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Jim Downs laments that Americans still aren’t being taught LGBT history

Historians in the News
tags: education, LGBT



Jim Downs is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016). He is also an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. He lives in New York City.

... Gay activists also believed that telling the history of LGBT people helped to fight against discrimination. In 1974, Jim Steakley wrote an article in the gay newspaper The Body Politic about the Nazi persecution of gay people in Germany, which at the time was not documented even in books on World War II. “We had to show examples of oppression, “ Steakley once explained to me. “People would say that gay people are not discriminated against,” particularly in employment discrimination cases. By publishing historical accounts in both newspapers and books, gay activists used history as evidence of broader patterns of discrimination.

LGBT history is a catalog of the past as well as a tool to educate people about LGBT culture. Yet many fear teaching gay history as a tool to inform students about LGBT people because they assume that being gay is just about sex and thereby not appropriate to teach to younger students. Randy Thomasson, who opposed the California initiative to teach LGBT history, referred to LGBT people in history books as “unnatural” and “unhealthy role models” for children as young as 6 years old” on his website SaveCalifornia.

Educators are also guilty of not including LGBT history based on the assumption that other areas of history demand more attention. History teachers are more inclined to emphasize the history of war, economics, or politics than the history of sexuality. LGBT members of the American Historical Association, which is the leading history organization in the country, created the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History in 1979 in order to promote the history of LGBT people. Without it, the annual meeting, which brings together more than 5,000 members each January, would risk not having sessions on LGBT people or even the subject of queer sexuality featured as an integral subfield of research and teaching in the profession.

From the 1970s to the present, LGBT historians offer broad, comprehensive accounting of the past that could be easily adopted into history courses today. They wrote surprising stories about gay men being burned at the stake at the Salem witch trials; they unearthed accounts about a thriving gay world that predated Hitler’s takeover of Berlin and of a working-class lesbian community in Buffalo who wore “boots of leather and slippers of gold.” LGBT historians have also documented the federal government’s response to homosexuality and the ways that the meaning of sexuality changed as result of the presence of queer people in prisons. 

Telling LGBT history also means explaining the history of American freedom. LGBT history sits at the crossroads of women’s history and African-American history. The gay liberation movement intersected with the black civil rights movement and the rise of feminism, and depended on these struggles for guidance and insight.  LGBT people were often part of both or all three movements, because of their identity or political orientation. Yet this history has not been fully told.

October marks LGBT History Month, which acknowledges our significance in the United States, just as African-American History Month, in February, and Women's History Month, in March, do for those a groups of people.

There is no shortage of accounts of LGBT history — much was written in the 1970s and even more is being written today — but the American public does not know it. This is not an unfamiliar pattern. Women’s and African-American history suffered from this as well until schools and textbooks required inclusion. ...

Read entire article at The Advocate


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