California Textbooks Might Include Gay Role Models, History

ALAN TURING

The first gay person I ever learned about in school was Alan Turing, the computer scientist and philosopher, and it was only because one of the more offensively straight boys dressed up as him for something I’m pretty sure was called Philosophers Friday (I went as John Locke). He slicked back his hair and hit on all the other straight boys dressed as male philosophers, which everyone found hilarious. If he hadn’t, the fact that Turing had to agree to be chemically castrated to avoid prison after being charged with gross indecency and later committed suicide wouldn’t have come up, because who learns about gay people in school?

And that was in a semi-liberal Canadian high school. Same-sex marriage would have just been legalized. One of my friends took her girlfriend to prom and was very politely completely ignored by the administration. There was a Gay-Straight Alliance and people mostly left everyone in it alone.

But except for Turing and, a little while later, Oscar Wilde, gay people weren’t really talked about — or if they did, no one really mentioned that they were gay. It just wasn’t a thing. I didn’t start learning about people in history who were gay until I started reading about gay history for fun, which a lot of people don’t do. Especially if they are straight or in places (geographical or personal) where being an out gay person or reading about out gay people just doesn’t feel like an option. Or, um, if they have lives.

Right now in California, a new bill would make learning about gay and lesbian historical figures a standard. SB-48 would require that all social science textbooks include “a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans … to the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

One of the main goals of the bill is to reduce anti-gay bullying. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Senator Mark Leno, who introduced the bill, said:

“In light of the ongoing and ever-threatening phenomenon of bullying and the tragic result of suicides, it seems to me that better informed students might be more welcoming in their approach to differences among their classmates. Students would better understand that we are talking about a civil rights movement.”

While similar legislation was proposed in 2006, those backing the bill hope that they will be more successful with a Democrat as governor. And because California is a major textbook purchaser, publishers frequently tailor content to meet its demands, which means that other states might end up using the new materials as well. Additionally, the changes would not be forced on existing materials, but would be added in the next scheduled series of revisions, due in the next few years.

Several right-wing religious and parental groups are upset about this like it’s their job. The California Catholic Conference, the First Southern Baptist Church, and the Thousand Oaks Christian Fellowship have sent letters calling the changes “absurd.” The Concerned Parents United has published a sample letter, which I am not going to link to, arguing that including references to the sexual orientation of historical figures won’t reduce bullying because “we can teach our children to be kind to others without prompting unnecessary discussion about alternative sexual practices.” It also argues that such materials would be “indoctrination,” that “parents want their children taught academics in school — not a social agenda which may be contrary to their morals and beliefs,” and that people should be able to “opt out of being exposed to such materials” in the same (unfortunate) way they can opt out of sex education.

It’s easy, sort of but not really, to see where they’re coming from. Looking at history from more than one angle and acknowledging the validity of the non-old-dead-white-guys-in-power perspective only started to happen relatively recently. But now, it’s common academic practice. Arguing that it’s indoctrination is just silly.

And arguing that it won’t reduce bullying is just inaccurate. Last fall, teachers at a school in London claimed to have more or less eliminated anti-gay bullying after adding gay people to the history curriculum. According to the London Evening Standard,

“Music teacher Elly Barnes said she developed the lessons with colleagues five years ago, after she became concerned about pupils using “gay” as a derogatory term. […]

‘Many schools haven’t even begun to deal with homophobia,’ she said. ‘Some still think being gay is illegal in parts of the country. By looking at famous LGBT people in history, we’ve changed opinions and we have had a number of pupils come out. We have also changed the language used in the school. I used to hear the word gay used all the time as a derogatory term. Now we hardly hear it.'”

Virginia Strom-Martin, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said, “We are trying to provide for those students that feel disenfranchised, some role models.”

Role models would be nice, especially ones less depressing than Turing; reducing anti-gay bullying would be even better. Last week, the proposed bill passed a party-line vote 6-3. And hopefully it will keep passing, and a generation of queer kids will finally grow up knowing that someone has been here before them to fight some of the battles.

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Carolyn Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Carolyn has written 1128 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. When I was 18, my mom gave me this postcard that said “History has set the record a little too straight” and had pictures of all of these queer historical figures, who I had heard of but never that part of them. It was awesome. Mostly because it was the first positive acknowledgement of my less-than-straightness in the two years since I’d come out, but seeing that super duper cool people had also been LGBT was neat as well.

    • The lone lesbian teacher at my less than completely tolerant midwest HS had that poster on her wall – it was such a source of strength and inspiration for a young closeted high schooler.

  2. “we can teach our children to be kind to others without prompting unnecessary discussion about alternative sexual practices”

    No. No you cannot. Empathy is pretty incompatible with ignorance.

  3. ive pretty much off and on read about every gay person associated with anything/has a wiki page in the past 5 or so years. it was really important to realize that there really are a gajillion people you can relate to, and i feel like it would have such a positive influence to give EVERYONE a history lesson on it, since no one seems to remember gays existed before like…1970

    • That is so true it’s frightening. I had a very intense argument with someone who insisted that homosexuality originated in the early 1900s. No matter how many historical sources I threw out them, they refused to believe me. I also had a similar argument with my uncle, who is one of those people who actually believes that the world has only existed for about 2000 years, and the scientists are lying to us because of their satanic/probably homosexual agendas. Ignorant people are scary.

  4. I love Alan Turing, his story makes me want to cry/kill things/certain people.

    I don’t think we ever did Famous Gays at my presbytarian private school, although to be fair I only did two years of history. Let’s see … we did homosocialism and Antonio/Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice (and also a bit of Romeo/Mercutio), and we also talked a lot about James I and his probably-boyfriends. I think that was it. I admit that I never really felt the lack, I never felt like people were really being omitted mostly because I didn’t do all that much social history and because we had a lot of gay rolemodels at the time – when I was in high school a Maori, trans, former prostitute, MP was working with the Prostitutes’ Collective to pass Prostitution Law Reform, which either legalised or decriminalised prostitution, and around the same time the government (under the leadership of straight and gay MPs) passed civil unions, with admittedly some revolting protests, but there was general agreement among everyone I knew that the protests were, in fact, revolting. So. I guess I felt like then was the time for LGBT leaders. Trying to think of other famous gays we might have studied … we definitely didn’t talk about Katherine Mansfield’s affairs with women, but we also didn’t talk about her affairs with men or her generally scandalous and exciting life after she left New Zealand (possssibly because we studied her when I was 11). Our English curriculum was very text-based and didn’t address much at all about the authors, to be honest, except D H Jerkface Lawrence.

    Perhaps Famous Gays is a primary school thing?

  5. This is it for me. I really care about marriage rights and military rights and everything, but if we could just learn and teach all the queer kiddies out there that they EXIST and have existed and will continue to, and if we could teach straight society about all the positive impacts queer people have made on our lives throughout history the injustices would blatant.

  6. When I realised I was gay one of the first things I did (well, after trying to convince myself I was bisexual)was order a massive stack of books online from the library and read them obsessively. I really recommend doing this, learning that there were gay people (and specifically lesbians) in all places at all times gave me a sense of place and connectedness.It sounds like therapy talk, but I knew that there were other women out there who had felt like me, and I didn’t feel quite so alone.

    Top book I’d recommend for gay girls would be Sapphistries by Leila J. Rupp. It’s one of the few books I’ve found that focused exclusively on lesbians*, and it’s hugely interesting.And the front cover is just effin’ gorgeous.

    Here’s google Book’s preview: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ArVw53LH-04C&printsec=frontcover&dq=leila+j+rupp+sapphistries&source=bl&ots=sWevBG5XyS&sig=iz3kv702COl5vTts6ZwJG0Bylx4&hl=en&ei=XRmaTcKMHMSxhAfq3JHwCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    *I know gay men have had their share of oppression, but the patriarchy still works by ensuring that ‘gay books’ usually means ‘books about gay men.’

  7. Out of the 13 years I spent in the public education system, I think I got one line in a history textbook about Stonewall when I was in the 11th grade. It basically mentioned that it occurred. Education would solve so many problems.

    Also, if they can “teach [their] children to be kind to others without prompting unnecessary discussion about alternative sexual practices,” then why the fuck has gay bullying become a norm? I know I can’t really make a case against these groups as I expect they would stick their fingers in their ears and scream la-la-la the moment their arguments start falling apart, but I’m really sick & tired of hearing so much bullshit all the time.

  8. Yeah no joke ever since the second time I realized “you’re gayyy… for realllll” and I was 16 I’m 22 now I’ve read every single book and article no joke every boook at my university library. I also creepily read and watch every lgbt themed video or website… hahha :) My parents kept telling us to read, read and read and not ask them questions haha. We were encouraged to read and use search engines sooo I totally did. To the fullest of my gay gay gay heart. Oh books <3. haha

    In my schools, in junior and high school we vaguely talked about lgbt themes like health. That wasnt really brought up but in English it was brought up indirectly alot in poetry. It was commented on when one kid would be like " why is the author talking about this man, like he loves him..?? and he doesnt have a wife??" and the teacher would be like ohh you didnt know? he was gay :D and be really cool about it. But yeahhh overall I had some wicked English teachers and then some awfull homophobic health/sex ed teachers.

    Read Books yay :D

  9. I had a fabulous teacher back in eighth grade who not only introduced us to the Gay Rights movement in America, but made her own textbooks which included interviews with actual gay people (le gasp). She had us research and present Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk, and was pretty much one of those teachers that you knew you, as a GLBTQ student knew you could talk to. Given my upbringing, I would never have known what a gay person was, or that it was okay to be one, without her, and my eventual realization of my sexuality would have been even more painful. I still find myself wishing I could get in contact with her again and tell her just how much she changed my life. I also wish that there were more teachers like her. She gives me faith in humanity.

  10. Wow.
    I have a 9 year old daughter currently in the public school system, and I have to say that if not for the fact that we are CONSTANTLY talking about all things homogay, drugs, sex, and anything that she might *gasp* actually have to deal with, she would be completely clueless. I’m totally voting for this.
    But, until then, does anyone have any links/ideas/info as to where I may be able to find information on historically amazing GLBTs? (besides Harry Potter?)
    THANKS IN ADVANCE!!!!

  11. My English teacher already does this- she has a little addition for every five sentence biography in our textbook, usually along the lines of “They did a lot of drugs/were gay/had six affairs/etc.” All the cute little details our very sanitized textbook leaves out.

  12. Growing up in a family where my mother is bisexual, my aunt is a flaming lesbian and half my cousins are gay, my parents were always talking about historical gay role models. But the average gay or straight person gets so little education in this area that its pretty sad. This is a big step forward.

  13. Pingback: Autostraddle — California Textbooks Might Include Gay Role Models … | MyGaySpot

  14. Omg. Willa Cather. First lesbo lady I learned about in school in any real way. Willa Cather. Willa Cather. Willa Cather.

    But that was in 11th grade. That’s a whole lotta grades.

    • I am so pissed off right now. My junior high literature textbook was a collection of poems and mini biographies of poets, including Cather. Sure, I found some of her poems suggestive, but I never really guessed she was anything other than straight. Would it have hurt anyone to just slip that into her biography? At that point in my life, my only gay/bi/lesbian role models were fictional and in sitcoms. It was a friggin’ revelation when I heard a brief mention of homosexuality in a documentary about Ancient Egypt (My parents and other religious fundamentalists had always acted like we had just appeared in the 70’s, along with feminists I guess).

  15. I can’t help thinking that ultra-religious people would feel more comfortable with LGBT people, with equality legislation and with gay-supportive measures in schools if they could only accept that we were born this way. That way, they wouldn’t worry about their kids being ‘turned’ by what they learn in school, and wouldn’t need to teach them to hate us for fear they may become like us.

    Of course, though, understanding that we were born this way would mean they’d feel less able to control their kids’ orientation in that they’d just have to let go and accept whatever outcome emerged. *sigh*

  16. My (public Australian) high school had an openly lesbian teacher, she was inspirational to everyone gay and straight alike but was actually bullied by other staff, which is ridiculous.

  17. Everyone learns about Caesar, Alexander, Socrates… Their sexual escapades are not taught. I was an adult before I even learned that Caesar’s political opponents referred to him as “Queen of Bithynia” in an effort to discredit him. Nobody reads Plutarch any more. I was 50 before I ever heard of Pelopidas and Epaminondas and the Sacred Band of Thebes. Teaching REAL history is discouraged.

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