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For LGBT Students, History Lessons Often Leave Out A Key Chapter

Walt Whitman, photographed by Mathew Brady. (Wikimedia Commons)
Walt Whitman, photographed by Mathew Brady. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sara Hogenboom already knows what she’s not being taught.

Hogenboom was taking an American literature course during her junior year at Brookline High School when a lesson left her with the uncomfortable sense that something had been left out. The class was discussing a man widely regarded as one of the most influential American writers of all time, 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. As her teacher glossed Whitman’s literary career, Hogenboom sat in anticipation, waiting for him to divulge a less well-known part of Whitman’s identity: He was gay.

But Whitman’s sexuality never came up. Puzzled and frustrated by the omission of what she saw as key information, Hogenboom approached her teacher after class.

“I was like, ‘Hey, why didn’t you mention his sexuality? It was super important to all of his art,’” she said. “And he was like, ‘You know, the funny thing is, I knew that he was queer. I knew that, and I didn’t share that with the class. And I don’t know why.’”

Hogenboom isn’t alone in her call for teachers to bring conversations about queer identity into the classroom. With gay marriage federally legal and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals increasingly visible in politics and popular media, students and educators alike are challenging the exclusion of gay struggles and achievements from most public schools’ curricula. Yet for schools to actually implement the kind of inclusive curriculum that Hogenboom wants will take more than an open mind.

“When you tell curriculum developers that we need more representation in our classes, they already know it,” Hogenboom said. “They just have to take the time to roll it out.”

But time isn’t the only issue. Many teachers simply don’t know what to teach.

“My generation of teachers never had an out gay teacher at school,” said Kate Leslie, a Brookline High School history teacher who also facilitates the school’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance, or GSA. “I never went through and had classes that included LGBT history. So other than talking about Stonewall, of course, and talking about the modern LGBT rights struggle and talking about gay men during the Holocaust — there’s moments when I think already people do it. But having conversations about gender and gender identity and sexual orientation in the curriculum throughout — I think we don’t even know exactly how to do it, which is probably why we haven’t pushed for it yet.”

Adrienne Stang, who heads the history department in Cambridge Public Schools, agrees: Queer history needs to be taught. But finding quality resources is hard.

“It’s not in the history books,” she said.

Even the Stonewall riots — often seen as the watershed moment of the gay rights movement — are typically covered only by college-level textbooks.

But Hogenboom feels students shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn about LGBTQ experiences. And for queer students, like her, the significance of an inclusive curriculum is more than academic.

“It can be really stressful and damaging to not think that anyone else has ever gone through what you’ve gone through,” she said. “I think it’s important for everyone to know that we’ve always existed, we’re always going to exist. So it’s nice to have that affirmed by your school — like this institution you’re a part of is saying yes.”

Leslie, who is a lesbian, agrees.

“If you don’t see your identity reflected in what you’re learning, it’s hard to feel like that history belongs to you, and is something you could or should feel passionate about,” she said. “I think it feels alienating.”

The stakes are higher for students who can’t turn elsewhere for affirmation of their sexuality or gender identity. As an English language acquisition teacher at Lowell High School, Deb Fowler regularly taught refugees from countries where homosexuality was criminalized or severely stigmatized.

She recalls one particular meeting with a student from Honduras named Eddie, who was being bullied and harassed on a daily basis within the school’s Newcomer program, which helps recent refugees adapt to U.S. culture.

Fowler had never spoken to Eddie about his sexuality, but when she presented him with an article about Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights activist, he began to cry.

“He had never spoken the words before; he had never known of anyone else who identified as gay,” she said. “And that was profound. It was just a tiny, small, little thing that could have saved his life — and that’s not hyperbole, because he was on the precipice.”

Interactions with students like Eddie prompted Fowler to draft a petition that would mandate the inclusion of LGBT topics in the Lowell High School history curriculum. Yet while students were largely supportive of her work, she ran into resistance from several teachers, including U.S. history teacher Miriam Morgenstern. Like Fowler, Morgenstern felt it was important to develop an inclusive curriculum. But she was anxious about the top-down approach Fowler was proposing.

“I told [Deb] I wasn’t comfortable signing the petition, because the teachers didn’t have any support,” Morgenstern said.

Rather than calling on educators to teach material they’d never learned themselves, Morgenstern felt a better approach would be to work with them. In June 2015, she and Fowler left Lowell High School to found History UnErased, a nonprofit organization that develops teaching materials specific to queer history.

Since their launch, they’ve led workshops for teachers from districts across New England and formed ongoing partnerships with nonprofits including GLAD, the Library of Congress and the ONE Archive Foundation at the University of California, which houses the largest collection of LGBT history materials in the world.

While Fowler has taken her own independent route to curriculum reform, her petition also prompted broader, statewide efforts to incorporate queer history through more mainstream channels. Since June 2014, Lowell High history department head Robert DeLossa has been working in conjunction with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop inclusive curriculum resources using DESE’s “model curriculum” framework. Their goal is to produce comprehensive, project- and performance-based units that look just like what teachers might find in a textbook — except, that is, for the content.

“You wouldn’t notice any change in the quality or the organization of those materials, but voices who have been silenced or forgotten suddenly are there,” DeLossa explained. “And that’s the most important thing.”

Several of the committee’s units are currently under state review, and DeLossa and DESE are in the process of developing many more. DeLossa says the project’s impact will extend beyond the queer community.

“Inclusivity is not just about our LGBTQIA students,” he said. “It’s about making all of our students better citizens, better educated about our country, and better ready to be active, productive citizens during their entire lifetimes.”

Back in Brookline, Hogenboom is already making waves in her own classroom.

Several weeks after she confronted her English teacher about his lesson on Whitman, he returned to the class with an unusual proposal: He was going to teach the lesson again.

What followed was one of Hogenboom’s “favorite days in class.” In what she describes as one of the best-structured lessons she’s had, students began by reading Whitman’s work, then moved on to discuss his worldview, influence and significance within the American canon. And unlike in the previous class, Whitman’s sexuality wasn’t taboo. It was front and center.

“I was so incredibly happy,” Hogenboom said.

She wrote the teacher a thank-you letter.

Catherine Kulke served as the summer 2016 Edify intern.

Correction: History UnErased has a partnership with GLAD, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, and not GLAAD (originally known as Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). WBUR regrets the error.

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