Representation Matters: The Necessity of LGBTQ+ Content in Schools
GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey (N=16,636)—the most recent for which results are available—provides an alarming overview of the state of LGBTQ+ inclusive education. According to GLSEN, only 16.2% of participants reported engaging with positive representations of LGBTQ+ content, and fewer than 20% stated that LGBTQ+ topics appeared in their textbooks and curricular resources.
Furthermore, GLSEN’s survey results demonstrate a connection between the absence of LGBTQ+ content and the use of harmful language and negative comments (GLSEN, 2020). This report, then, underscores that LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula is insufficient in its current state. We have made sure to integrate LGBTQ+ issues into our classrooms as humanities teachers (Stacie in social studies and Christine in ELA).
Social studies offer multiple entry points to integrate LGBTQ+ history. Among topics that regularly appear in U.S. and world history courses, LGBTQ+ figures and themes are vital to students’ understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, the Holocaust, and ancient civilizations; omitting LGBTQ+ history in these and other eras conveys incomplete accounts of key historical events. Moreover, teachers who include LGBTQ+ history introduce students to new primary and secondary sources, promote analyzing and synthesizing information, and ask students to apply what they learn in innovative ways. Inclusive social studies classes, therefore, prepare students to engage with issues important to the LGBTQ+ community today.
Discussions of late twentieth century U.S. history, for example, are more resonant when they include the LGBTQ+ community. Stacie experienced this when she taught a unit on the AIDS crisis and ACT UP with high school seniors, many of whom knew little about AIDS and the response to it in the 1980s. Using news reports, activists’ artwork, and videos of protests demanding recognition, students made profound connections between homophobia and inaction in the face of AIDS, the ways in which marginalized groups advocate for themselves, and the impact of conservatism on groups that don’t conform to societal norms.
Our ELA classrooms must be safe spaces for us and our students to bring our most authentic selves. Christine is out and open with all of her students, partly because her own coming out journey was significantly delayed growing up in Texas (a “no promo homo” state, with laws prohibiting the positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools). Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) urges those of us who teach literature to choose our texts carefully, ensuring that they are a mix of “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” (p. ix) that reflect our students’ identities, allow them to look out into other worlds, and spur them to important civic action.
The truth is that just about any text can be read through a queer lens (Christine has led high schoolers through queer readings of Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, among others), but it is important to introduce and discuss actively queer texts too (such as Walker’s The Color Purple). ELA teachers must be wary of heteronormativity in our curriculum, but also of bisexual and trans erasure; our reading lists should allow students to see characters who don’t necessarily fit in clean boxes.
Teachers seeking to make their content LGBTQ+ inclusive face myriad challenges. Though some — like time management and testing–are typical to educational settings, others — like pushback from parents, administrators, and community members — are more specifically targeted. “Don’t Say Gay” laws and policies banning “divisive concepts” impose further restrictions, creating an atmosphere of fear.
Despite these challenges, it is so important for teachers to do this work anyway. LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula has the power to open students’ eyes to possibilities that they didn’t previously know existed, start students on a path towards questioning what they thought they knew, normalize LGBTQ+ themes and current issues, provide support that LGBTQ+ students might not have at home, and help students identify with different people and experiences.
AACTE’s LGBTQ+ Advocacy and Inclusion in Teacher Education Topical Action Group can serve as a resource for teachers and teacher educators who are concerned about integrating LGBTQ+ issues in their classrooms and/or in search of more resources, curricula, or support. Please reach out to co-chairs William Coghill-Behrends (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Christine Gentry (email@example.com) for more information.
Christine Gentry is a clinical assistant professor and residency director in the NYU Teacher Residency, where she leads the data, assessment, and continuous improvement efforts of the program. Before her work in teacher preparation, Gentry taught English, creative writing, and oral storytelling in the public schools of Boston and NYC for 13 years.
Stacie Brensilver Berman is a visiting assistant professor in NYU’s social studies education program and a residency director and content mentor in the NYU Teacher Residency. She is the author of LGBTQ+ History in High School Classes in the United States since 1990. Berman began her career as a NYC public school teacher.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix-xi.
GLSEN. (2020). The 2019 National School Climate Survey The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.