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History Education and How Children Perceive Conflict

Sitting in my living room, checking the BBC every few hours for updates on Libya, watching my Twitter stream comment on Somalia, Egypt, Turkish attacks on Kurds, Israeli attacks on Palestinians, I’ve been thinking about what it’d be like to be a child or a teenager while all this goes on.  Is the way children perceive history different to what it was when I was growing up?  Is history education any different?

My immediate assumption is that the world is somehow different than it was in my childhood and teenage years.  It’s a world of conflict, wartime, lines being redrawn.  Children growing up now must have a different perception of America than I did–after all, we’re obviously not “at peace.”

But are things really so different?

Social studies and history classes, I think, tend to wash out conflict, especially if it’s taking place far away.  There’s the easy excuse that something happening now isn’t history, but I think it’s more than that.  I remember having the impression that history somehow stopped at 1990, that there had been conflict in the past, back when there was a Soviet Union, but peace and prosperity were what I had to look forward to.  I’d look at my dad’s 1980s world atlas and laugh at the funny country lines, not realizing that lines were being redrawn and argued even as I sat there, tracing over the Soviet republics with my finger.  In 8th grade social studies, we watched NATO bombings in Kosovo live on TV, but there was no real connection to that happening.  It was something “over there,” over which President Clinton surely had control.  From time to time, I had a classmate from Zaire, then the Congo, but “refugee” didn’t mean anything to me.

Of course, it’s easier to teach history from a point of stability.  Historiography isn’t taught till high school, when students start questioning where the history comes from, who wrote it all down.  In elementary school classes on the civil war, students learn about slavery, but there’s often no real connection to the fact that some black children’s ancestors were slaves and some white children’s ancestors where slaveowners.  “The Indians” are never portrayed with reference to existing, living tribes.  It’s convenient to portray conquest as a sad story that’s over now, erasing the current needs of indigenous people.  (For more on this, I strongly recommend the book Conquest by Andrea Smith).

For me, history became relevant and interesting in my senior year of high school, when I had an AP European History teacher who was passionate about social history.  She tied together social movements, governments, art, culture, and geography in a way that made history colorful and relevant.  At the same time, what I was learning in history class linked to the literature I was reading in AP English Literature (mostly British authors) and AP German.  It was the opportunity to think about how philosophical ideas, morals, and theories tied in with historical events that really sparked my love of history, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone.

I’m not an educator or someone who decides curricula, but I do have some hope that in the future, history and social studies classes will start in earlier on the relevance of history, and on the way historical threads tie to current movements.  In American classrooms, the US needs to be treated as a player like any other player, not as an infallible, unmoving reference point.  I hope that what’s going on right now in the Middle East and Africa isn’t just displayed to kids on TV screens as a bit of news that’s going on, but discussed in context.  If any of my readers are teachers, or have kids in school right now, I’d love to hear from you in comments or on Twitter (@queerscholar) about what they’re learning.

Why Queer History Is Important

As an undergraduate, my major was history.  One of the most important things I learned from my study of history is that history is not only relevant to the present, but extremely also value-laden and described in a different way by almost every narrator.   Part of the ongoing struggle for social justice in the present is the fight to define the past.

Part of this fight is simply including topics like sexuality, gender, queerness, race, disability, imperialism, etc. etc. in our teaching of history.  When history curricula fail to include these elements, students are never given an opportunity to question the values passed down by their parents, and you get the clincher, what I call the way it’s always been argument.

I got a taste of that argument on the train yesterday, when a man next to me was talking on his cell phone about his gay son.  He expressed feelings of disgust to the woman on the other end of the line, but what he kept coming back to was the “men having sex with men isn’t natural” argument.  The specifics were a mix of bad history, bad theology, and bad biology–men in relationships is a recent perversion, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong, and we are the only species where males have sex with other males.

This is a case where mere exposure to alternative facts could make a difference in a child’s life.

I’m not saying that people aren’t stubborn, or that they won’t argue back.  I know that for every sex-positive or queer-positive curriculum, there’s a conservative argument that espouses the opposite with facts to back it up.  But some things are kind of hard to disprove.  Biology isn’t my field, but I bet I could find you a couple of male animals of some species that like to get it on. Just like I can provide countless examples of queerness throughout history.

The man on the train may never change, and his son may never know what it’s like to have a father who loves him for who he is.  But we can educate ourselves about our history and share it with others, and we can support the introduction of wider history curricula in our schools, and those of us who are interested in history can ask some direct questions in our research about who’s writing the articles, and who’s being left out.

RIP Howard Zinn

I don’t normally do memorial posts, but I have to type a brief note on Howard Zinn due to the impact he had on my life and my academic path. I was never a big fan of history, see. I kind of hated it, which now is hard to believe, but the history you learn in grade school is pretty narrow. In 11th grade, though, we read a chapter of A People’s History of the United States and it blew my mind. This guy was for real. Since then, I went on to get a degree in history, and I think the exposure to Zinn was a big part of the turning of the tide. So hats off to you, Sir, for daring to tell a fuller version of the story. And if you haven’t read A People’s History, pick up your copy today.

A Room of One’s Own

I’ve been a great admirer of Virginia Woolf since high school, but this is my first time reading this particular work, and I’m quite struck by it.  She has a way of communicating that is hard to match, and I would recommend A Room of One’s Own before any denser modern material in a basic women’s studies class.  I think that in the time we live in, it’s very easy to get accustomed and complacent and forget just how monumental the steps are that have been made in recent years for equality.  Women and men are not equal, that’s for sure, but it’s just amazing to think that I was so lucky as to be born in this shimmer of time where I can forget the long years of oppression and hopelessness for women and have not only a room of my own, but three, and on top of that not one degree but two, and one of those in law no less.  I’m sure Woolf would be very pleased indeed to learn that such things would be possible so soon after she wrote.  We haven’t conquered the realms of men, but we have entered them, and that’s saying a lot.

Humanitarian intervention (still intervention)

My Foreign Relations Law professor, who is a Russian national, made an interesting point today.  He was talking about the decision to bomb Kosovo, and referred to the humanitarian intervention as a pretext, which I don’t agree with.  However, it’s good to remember that there are two sides to every story, and though I think in this case intervention was the right thing given Serbia’s history of ethnic cleansing, the credibility of the threat, and the lack of national interest beyond humanitarian concerns (very unlike Iraq), there is a Serbian side to the story.  Of course, Russia is an ally of Serbia, and it was due to the promise that Russia and China (nervous about the idea of invading sovereign territory) would veto the move in the Security Council that NATO chose to strike out on its own without UN approval.

The professor was making a link to one of the Federalist Papers, wherein the author (I believe it was Hamilton) mentions the inability of a young United States to remonstrate with dignity.  To illustrate the meaning of this phrase, he used the example of Russian Prime Minister Primakov flying from Moscow to Washington to meet with Vice President Al Gore.  Before leaving, Primakov was informed by Russian intelligence of NATO’s plan to bomb Kosovo.  He called Gore, who informed Primakov that his information was bad.  Primakov got on the plane, and when he arrived at Shannon to refuel, he called once again, again receiving intelligence information that the bombing was imminent.  Gore responded in the same way.  Well, Primakov was over the Atlantic when he found that the bombing was taking place.  Had he arrived in Washington and had his picture taken with the Vice President, the obvious message would have been that Russia supported the mission.  So Primakov asked the pilot to take a U-turn, and he returned to Russia. In my professor’s words, “that was when the United States lost Russia.”

I find this story interesting in two respects.  One is the perspective that many Americans have when it comes to Russia.  I grew up thinking of Russia as a country that was strong throughout the Cold War, though it had trouble feeding its own people and was probably in some way inferior, and after the war ended, I didn’t really think of Russia as anything.  It was this state out on the other side of world that we didn’t have to worry about any more, essentially.  But I’ve come to realize that Russia is a country to watch for, and also to respect.  I think Russian leaders have done some horrible things in terms of human rights, but I also think that to ignore or try to manipulate Russia is a bit foolish. 

The other respect in which I find the account interesting deals directly with Kosovo.  I’ve been reading Richard Falk’s recent book, in which he talks a lot about how Kosovo was illegal but legitimate.  One side you don’t really get, however, is the Russian (or Serbian) side.  Again, I think it’s fairly clear that the mission saved a lot of lives, and that imminent humanitarian attrocities justified the attack, but the nature of the attack is another question.  Humanitarian intervention is still intervention, and respect for sovereignty is one of the key rules of diplomacy.  I think we could do better.  High-altitude bombing, for example, doesn’t seem like the solution.  I think the global world order needs restructuring so that nations can show respect for each other and universal non-acceptance of human rights violations.  If Russia, for example, had been able to retain the option of being Serbia’s ally but at the same time could have refused to use its veto due to the human rights violations going on, and at the same time NATO powers had agreed to use only targeted military force when absolutely necessary in a way that would avoid civilian casualties and ensure quick withdrawal, maybe we’d be in a different position today.  I think that we should work to prevent human rights tragedy no matter what the geopolitical consequences, but I also think we should be careful about verifying the threat and using appropriate responses.  Losing Russia, I think, is proving to be a relatively big deal.  

So what is the goal?  I think universal acceptance of at least the very most basic human rights is a good start.  This is an extremely difficult goal to achieve, but it is in the self-interest of nations to adhere to the principle.  If we could all carry out diplomatic relations as sovereign states, but at the same time understand that none of our allies will help us if we commit human rights atrocities, even within sovereign territory, that our international reputation will be irrevocably tarnished and our economic position threatened… who knows.  Maybe the situation would improve.  I’m not naive enough to think that the world will go pacifist anytime soon, but I have to believe that there is a better way of doing things.

As a human rights activist, my personal goal is to be more sensitive to geopolitical realities and cultural concerns.  Though I do strongly believe that people deserve a minimal standard of living, the way to go about it isn’t to burst into a country and declare that I’m right.  Situations are often complicated, and cultural understanding is essential to intelligent diplomacy.  I do believe that diplomacy is the way to achieve human rights victories, not force.  If international organizations can gain more respect on the world stage, they also may have a critical role to play in informing nations of their human rights violations in a way that appeals to national self interest and cultural context, not just the universal “civilizing mission” that nations are understandably hesitant to embrace.  Even in the human rights field, there are two (or many) sides to the story.  Hopefully we can reconcile them and still manage to save a few lives along the way.

Blogging against homophobia

To celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, instead of doing a post I offer you two items of possible interest.  The first is an article that ran today in Le Monde, which I have translated for you.  The original text in French appears here.  Keep in mind that I am not a translator by profession, and I did this quickly without editing.  It should be accurate, but if it reads a little stilted it’s because I only translated directly, instead of doing a “smoothing over” after the fact.  The article is an interview with Daniel Borillo, and it caught my eye because I used an essay of Borillo’s on gay parenting in France for my seminar paper.  Fellow history enthusiasts may find it especially interesting.  The second item is the text of my high school graduation speech, delivered in 2003 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  


Interview with Daniel Borillo: “The battle against homophobia is worldwide” 

Since 2005, the International Day Against Homophobia has taken place each year, on the 17th of May.  One of the objectives of this day is the decriminalization of homosexuality throughout the world.  What regions are currently the most affected by the legal prohibition of homosexual practices?

There are, in the world, more countries that impose sanctions on homosexuality than countries that celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia!  Homosexuality is penalized today, often in a very brutal fashion, in more than eighty countries.

In most of them, Islam is the official religion, to which we add the secular states like Tunisia, and the Islamist regimes like the Sudan.  Homosexuality is a crime punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, in Mauritania, and in Nigeria.  Homosexuals risk a life sentence in Uganda, in India, and in Singapore.

The Qu’ran isn’t more homophobic than the Bible, but in the countries of the Christian tradition, the action of the secular movements has allowed a weakening of religious power. 

What is unfortunate is that, in these countries, the initiatives of civil society are immediately censured.  In 2004, a very important website of information on the prevention of AIDS,, was thusly blocked by the Saudi authorities, which has had dramatic consequences for the diffusion of the epidemic.  In this country the Islamists, who have pressured the governments to a virulent homophobia, are greatly responsible, but the society as a whole also participates in persecution in rejecting homosexuals.

You have shown, in a critical anthology that pulls together the writings of more than fifty authors, that the West has itself for a long time considered homosexuality a sin, seen as a crime.  What were the successive faces of this stigmatisation?

In Europe, the victory of Christianity constituted the first step in a long persecution of homosexuals.  In 313, under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became a state religion, and in 390, under the Emperor Theodoseus I, the punishment for sodomy was death by burning.  Homosexuals were then persecuted as sodomites, and in a systematic manner from the end of the thirteenth century.

These peresecutions, which culminated in the setting in motion of a veritable Inquisition at the European level, also targeted Jews and witches, but homosexuals have long had the sad privilege of being pursued as sinners, as sick persons and as criminals.  After the Inquisition, the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime constitutes the most tragic chapter in the history of homophobia.  The Central Office of the Reich for Combatting Homosexuality, created by Himmler, took part from the beginning in the arrest, imprisonment, deportation, and death of tens of thousands of homosexuals. 

Finally, until the end of the 1970s, homosexuality was, in one way or the other, punished in all the European countries: legal sanctions, police repression, jurisprudential practices.

It wasn’t until the decision of the European Court in Strasbourg, in 1981, that the repression of homosexuality among consenting adults was judged contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

These persecutions contrast with the practices of antiquity, which tolerated, even valued, certain forms of homosexuality.  How do you explain that these cultures did not recognize what we today call homophobia?

Greco-roman antiquity basked in a climate of tolerance with regard to homoeroticism, but homosexual practices were very coded.  The sole form of accepted homosexuality was pederasty, that is to say relations initiated between a young man who was to have public responsibilities and an aristocratic adult man.  This was due to the fact that this profoundly misogynistic society strongly condemned the assumption by any free man – Roman or Greek – of the passive role, that is to say his behaving sexually like a woman.  But this didn’t apply to a young man – who was in a relationship of apprenticeship to masculinity – or a slave – who was in a socially inferior situation.   

It is then the active-passive dichotomy, and not the homosexual-heterosexual one, that determined the sexual morality of the ancients.  In France, how was the calling into question of Christian heritage accomplished?

This was accomplished thanks to the veritable political and cultural revolution that the liberal thought of the eighteenth century, which pronounced the distinction between private and public life and the protection of the individual against the interference of political power, created.  For the liberal philosophers such as Condorcet and Bentham, an act that didn’t cause any harm to others, such as homosexuality between consenting adults, could be morally condemnable but didn’t merit any penal or civil sanction.  Later, the Industrial Revolution and the migration of populations into the cities permitted homosexuals to distance themselves from the rigid social structures of the countryside.  Free from the familial constraints of rural life, homosexuals could assume their sexuality more freely.

Did the AIDS epidemic, starting in the 1980s, play a role in the growing consciousness of the discrimination experienced by homosexuals?

We often say that the AIDS virus is “intelligent” because of its manner of transmission, which makes fighting it medically very difficult.  I like to say that the virus had “intelligence” to appear at the moment when the gay and lesbian movement took a structure.  Until then, all epidemics on this scale were handled by classic mechanisms of imprisonment and exclusion of the sick.  What is extraordinary with AIDS, is that the epidemic was handled, in the West, in a liberal and democratic manner, thanks to the individual awareness of responsibility among the infected and the partnership between associations and public powers.

This wasn’t obvious: in the case of AIDS, homosexual practices became dangerous and society could have taken on an attitude of growing hostility.  But the existence of an organized gay movement showed that exclusion, instability, and isolation aggravated both the medical situation of the sick and the social problems that confronted this community.  In spite of its dramatic dimension, AIDS did more for equality than all the previous mobilisations. 

It is at that moment that society became conscious of the fact that a man who had lived for years with his sick companion wouldn’t be recognized by the hospital authorities and that he would be expelled the next day from their communal housing.  It is thus due to the political mobilization around AIDS that one can enter into a PACS. 

Has Europe in its many forms (the Brussels Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court at Strasbourg) participated in this movement for decriminalization of homosexuality, followed by the penalization of homophobia?

The Council of European and the European Parliament were pioneers in the fight for equality.  These supranational bodies allowed for a change in perspective: in twenty years, Europe has replaced criminalization of homosexuality with penalization of homophobia.  I often cite Sartre, who was asked about the Jewish question and responded, “There is no Jewish question; the real question is anti-Semitism.”  For homosexuality, it is the same thing: the question, today, in Europe, is no longer homosexuality, but homophobia.  Homosexuality is no longer a sin, a mental illness, or a crime.  What is a problem for democracy is intolerance towards homosexuality.

What are today, in your eyes, the discriminations that persist in France with regard to homosexuals?

France lacks a real policy on the prevention of homophobia in the schools and in the education of police and judges, but the discrimination principle is written into the law: it is the refusal of gay parenting and marriage between couples of the same sex.  For me, this demand doesn’t deny the difference between the sexes: it is freedom and equality, not masculine and feminine, that constitute the democratic values.  I just read a UNICEF report that affirms that twenty million children in the world today are orphans: I said to myself that what is urgent is to welcome these children into families, and not to debate the difference between the sexes, as the opponents of equality do.

In the past decade, several European countries such as Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands have opened marriage and filiation to couples of the same sex.  Do you believe that this evolution is “inevitable,” using Luc Ferry’s word?

History doesn’t make itself: it is made, day after day, by social movements.  If the gay and lesbian movement continues its struggle, yes, this change in legislation will be inevitable.  France will join with Spain, where marriage is authorized and where homosexuality has become commonplace, this is the ideal situation.

But one must distrust the rhetoric of the mobilizers, because the gains are always fragile: the examples of yesterday’s Poland of the Kaczynski brothers or of Italy under Berlusconi today show that steps backward are always possible.  


Raleigh Charter High School Graduation Speech, May 2003

            Over spring break this year, I went to Key West to visit my family.  One day I was riding my aunt’s spare bike to the Eckerd’s to get some film developed, and while I was unlocking the bike from a rack in front of the store, a woman walked by me.  She looked fairly old, her face was very wrinkled, and she was wearing overalls and ratty sneakers.  When she passed, she said “hello, sister.”  Immediately, my guard went up.  Was the woman homeless?  Or perhaps mentally handicapped?  Thinking I had misheard, I looked up and asked, “sorry?”  She stopped and said, “I said hello, sister.  You’re my sister, because I believe we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.”  She paused, and unsure of what to do, I just looked at her.  “You may not believe it, but that’s what I believe,” she said.  I still couldn’t think of the appropriate response, and she continued on her way.  As I rode back to my aunt’s condominium, I thought about the encounter with some guilt.  I do, after all, consider myself a Christian in some respects, and I like the thought that we are all brothers and sisters.  It demands a certain amount of love and respect for one another that seems lacking in the world today.  However, I couldn’t just show my agreement, smile, and move on.  I had to start churning out assumptions.  Is she homeless?  Is she insane?  Am I in danger?  This sort of experience is troubling, and I’m not the only one who has done something of the kind.

            I have no doubt that the students at our school are kind and respectful, and that many would go out of their way to help someone in need.  However, there is a mindset that many of us carry around that says, whether we admit it or not, that those who are different need to be “fixed” in some way.  We are not comfortable around them, and we may not feel safe.  It is easier to just be politically correct and stand for broad concepts like being against racism, sexism, and homophobia, than it is to actually accept and affirm someone whose thoughts or actions differ from our own. 

            College will be a place where intellectual and other kinds of diversity are celebrated, and where thought that differs from the norm is encouraged.  However, it can be easy not to question the little things we do that reject other people, and to lock ourselves into an “it’s okay, my neighbor did it too” mentality.  This is why it’s best to challenge yourself not just in the classroom, but throughout all parts of your life.  Are you unconsciously more likely to associate with someone or agree with them because of factors beyond their control?  Do you do unkind things without thinking about them, just because they seem acceptable?  Are you unlikely to go against the grain and really think when someone asks you a question?  Do you challenge yourself to answer truthfully no matter what other people think?

            The other day, I was eating lunch with Ms. Solomon when Agnes came in for help with a speech on character for the NHS induction.  Ms. Solomon gave her a piece of advice that really resounded with me.  Those who have character are not always the most recognized people, or the ones you hear about.  They aren’t necessarily the people who wind up in the statistics.  People with character are those who only one person, or perhaps no one at all might recognize, but they are those who feel good about themselves because they have done the right thing, whether or not it was the easiest.

            Last month, Caitlyn Meuse, a 16-year-old student in Massachusetts, was hit in the head with a baseball bat after participating in her school’s Day of Silence.

            A few months ago, two gay men were murdered in their home by a man who also bombed an abortion clinic and a synagogue.  His sentence could be as little as 23 years in prison.

            Between 1994 and 1995, 1,459 hate crimes were committed.  95% of the perpetrators acted alone; obviously the hate they felt is something that pervades our society, not just isolated groups.  Most of the perpetrators did not feel they did anything wrong. 

            9,271 hate crimes were committed in this country in 2001 alone.  4,367 were committed on the basis of race, 2,098 on the basis of ethnicity, 1,828 on the basis of religion, 1,393 on the basis of sexual orientation, and 35 because of bias against a person with a disability.

            In June 2001 a 32-year-old member of a white supremacist group punched a 16-year-old black teenager in the mouth after seeing him with a white young woman, saying that he should only associate with black women.

            You probably just said in your head about at least one of these cases, “that’s wrong” or, “that can’t be possible in this day and age.”  Yet, despite how much statistics and stories like these affect us, it is the people who encourage and cultivate diversity that fail to get the most recognition, not unlike those with general good character.  It takes courage to defeat the internal assumptions about other people that are founded on culture, upbringing, and history – not on logic. These comments, gestures, and attitudes towards other human beings are what keeps the culture that breeds stereotypes self-sustaining.  Yet if you can think about these assumptions and consciously try not to submit to them, you will be all the better for it.

            If you think about it, you will probably be able to recall an incident in which someone made an assumption about you based on some extenuating factor.  Perhaps someone laughed at your southern accent once, or assumed you wouldn’t want to join in a basketball game because of your height.  Everyone makes assumptions, and everyone is the victim of them.  However, I believe this class can do something to improve this troubling social climate.  It doesn’t take much to change an attitude, or think before you say something damaging to another person.  If just the few hundred of us in this room try to challenge one assumption tomorrow, to give one smile to a stranger or to carefully consider one person’s viewpoint, I believe we will be making a big step towards improvement.

            If you want to make a difference after graduating here, and be a citizen of a truly better world, be just a little more aware of who’s around you.  Think before speaking, and challenge your assumptions.  You may not feel like any big hero, but you will be able to live with a clear conscience and a knowledge that you’ve done what was right.