by Amy Moran, Ph. D. and Kate Okeson
Why is LGBTQIA+ history important in school?
October is LGBTQIA+ History Month. This month-long observance was initiated by Rodney Wilson, a High School teacher from Missouri. Wilson, who was 29 at the time, spoke candidly to his history class and “came out” to them during a lesson on the Holocaust. This was in 1994. In the last 27 years, LGBTQIA+ History Month has become more widely observed internationally, and those observances serve to broaden visibility of role models, opportunities to build community, and use the more widely accessible information to formally represent, and accurately reflect, the contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community.
New Jersey has taken historic strides that have a positive impact on educators and students, acknowledging the specific needs of LGBTQIA+ students and identifying ways to make and keep students safer. Among the most significant are our harassment, intimation and bullying (HIB) legislation, amendments to the Law Against Discrimination, New Jersey Department of Education transgender guidance for schools, and LGBTQ inclusive curriculum mandates.
LGBTQIA+ history in the classroom
LGBTQIA+ History Month is a great time to brush up on our knowledge of LGBTQIA+ folks who have lived incredible lives, made notable contributions to society, and made our culture more interesting with their creations. Celebrating these individuals by sharing information about them in schools is one way to observe this month. We’ve included links to amazing lists of such people on our resource page for October.
But what about some ways to incorporate the idea of making history into our classes? Can we connect LGBTQIA+ History Month with a classroom creation or lesson?
One of the critical challenges faced when introducing LGBTQIA+ history is the lack of documentation around some of our historic figures. Persecution based on an individual’s real or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation silenced many throughout history and stands as one of the greatest barriers to identifying texts and resources that broaden the historical record.
We offer this idea: What if your classes or gender-sexuality alliances (GSAs) created and collected oral histories of their own? What if we help our students develop critical literacy skills by discovering the ways in which parts of their culture or identities aren’t (yet) being recorded? What would they like history to record about 2021-22?
For reference, Eric Marcus, creator of the “Making Gay History” podcast and book (see our resource page) has a plethora of interviews and discussions with those who witnessed and made LGBTQIA+ history. Especially for middle and high school students, excerpts or whole interviews from “Making Gay History” are a wonderful way to demonstrate that “regular people” make history, while creating inroads to discuss with your students why these stories are collected here … and not in their textbooks.
National Coming Out Day is celebrated annually on Oct. 11. First observed in 1988, it centers on how the personal is political. “Coming out of the closet,” or living openly as an LGBTQIA+ person, is not only a courageous act to live authentically among their friends, family members, and colleagues, but also a form of activism that supports LGBTQIA+ visibility and celebration. Anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment thrives in an atmosphere of ignorance and silence, but straight/cisgender people who know LGBTQIA+ community members are less likely to maintain oppressive views.
NJEA members considering “coming out” this year may be weighing risks and benefits, but those of us LGBTIQA+ educators who already are “out” at work can attest that there are many, many more benefits than risks.
What about job security? New Jersey’s Legislators passed the Law Against Discrimination in 1964, later adding sexual orientation (1992) and gender expression (2006). Prior to June 2020, it was legal in half of the nation to fire someone for being gay or transgender. However, last year the U.S. Supreme Court determined that protections related to sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended to sexual orientation and gender identity nationwide. Local board of education policies should reflect these laws as well.
What are some benefits of being “out” at work? It’s common for our straight/cisgender colleagues to wear a wedding ring or have visible photos of their families on their desks at work. These small acts help demonstrate important aspects of their identities and encourage conversation about lives outside of the classroom.
LGBTQIA+ educators have not always had the same experience with affirmation, but more of us are openly identifying as members of the LGBTQIA+ community—sometimes with wedding rings and family photos—and it feels good to do so!
The energy of being closeted at work can be better directed in more fulfilling and productive ways, including creating deeper bonds with colleagues and experiencing the ease of being our full selves, even at school.
Visibility humanizes the LGBTQIA+ experience. Out, educators offer students the benefit of having queer role models. Straight/cisgender students in schools with “out” LGBTQIA+ educators have the opportunity to know and be taught by a queer adult. Queer and questioning students, who may crave affirmation of their own identities, have positive models for what “queer adulting” can look like. Our trans youth of color especially benefit from seeing adult and elder trans people of color. They offer a vision of personal longevity when, presently, young people of color too often die tragically from violence. Having out educators supports students’ understanding that LGBTQIA+ identity is just a different version of normal!
GSAs and National Coming Out Day Because you can’t “see” LGBTQIA+ identity like some other identities, coming out as LGBTQIA+ happens again and again for many—each time we meet a new person or join a new space, and it can be scary every time. The good news is that many young people are already familiar with this process. Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club participants may bring attention to this event at school during morning announcements, with colorful flyers or on social media platforms. Some students may choose to come out—which takes courage! —and they deserve our congratulations and support.
Regardless of whether you, a colleague, a student, or no one at your school comes out on National Coming Out Day, it’s important to establish that your classroom and your school are safe, pressure-free spaces for anyone to come out as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, if and when they choose to.
- Do you have a photo to share of something in your classroom that affirms LGBTIQ+ identity?
- Are you an LGBTQIA+ person who came out to your students this year and want to share how it went?
- Would you like to share something you’re planning for Indigenous People’s Month in November that affirms LGBTQIA+ identities and teaches about the contributions of queer indigenous people?
We’d love to include it in future resource pages! Send to email@example.com.
Books for the month:
Troublemaker for Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington by Jacqueline Houtman (5-12) – Bayard Rustin was one of the most influential activists of our time as an early advocate for African Americans and for gay rights. He mentored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., teaching him about the power of nonviolent direct action.
Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights by Jerome Pohlen (4-8) This book offers perspective on early activism for LGBTQ rights. offering engaging personal stories, and the activities that help bring history to life.
PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, Rob Sanders, 2018 (K-2) – Trace the life of the Gay Pride Flag, from its beginnings in 1978 with social activist Harvey Milk and designer Gilbert Baker to its global importance.
There are many lists of notable folks in the LGBTQIA+ community: trailblazers for civil rights as well as ordinary individuals who by virtue of being the first “out” person in their field make a huge contribution. This month, we’d like to acknowledge some LGBTQIA+ history makers serving in the current federal administration and working for all Americans.
- Karine Jean-Pierre, Deputy Press Secretary
- Dr. Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health
- Pili Tobar, Deputy White House Communications Director
- Carlos Elizondo, White House Social Secretary
- Gautam Raghavan, Deputy Director, Presidential Personnel Office
- Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation
- Charlene Wang, Special Assistant, Federal Highway Administration
- Arlando Teller, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tribal Affairs