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Why Teaching Queer History Is Important

The opposition has already started challenging California’s new legislation on teaching LGBT history in schools, the Huffington Post reports.  Others have already pointed out the benefits that accrue when straight students learn about the historical contributions of LGBT people–people are less likely to discriminate against a minority they better understand, for example.  I’d like to highlight some of the benefits of this kind of legislation for queer students.

When I went to the Cameron Village Public Library in Raleigh, NC to research my eleventh-grade US history term paper on the lesbian liberation movement, I was both excited and terrified.  I knew nothing about the history of lesbians in the US, or anywhere else.  I had a vague sense of a burgeoning gay movement in the 90s, but my knowledge of gay and lesbian people didn’t extend much earlier than that.  I was shaking when I checked out that stack of books, sure that someone would see and know me, or that the librarian would make a comment.

When I stood up in front of my class to present my paper topic, after tons of research that was more interesting and relevant to me than anything else I’d studied in a history class, the room fell silent.  In sharp contrast to other students’ presentations, no one had any questions for me during the Q&A.  When I sat down, a friend passed me a note–“are you a lesbian?  check yes or no.”

It’s important that teachers cover LGBT history not only because straight, cis-gender kids need to be aware of the community’s historical contributions, but because queer kids often have no other resource for information.  It may be too scary to go to the library alone, or the library may carry no books on the subject.  Looking into the topic independently may be seen as a declaration of sexual orientation or gender identity before a teenager is ready.  Unlike straight, white, cis-gender students (especially male students), queer kids have not been studying the contributions of those like them throughout school.  Many are not aware that there is a history to study.

Finally, queer kids often grow up in families made up entirely of straight, cis-gender members.  Similar to the problem of children of color growing up with white adoptive families, queer kids often receive no education from their families about the history of their community because parents don’t understand their children’s identities.  School may be the only place where a queer student hears a positive message about LGBT people and their contributions to society.  The impact this first lesson can have is enormous, and it’s unfortunate that for so many queer young people, it goes untaught.