High School Students Need LGBTQ Visibility In the Classroom, Now More Than Ever
When many of us look back on our high school history classes, Stonewall, Harvey Milk and the activism of ACT UP were never mentioned. (Maybe if they were, we would have paid attention a bit more.) Even in 2018, LGBTQ history is often still not found on the pages of textbooks or white boards of high school classrooms across America. But many teachers and activists are fighting to bring an LGBTQ curriculum into our schools, ensuring these important history lessons are imparted to the people who may need them most.
These fighters have just experienced a small victory, as Massachusetts schools will be able to experiment with a new, inclusive LGBTQ curriculum in history, English and health classes during the next school year. This curriculum, developed by a group of teachers with the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, will be unveiled this summer.
LGBTQ inclusion in classroom curriculum has been a long battle. One of the huge advances preceding this decision out of Massachusetts happened in 2011, when California became the first state to mandate that students be taught about the contributions of — and trials faced by — LGBTQ people in social studies classes. California remains the only state to have such a law on the books.
Stacie Brensilver-Berman is a former high school history teacher from Brooklyn, New York. After seeing a lack of engagement and agency in her students, she decided it was time to leave teaching after 10 years and go back to school herself.
“I wanted to write about something that is going to be an important and relevant issue to the students,” she tells Hornet. “Their learning about this in history class will give them important context about what is going on in the world around them so they can engage with society, get politically active and craft conversations with information they learned in school as opposed to Google.”
Brensilver-Berman is currently getting her PhD in Social Studies Education at New York University, where she is pursuing the topic of an LGBTQ curriculum in high school education for her dissertation. “I wanted to pick an issue that is going to be important in the lives of these students and is something that will perpetually be changing for the foreseeable future,” she says. “So I chose LGBTQ history.”
Her dissertation, Behind the Times: The Struggle to Include LGBTQ History in High School US History Classes, 1990-2017, covers this topic.
What she first uncovered was the lack of resources that exists for teachers who may be interested in pursing this curriculum. “There’s a ton of resources and material online out there for teachers who want to make their classrooms more LGBT inclusive, but most of that is about bullying and school climate, which are very important things,” she says. “But there’s not a history lesson or information about LGBTQ history. There’s so little in textbooks.”
Indeed, after evaluating 63 textbooks intended for regular general education high school history classes, she found very little LGBTQ history. And when did find something, she found it to be problematic. “Half of the books may include Stonewall, but that’s it,” she says. “And when it comes to HIV/AIDS, literally the same sentence is in every book. That ‘Homosexuals and IV drug users got AIDS in the 1980s.’ That’s it. I would have thought that we’d come a little farther than that in terms of what our textbooks are offering students.”
Brensilver-Berman also examined the topic of an LGBTQ curriculum from a legal point of view and found that not only is California the only state mandating that teachers have to teach LGBTQ history, but seven states actually mandate that you can’t teach these topics.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) explains, “Laws prohibiting the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ — often referred to as as ‘no promo homo’ laws — are local or state education laws that expressly forbid teachers of health/sexuality education from discussing lesbian, gay or bisexual people or topics in a positive light, if at all. Some laws even require that teachers actively portray LGBT people in a negative or inaccurate way.”
The seven states that have these types of laws? Those would be Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
Brensilver-Berman interviewed 13 teachers for her dissertation who are currently teaching LGBTQ curriculum, and Hasmig Minassian is one of those teachers.
Minassian is an out high school teacher in California. Now in her 17th year of teaching at Berkeley High School, she has taught every level of history. LGBTQ curriculum has been a part of her classroom for sometime now, and she tells us why she believes it’s so important for teachers — especially history teachers — to include it in their lesson plans.
“Students engage most with content and text that is relatable,” she tells Hornet. “Especially at these developmental stages of sexuality and identity that kids are in. It’s really important for the kids to see models of both the movements and the struggles, and even more importantly, to have positive role models and people who have persisted throughout the identity politics and come out as these strong leaders or actors or politicians.”
“It’s really important for kids to see parts of themselves reflected in history,” Minassian continues. “It’s important for kids to see themselves reflected in the stories of our country or our world. It helps them not to feel so shameful, particularly around things like race and gender and sexual orientation. Often there’s a lot of shame associated with those identities.”
Reflection is also something that Jeff Perrotti, director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, speaks of. “We talk about mirrors and windows,” says Perrotti, who helped craft the curriculum Massachusetts is offering its educators this summer. “Students need to see themselves reflected and see others who are different from themselves. It is important that all students feel safe, valued and respected in school so they can be ready to learn.”
“If students don’t see themselves in the curriculum, they are not as likely to pay attention,” adds the Director of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth Corey Prachniak-Rincon. “It is a huge demand we hear from teachers. They recognize part of the reason why LGBTQ students feel excluded is they’re not reflected and that part of their identity is ignored.”
“It’s important for straight students, too,” Minassian explains. “It’s a dual thing, right? It’s important for all of us to know that history, because it brings those stories out of the margins and into the mainstream and normalizes them. So it’s important for people who may have historically struggled with gender and sexuality, but also for straight people who have struggled with their own homophobia. It normalizes it so they can deal with their own homophobia, too.”
“We know that this inclusion works because we have already changed the way we teach history in some ways,” she continues. “There is a reason why we teach ethnic studies. It’s important for people to know the history of how ethnic people in this country have created or formulated their identities. This is similarly important for LGBTQ people to do the same.”
So what is Minassian actually teaching her students? She explains to us that in the years she taught U.S. History, she would cover the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, starting from the days of the Daughters of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society, through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, all the way up through marriage equality.
“Looking at pivotal moments in LGBTQ history” is how Minassian describes the LGBTQ curriculum. “I also have done some profiles on gay and lesbian people: Barney Frank, Sheila Kuehl, from politicians to activists to actors. So kids understand that gay and lesbian folks exist in all areas of society.”
Brensilver-Berman explains that the teachers she interviewed are those who inspire her the most when it comes to the topic of an LGBTQ curriculum. “My favorite chapter in my dissertation is where I interview the teachers, because they all have inspiring stories,” she tells us. “They are all teaching LGBTQ history for a reason. Because if you’re teaching that right now, you have a real reason. Nobody is telling you to. Nobody is forcing you to. In fact, many people don’t want you to. Being trusted with these teachers’ stories and hearing what they have to say is the most instructive work that I did.”
“These people are in the trenches, and they have experienced the obstacles in doing this work,” says Brensilver-Berman, “and they inspire me.”