Henry VIII and his wives,” he said, “and his desire for a son, or about first ladies in U.S. history who are relevant because they are married to the president, and that isn’t about sex, so it makes sense that we can also talk about the relationship between Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, and why it was important to Addams’ work and life without that being a conversation about sex either.”
John D'Emilio: That’s absolutely right, and I want to build on what Cory was saying about language because there is a related challenge when we’re teaching LGBTQ history. We should be sensitive to the words people used at the time versus the words we use now, which frequently requires avoiding words that they didn’t have. It’s inaccurate and sometimes unfair to label people in ways they couldn’t or wouldn’t describe themselves at the time, so for example, you can say, “same-sex sexuality,” as a general term when discussing the period before the invention of the term “homosexuality.” Similarly, before the development of the concept of transgender, you can substitute the terms “gender nonconforming,” or “gender crossing.” As new terms came into use by both observers and people with same-sex desires, we follow their lead using “homosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “queer” and “transgender.” Students today who embrace a wider array of identities, including pansexual, fluid, heteroflexible, trans, gender queer, agender and others, these students can learn from the changing ways that people in the past have been named and named themselves.
Leila Rupp: Another idea that’s very important to introduce with students, especially in later grades, is the concept of the social construction of sexuality. It can be hard since so many students of all sexual identities embrace Lady Gaga’s message that we are all “born this way,” but almost all historians agree that societies shape the ways that sexual desires are understood, that societies shape people’s sexual practices, and societies shape the meanings people attach to their sexual desires and behaviors, yet students tend to remain firmly convinced that they were born straight, or lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, or transgender. It’s important to remember that this is not an issue of being born that way versus choice. Through history, you could help them see that their desires and behaviors could have quite different meanings and consequences in other times and places. This is an important lesson for students of all sexual identities. Next, Cory Collins is going to talk about some specific ways you might begin to incorporate queer history into your existing curriculum. Here is Cory.
Cory Collins: Once you have those foundations of a solid classroom culture, the question for many of you will become, “OK, but how do I work this into my existing curriculum?” For those of you who face strict requirements or pressure to prepare students to test in certain subjects, queer history may feel extracurricular, but it’s not. There are ways to seamlessly integrate the topics you’ve learned about on this podcast into areas you’re almost certainly covering already, especially if you’re a history teacher. The question then becomes, “How can we seamlessly integrate these topics you’ve learned about, especially when we’re teaching queer history?” And the first tip for teaching queer history in a way that is seamless with your curriculum is to capitalize on historical eras during which LGBTQ figures played a documented and prominent role, so the very first episode of Queer America from Daniel Hurewitz and Genny Beemyn’s episode on the experiences of trans people, both of those provided a good overview of the many eras in U.S. history in which queer people made significant contributions and we know this, so if you teach about the frontier west, the civil rights movement or almost anything in between, you’ll hear names you can incorporate into your lessons.
As we learned from Susan K. Freeman in her episodes about romantic friendships, lessons on the women’s rights and suffrage movements should absolutely include figures like Jane Addams, who had same-sex companions. Units on the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the Cold War or really any aspect of post–World War II America should include details we learned in David K. Johnson’s episode about the Lavender Scare. The same can be said for units on the Jazz Age or even the colonization of Native culture, and these are not ancillary stories. They’re not just add-ons. They’re central to the history and they’re vital to our understanding of present-day issues and inequalities, so if you’re covering those areas, it’s actually a disservice to not include these figures that made such an impact and these policies that made such an impact. Another way that we can integrate this queer history is to look at LGBTQ movements within the context of different social movements, so as Ian Lekus laid out so wonderfully in episodes 9 and 10 of this podcast, any discussion of the liberation movements of the 1960s is incomplete without incorporating LGBTQ figures like Bayard Rustin and the veterans of uprisings at places like Compton’s Cafeteria, and the one you’re more likely to have heard of, Stonewall.
Within the black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Latinx labor movements, and even Vietnam anti-war efforts, there are prominent queer figures at the forefront and they were erased from that history out of prejudice, not because of a lack of importance, so we shouldn’t do the same thing in our classrooms. Highlighting these figures opens another opportunity as well, and that’s to have students compare the LGBTQ rights movement tactics with tactics from other liberation movements, and this can help illustrate how one movement often informed another and how interconnected they are, so you can create graphic organizers where you compare, “Well, what did the movement under Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, that aspect of the nonviolent civil rights Movement, what did that have in common with the gay rights movement of the ’50s and groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and how did that change after Stonewall? How did the civil right movement change as the Black Panther party became more prominent?” And you start to see comparisons and people who moved in between the movements, and it becomes really illustrative of that time, and it’s actually a great way to draw connections throughout history.
Now, if one of your expectations is to discuss current events with students, then that offers a great opportunity to discuss LGBTQ people, past and present. Current issues have histories, right, and discussing what’s going on today can lead you toward teaching what led us here. So here are just a few ways that we can respond to current events and contemporary issues in a way that is inclusive of LGBTQ people and our students. One of those is to encourage discussion instead of silence, so think of political events as opportunities to encourage your queer students to speak their truth, and as opportunities for all of your students to understand the consequences of court decisions and legislation. So whether it’s something like the military ban on transgender people or aspects of immigration and asylum that disproportionately affects LGBTQ people fleeing persecution, you can answer that question that your students are going to have: “What does this mean for me? What does this mean for people I know?” And those questions deserve thoughtful, nonpartisan consideration. A good example of why this is so important was actually made obvious by episode 11 of this podcast, which was about the AIDS epidemic, and silence on that issue has led to a lot of myths, a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding of the current situation—and how we got here.
Imagine if we had encouraged discussion instead with our students. That silence has been dangerous, whereas speaking openly about that history and the current state of AIDS in America tells us a lot about current events. It tells us a lot about access to healthcare. It tells us a lot about access to compassion in this country, as well as more practical information about safe sex. Now something else you can do if current events is part of your pedagogy is to bring contemporary LGBTQ role models and public figures into your classroom discourse. We are fortunate to live in a time when there are openly gay, lesbian, and transgender, and nonbinary political figures, or figures who hold positions of power. So when we’re talking about current events, it’s good to touch on those people because it’s a reminder that they not only exist, but they are thriving in their own way, which is really valuable for your students to know. It’s important to highlight moments of agency, moments of empowerment, and not just moments of persecution.
John D’Emilio: This is Queer America. I’m John D’Emilio...
Leila Rupp: And I’m Leila Rupp. If you’ve been listening to all the episodes, you know that there’s a lot more LGBTQ history available when you’re teaching about the mid-20th century and beyond. That’s not really surprising. Integrating a discussion of queer history into class sessions on World War II, the Cold War and social movements of the 1960s is pretty straightforward, no pun intended. Or let’s be honest: I did intend the pun.
John D’Emilio: So, we want to call your attention to earlier periods in U.S. history. From first European contacts with Native Americans through westward expansion and the Gold Rush to cross-dressed soldiers in the Civil War, cowboy and miner intimacy on the frontier, Chinese bachelor societies on the West Coast, and dance hall culture in urban, working-class neighborhoods at the turn of the 19th century. There are many ways that you can incorporate queer history into the entirety of your U.S. History curriculum. You can discover more about these periods in LGBTQ history from our early episodes featuring Genny Beemyn, Daniel Hurewitz, Emily Hobson and Felicia Perez, and also Susan Freeman’s episodes about same-sex romantic friendships between women as an accepted cultural practice in the early 20th century.
Leila Rupp: In addition, the California History Social Studies framework for grades K through 12 gives some good pointers in this regard. Their standards call for students in fourth grade to learn about the way settlers and missionaries sought to impose European-American concepts of gender and sexuality on Native American societies. Students also learn about the possibilities and motivations for same-sex intimacies and gender diversity in frontier conditions and the Gold Rush era. And in grade eight, they learn about social and cultural expressions of intimacy between men and women, including same-sex intimacy in the context of urbanization and immigration. Again, here’s Cory.
Cory Collins: So, once you’re committed to integrating queer history and LGBTQ content into your curriculum, there are things to keep in mind when selecting what that curriculum is going to look like, and one of those is to assess your texts. You can send a really powerful message with the resources you choose. Students perceive the texts and books that you highlight as representations of what is valued and celebrated in our culture. You’re teaching them about what the U.S. values and that gives you a lot of power, and omission can send an equally loud message, so when you include the voices of LGBTQ people, that supports students’ abilities to affirm their identities and it cultivates empathy for those experiences that differ from their own. So there are some questions that you can ask yourself when you’re selecting your texts, whether that’s a book, a passage, a film, whatever. There are questions you can ask yourself that can make sure that your curriculum is inclusive. So for example, “What voices does this text include? Does the text include stereotypes? Does it include misrepresentations of people? And how are those stereotypes or misrepresentations treated?” Because we know that, for example, if we’re reading a historical piece, there are often going to be stereotypes, but are those stereotypes commented on? Are they challenged?
Does the text accurately reflect lived experiences and cultures? Does it promote healthy self-concept for your students? And maybe one of the most vital questions is whether the text fosters intergroup understanding. Does it motivate, engage or enable students to take action in a way that is productive and inclusive? Now you can find a lot of these questions and more questions in a tool that we have on the tolerance.org website. It’s called Reading Diversity and it gives you a checklist of questions like this that can help you assess your texts and make sure that they are inclusive of all identities. So something else that’s important to keep in mind when you are selecting curriculum is how to teach with an intersectional approach, and what I mean by teaching with an intersectional approach is understanding that everyone has multiple identities and acknowledging that some people experience multiple forms of oppression where those identities intersect. So our curriculum should always avoid telling a one-sided story, so ask yourself questions such as, “Does my curriculum include a diverse array of stories and combinations of identities? Am I representing multiple narratives about what it’s like to be LGBTQ?”
So that means highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ people of color. That means highlighting the experiences of queer people of different faiths. That means highlighting experiences of LGBTQ people who are immigrants or seeking asylum because these are all different experiences, and if we flatten those experiences into one identity, we’re missing a lot of stories.
So one challenge that can come up when we’re trying to teach with an intersectional approach is that we often confront gaps and silences in the history of LGBTQ people, so when I think back to that Wikipedia list that I stumbled upon five years ago, as expansive as it was, I couldn’t help but notice the eras that weren’t there. And it’s no accident that so few historical records have preserved the lives of queer people in eras across human history because ultimately, history does not remember what it does not value, so for those who experienced intersecting oppressions, such as enslaved LGBTQ people, a historical record is not always available, right, but we know these people existed, so when that representation is hard to find when you are in an era where you can’t find LGBTQ people to talk about, it’s tempting to skip over it. The record’s not there, so how can we teach it? But instead of skipping over it, what I would challenge you to do instead is teach the context—and what that means is explaining laws, or cultural norms, or power structures, and societal values that might have led to the erasure of queer people. So for example, why might we not know about enslaved African-American people who were also LGBTQ?
Think about what it meant for them to even have families. Think about what it meant for them to live openly or if they ever could. What might it have looked like for them to outwardly show their queer identities? And when you think about the cultural norms at the time, if you think about the power structures they were facing, it’s easy to understand why we have no record there. Something else we can do is to explain why queer people would not have used modern identifiers, as we discussed near the top of this podcast. There are a lot of terms today that young people use to describe their identities, but a lot of those terms are relatively new, and it’s tempting to retroactively put those terms on people in the past, but they didn’t use those terms. It’s important for us to be mindful of that and to have an explanation as to why someone like Walt Whitman didn’t describe himself as gay or bisexual, but instead, to honor the terms they would’ve used and describe what the queer identities were without naming them with modern terms.
It’s also, I think, vital, when possible to point out the exceptions to these gaps and silences. So I mentioned at the top that it was amazing to me that I could find examples of ancient Egyptian drawings that celebrated same-sex couples. So when possible, point out those exceptions because there’s something so incredible about seeing yourself in history. It’s a reminder that you have ancestors who have walked this earth. It’s a reminder that you have people like you that have been respected or celebrated, and it’s a reminder that you sort of can move with that same energy that they gave into the world and that you can have a purpose. Ultimately, the reason that I think that these tips are helpful is because all together, they offer us no excuse to erase LGBTQ people from our history lessons or even from our literature lessons because if we’re capitalizing on historical eras during which LGBTQ people played a prominent role, we have that record. We have the texts that we can use to seamlessly integrate them into our curriculum.
If we’re looking at LGBTQ movements within the context of other social movements, we have the comparison points. We have the prominent figures to list, but also, if we’re teaching the gaps and silences, even in those places where we don’t have the historical record, we do have the context with which to explain to our students, “Yes, these people existed, and here’s why you haven’t heard about them,’ or, “Here’s why it’s hard to know what their lives were like,” but we can begin to imagine; we can begin to empathize.
And then that all comes back to using these to tie them to current events because our LGBTQ students did not just arrive in a vacuum this century, and if they know their pasts, and they can connect that to the issues they’re facing today, to the ways that they can thrive today, then we’re ultimately doing them the service that history education should be all about, which is connecting the past to our present in a way that is empowering and actionable and healthy.
Leila Rupp: As Cory points out, it is really important to think about ways that present connects to the past, the way the past shapes our present, and at the same time, as the question of language makes clear, we need to distinguish between what a word might mean in one era and another, and also what a similar kind of desire or behavior might mean in one era versus another.
John D’Emilio: That’s a good point to make, Leila. I also want to add to what Cory was saying and emphasize his notion of intersectionality. It’s an important concept that is threaded through every episode in this series. Intersectionality refers to the overlapping and interconnected nature of social categories, such as race, gender, class and sexuality. When teaching about any particular aspect of queer history, we have to think about which queer people we’re talking about. Are we talking about white, elite, cisgender, gay men? Are we talking about black, working-class, transgender women? The context and nuances matter for understanding, both in the past and today.
Leila Rupp: I keep thinking of Felicia Perez’s advice for teaching in episode three. She says, “You could have an overarching thematic question for every single topic you cover,” and she gives us an example: “Who’s included? Who’s not included, and why?” You could ask that for every single topic, for every single lesson, for every single historical event, and that gets at intersectionality because it’s about all the complicated identities that we all embrace, so it’s important at every point to connect gender and sexuality to race, ethnicity, class and other social categories.
John D'Emilio: And one way to do that is to focus on the intersectional identities of groups and individuals. There are so many important queer historical figures we’ve learned about in this podcast, and just bringing them into a discussion of relevant topics has the potential to introduce students to an intersectional queer history. We’ve heard about Jane Addams, Ma Rainey, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera and Harvey Milk to name just a few, and here’s Cory to explain how you can use yet another person, Lorraine Hansberry, to explore intersectionality with your students.
Cory Collins: In our best practices guide, we highlight five lessons that you can use to integrate LGBTQ people of color into your curriculum, and a good example of a lesson that you can use to help students see LGBTQ history through an intersectional lens is our lesson on Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine Hansberry is probably most known as the author of A Raisin in the Sun, and she was the first black woman to have a play she wrote performed on Broadway. She also advocated for human rights as a journalist. She was an incredible figure who died way too young at the age of 34 due to cancer, and for students, she helps illustrate the oppressions that happen at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality. And we have a lesson on her that helps highlight how incredibly ahead of her time she was, not just as a writer, but as an activist who strongly believed in intersectionality and in raising up not just women, not just black women, but black women with queer identities, and while she didn’t have those words at the time, in this lesson, you can help your students see how she was representing all of those identities in her work.
So let me walk you through what this would look like in the classroom. First you’re going to ask students to read the Lorraine Hansberry biography that is supplied in the materials of this lesson, and students are going to use that information to fill out her biography and fill out a blank timeline of her life and achievements, and you’re going to review all the possible answers with your students, and you’re going to see a range of what maybe they deemed important as milestones in her short life. Once they complete that biography and they complete the timeline, you’re going to have students look at some key terms and see if they can define them with the context in these texts. So whether it’s her play, A Raisin in the Sun, or whether it’s the lesbian group, Daughters of Bilitis, terms like that will be defined using those texts. Now, this is when it gets interesting. Once your students have defined key terms, you’re going to have them read an article called “Lorraine Hansberry’s Gay Politics.” This is an article by Kai Wright, and that’s also provided in the materials. It was written in 2009, but it does a great job of illustrating not just Hansberry’s career highlights, but also the motivations and the beliefs that were influencing those works.
Now, while they’re reading, you’re going to ask your students to highlight passages where the writer discusses Hansberry’s thoughts about race, gender and sexuality, and you’re going to have your students ask themselves questions like, “How does the author use the term ‘straight wash’?” Or, “How is that applicable to Hansberry’s life and legacy?” Now, once you have students read and highlight, you’re going to discuss the questions using evidence from the text, and you’re going to tell students to be ready to explain why they chose the passages that they selected. Now once you’ve done that, you’re going to pair students up and each pair is going to read these very short excerpts of commentary that Hansberry wrote to a publication called the Ladder. Now this was a lesbian publication and she wrote these way back in 1957, and you’re going to have them discuss the connection Hansberry makes between sexual and gender oppression. You’re going to ask students, “How does she differentiate between the two? What similarities does she acknowledge between sexual and gender oppression?”
And then you’re going to ask the question... and this is when we get into that notion of how do we apply today’s terms to people in the past? But we’re going to ask, do they think that Hansberry was a queer person or simply an ally to the queer community? And you’re going to tell students to use the text to support their answer. And the text is pretty fascinating—to read someone in 1957 talking about women’s rights and gender and sexual equality in ways that sound very modern, in ways that sound very ahead of her time. And after you read that and discuss it with students, invite your students to select a quote from that text to share with the class, and have them write a brief explanation of why they selected that quote and what it reveals about Hansberry. Students might pull this quote, for example, where Hansberry writes, quote, “As per marriage, as per sexual practices, as per the rearing of children, etc. in this kind of work, there may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has, at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.”
We can imagine that sentence being written today and still being met with backlash, still being met with confrontation; that Hansberry was writing this in 1957 is significant as one of the most celebrated black female writers in our history, and it’s worth talking about with your students what it meant for her to write that at the time, even under a pseudonym, and what it says about her politics, and what it says about the ideas that she put into her writing. Now there are some extension activities you can do with this lesson as well. You can have students write a new biography for Lorraine Hansberry that maybe uses some of the context they know that isn’t in the biography provided in the lesson. It’s also a good opportunity to discuss the connection Hansberry saw among civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian rights, and that opens up a lot of questions you can ask your students, like, “Should we consider Hansberry’s sexual politics to be ahead of her time? Where would Hansberry’s political beliefs fit in today’s society? And if Hansberry were still alive, do you think she would be a controversial figure? Why or why not?”
And not only does this help students get a better understanding of Hansberry’s work, but it also helps to challenge that idea of history as being a constant progression uphill. If we look at things that Hansberry was saying in 1957, and say they still apply today, we can challenge that notion that progress always moves forward. We can challenge that notion that the fights we’re having now are fights we’ve never had before. Something else that this lesson offers is a chance to do something like a history walk, so students could conduct research about people like Hansberry, black LGBT people in our history, and they can compile a list of those figures based on what they can discover. And have students choose different individuals from the list and write one-paragraph biographies of each person. Maybe these are biographies that haven’t existed in their textbooks before that they can fill that gap, and in that way, we’re inviting our students to take these gaps and silences and fix it. And I think that empowers our students to not only learn something new but to think about the way history comes to them, and to think about their power in correcting that record.
Lorraine Hansberry represents just one example of a way that you can pull someone from history into your classroom to illustrate how intersectional identities impacted the way that they moved through the world. If you go to our guide online, you can find an appendix of historical LGBTQ figures throughout history, and it really runs quite the spectrum of not just time period, but also identities. And on that list you’re going to find a lot of fascinating figures that you can integrate into your classroom. There are people like Edmonia Lewis. Edmonia was an Oberlin College–educated black and Native American sculptor who was born in the 1800s and became a very prominent figure of the neoclassical movement, achieved international renown, and how often do we see her in our textbooks? You can talk to your students about people like Audre Lorde, a poet, civil rights activist and feminist whose philosophy on intersectional identities was out loud and it still influences progressive ideology today. You can also talk about living figures who had a huge impact on our history that we don’t often hear about in our history classes, people like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who was not just a Stonewall uprising participant, but has been an advocate for prison reform ever since and has been an ally for transgender people that are incarcerated.
And in all these figures in that appendix, you’re going to see an opportunity to not only bring your students a history they’ve never heard before but to show them a through line of LGBTQ existence that goes from as far back as human history is recorded to today. And each name on the list in that appendix, much like that Wikipedia list I read once upon a time, takes you to a different person, a different place, a different time and a different context. And each name reminds us that queer people have always existed, that LGBTQ people, to use a Walt Whitman phrase, “contain multitudes,” that their history is multifaceted, and it’s complete with heroes and villains and people in between, because it’s human history. You know, I was lucky five years ago when a search for a metaphor led instead to an open door, an open door to my past, my present and my future, an open door to understanding my history and my potential, and I never would’ve imagined that five years later, I’d play a part in opening that door for a new generation. And so can you. After all, this is history. This is the truth, and as Bayard Rustin once said, quote, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” and I hope as this podcast comes to a close, that you feel less afraid.
I hope you feel empowered to offer your students a more complete narrative of U.S. history, and I hope you feel ready to introduce them to the beauties and wonders, and infinite possibilities of queer America. And again, I encourage all of you to go check out our guide, “Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students,” for more tips and details on creating an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and school, and you can find that guide at tolerance.org/podcasts. You’re going to click on Queer America, and at the bottom of the Queer America page, you’ll see a link to that guide, and in there you will find everything I’ve talked about and so much more, and with that, I’d like to thank our hosts, Leila Rupp and John D’Emilio. Their voices introduced us to this podcast, and they have guided us on this journey.
Leila Rupp: Thank you for listening to this podcast. As you know, it’s really designed for teachers to bring queer history into the classroom, but I recently thought about ways that this could have a much broader reach. I have a friend. He’s a gay man who was in the hospital. When he was released, they took him to a rehab facility, which was really boring, and so to try to entertain him, I told him about the podcast, and I brought him earbuds, and he’s been listening to it, and he is so excited. He just keeps saying, “This is something that I never knew. I just love learning this history. This is just wonderful.” He was having a great time, and so I realized that this is something that has really broader reach, and so I hope you’ll tell your friends who might be interested in learning this history, even if they’re not teachers in the classroom.
John D’Emilio: That’s a really good point to make, Leila, because the truth of the matter is that it’s not just that young people today are not learning this LGBTQ history, but that generations of adult Americans learned nothing about it in school and they’re not learning anything about it in their daily life. So this podcast, yes, it has very practical usage for teachers in the classroom and it can be a tremendous educational device for almost anybody. I also want to add that for myself, the experience of teaching LGBTQ history over the years brought tremendous satisfaction. So often, in the teaching of history, I could tell that students had heard about this topic or that topic before and it was hard to hold on to their attention in the classroom. But when I was teaching LGBTQ topics, I knew that almost all of them had never encountered this information in any class they had ever taken. They were eagerly taking it in. They were asking questions. They wanted even more. Discussions just erupted in the classroom. And for LGBTQ students in the classroom in particular, the excitement that showed on their faces was unmistakable. I knew that I was accomplishing something in those classes.
Leila Rupp: John, that’s really powerful. To borrow from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., we have a dream. We dream of a day when all students, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, fluid, queer, transgender, gender queer, agender, nonbinary or however else they identify, see mirrors as well as windows at school, when they feel supported and affirmed, when all students learn about the beautiful complexity of sexuality and gender in the past.
John D'Emilio: And you can help make that dream a reality in the classroom, at home, in daily life. Recognizing our differences can bring us all together—and build a better future. Cory Collins is the senior writer at Teaching Tolerance. He is the coauthor of “Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students” with Jey Ehrenhalt. You can find his recent article, “Teaching Stonewall’s 50th Anniversary,” on our website. Cory has also been an editorial advisor to this podcast.
Leila Rupp: Queer America is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publisher of the award-winning anthology Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. Throughout the series, we featured a different scholar talking about material from a chapter in that collection. You can purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts.
John D’Emilio: You’ll also find additional tools, including resources we’ve mentioned, episode transcripts and the LGBTQ best practices guide we’ve been discussing to help your school create an inclusive curriculum and an open and respectful climate for dialogue among students and staff.
Leila Rupp: Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find those online at tolerance.org.
John D’Emilio: Our thanks to Mr. Collins for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our project manager. Music in this episode is by Chris Zabriskie.
Leila Rupp: I’m Dr. Leila J. Rupp, Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara.
John D’Emilio: And I’m Dr. John D’Emilio, Professor Emeritus of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
John D’Emilio and Leila Rupp: And we are your hosts for Queer America.