LGBTQ+ History in Schools: Why Teachers Need to Prioritize Queer Visibility in Classrooms
Integrating LGBTQ+ history, content, and representation into school curriculums is critical for the well-being of all students. Here, experts explain how to do it and why it matters.
As a queer and non-binary teacher who grew up never seeing themselves in the school curriculum, I know how alienating it can be to feel like you are the only LGBTQ+ person for miles. Growing up, I was desperate for representation that reflected my thoughts and experiences; however, it was only through my own time and research that I was able to learn about queer history and culture. Because these topics weren't ever discussed or even mentioned at school, I thought there was something to be ashamed of and remained silent about my struggles. The climate of shame that has historically surrounded the queer community is a challenging barrier that many students still face and, for that very reason, it is a climate that must change.
Representation Decreases Social Stigma
"I think that it's important to have LGBTQ representation because kids in this generation need to know that being a part of the LGBTQ community is not a bad thing," says Elyana F., one of my fifth-grade students in Chicago. Recently, my class read a story about a boy who helps his community by creating a local garden for the homeless. For a class project, my students created posters about an issue that is important to them and suggested ways for our school community to get involved. Elyana did her community care poster project on LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance. Elyana explained, "At the end of the day, anyone should be able to love who they want without being judged."
In order for students to feel seen and accepted, queer content needs to be incorporated into every school's curriculum. Introducing LGBTQ+ content at a young age normalizes different identities and families, which lessens the stigma surrounding queer topics. By incorporating queer representation early on, there is no need later in life for kids to make a "discovery" about LGBTQ+ people—they should hopefully be as visible in society as straight people currently are. Lark Randles, an early intervention specialist from Ohio, expands on this idea by explaining how she wants her classroom to be, "equal and normalize everyone/anyone's situation. If we start young, then it becomes a norm."
There are several ways that queer representation can be incorporated in the classroom and at home for all ages. Nina Sam, a K-5 art teacher and colleague of mine at Horizon Science Academy Southwest, explains, "At the beginning of the year, I always look forward to our family portrait projects. It is a great way to get to know where my students come from, as well as teaching non-traditional family structures. For my youngest students, books like The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman do a really great job of illustrating that families come in all different formats and should be celebrated for their uniqueness."
By incorporating these types of projects and literature into the classroom, queer and questioning students feel more at ease as well as any students with queer relatives.
Creating a Safe Space for All Students
Integrating LGBTQ+ content and history into the curriculum also creates a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Fifth-grader Elyana says this will help LGBTQ+ students, "feel comfortable coming out and not have to worry that people will treat them differently or treat them like anything other than human." Ultimately, the goal is to create a classroom environment where queer kids feel seen, questioning kids feel safe to explore their identity, closeted kids can identify allies, and straight kids can learn about the value of diversity and perspective.
"I think it is important to create a classroom culture where it is known that you are not only welcome, but belong here every day of the year," says Sam. When kids feel like they belong and that they have a trusted adult available to help them, they feel safe enough to confide their struggles with a teacher.
According to the Human Rights Campaign LGBTQ Youth Report, only 26 percent of queer students say they always feel safe in their classrooms and only five percent could say that all of their teachers were supportive of queer people.
Isabella Petit, a middle school science teacher from Ohio, describes a simple way for teachers to indicate that they are an ally for their students. "I display a banner with each Pride flag on it as well as verbally express my support of the LGBTQIA community," she says.
"For queer and questioning students, this displays that I am a safe person to ask questions and discuss these topics with. Several LGBTQIA students have decided to come out to me and have explained that it was because I am vocal about my support and display it prominently," says Petit. She also explains how this benefits her straight students by, "normalizing the presence of LGBTQIA individuals and allowing them to gain more knowledge about the community."
Portraying a Truer Account of History
In addition to decreasing social stigma and increasing safe spaces, it is also important to realize that LGBTQ+ content has consistently and purposefully been left out of school curricula, textbooks, and lesson plans. For example, the lavender scare is left out of the Cold War, the pink triangles are left out of the Holocaust, and the Stonewall Riots are continually ignored. The removal of this content erases the discrimination queer people have faced in history as well as the contributions they have made and sends a message to LGBTQ+ kids that they, much like the subject, should stay in the closet.
Sam says, "I often structure projects based on influential artists, and it just so happens that many of the greatest artists of our time are also part of the queer community. It is important to me as an art teacher to not only teach using diverse artists, but to teach all parts of an artist's history, especially if their queer identity influences and shapes their work." Instead of tailoring history to fit a heteronormative narrative that erases LGBTQ+ identities, teachers should be highlighting how a person's identity often times contributes to their work.
For classes outside of the humanities, it may seem like a challenge to incorporate this content into the curriculum. However, there are always ways to integrate LGBTQ+ material into our lesson plans. Randles explains how she does this with her pre-school aged students by simply giving examples in class questions like, "If John goes to the park with his Mommy and Daddy and Anne goes to the park with her Mommies…" Something as easy and innocuous as weaving queer content into everyday discussion can make students feel accepted and more at home.
Petit also acknowledges that it can be hard to squeeze LGBTQ+ content into science classes. However, she is still able to incorporate this content when it arises in the curriculum by adding nuance to the following discussions: the varying mating behaviors in organisms, the chromosomal variances that are observed that demonstrate that biological sex is not binary, and explaining that hormones are only part of what creates one's sex.
It's Never Too Soon To Create Queer Visibility In The Classroom
It is important to remember that your child will know queer people in their lifetime (if they don't already) and see LGBTQ+ representation in the media. Even if your child is not queer (or out yet), that doesn't mean that a family member, a friend, a teacher, or a peer won't be. Many parents and guardians don't want to address these issues because they feel ill-equipped to handle the topic or that the subject may be inappropriate and confusing to the child. In other words, adults sexualize the queer community in stigmatizing and inappropriate ways. Queer people and their relationships are no more sexual than straight people and their relationships. Nor do children automatically think about sexual content when they are presented with couples, straight or gay.
When I have explained to little kids that I have a girlfriend or that I am "not a boy or a girl," they almost always readily accept it without question. For the kids who do have questions, they are always genuine and innocent—and I am happy to answer in a manner that is appropriate for their age.
We need to look at the bigger picture. While these topics may prompt questions and, at worst, uncomfortable conversations, the mental health and general well-being of LGBTQ+ students, both in and out of the closet, are at stake.
Queer people everywhere know all too well that social stigma and a lack of resources can be overwhelming. As adults, it is our job to educate ourselves and learn how to have these conversations with our children so that queer kids can turn into queer adults.