Gay history is a part of American history
by Kelvin Wade
January 1st saw a new law go in effect that requires California schools to teach gay history (although most schools are waiting until the updated textbooks come out in 2014). This is one of those laws where a lot of people do a spit take and think, “What were they thinking?” Actually, they were thinking about tolerance and they may be on to something.
Anecdotally, some parents have responded to the new law by pulling their children out of public schools and putting them in private schools or home schooling their children. They see the law as another way to force the “homosexual agenda” on the public by going after children and teaching children things that may conflict with their religious faith.
When I first heard of the law passing, I didn’t know what to make of it. The first thing I thought was we’re not doing a good job of teaching kids math and science, and now we want to add this to the mix? Class time is at a premium because we can’t afford to keep our schools open longer and this seemed like one of those do-gooder laws.
California schools are legally required to instruct students on black history, native Americans, women, Asian and Hispanic Americans. This law added gay, lesbian, transgender and disabled people to the list. At some point it starts to sound silly that we need to add specific groups.
This is why for years I’ve written that I don’t like Black History Month. I understand its genesis and purpose. But in the process of enlightening and educating people, it has parked black history in the ghetto of February. Every February you see black movies and documentaries and commercials from corporate America lauding Black History Month. Schools teach it. And then March comes and it’s over until the following year.
The point should have always been to incorporate black history into American history studies because you cannot teach black history without teaching American history. And all of these other groups should find a home in American history. If one is teaching the story of America you couldn’t possibly leave out anyone, because America is a rich, diversely populated story.
Detractors don’t want a government endorsement of homosexuality. But schools are about educating and we cannot prepare young people for the world they live in by denying history.
So how would we teach gay history? Students might be taught that in 1779 Thomas Jefferson proposed a law calling for castration for homosexuals. Believe it or not, this was seen as a moderate position since death was usually the punishment homosexuals faced.
Though we teach of the Jews, gypsies and mentally disabled the Nazis targeted for extermination, less is taught about the homosexuals that the Nazis exterminated. Police throughout our nation’s history routinely raided gay establishments and hangouts. Those arrested lost their jobs and standing in the community. We could teach that homosexuality was treated as a mental disorder in this country and listed as such in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) until 1974.
Covering the 1969 Stonewall riots, Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade, and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s impact on gay rights are ripe areas for study. That takes us up to “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the current issue of gay marriage.
It makes sense to me to bring up the issue of homosexuality when discussing writers like James Baldwin, Walt Whitman and others. For many artists, their closeted homosexuality informed their work, so it’s relevant.
This history is fine for high school students, but what about grade school? The law wants all grades taught. We can at least agree that young children should be taught tolerance. They should be taught about treating everyone with dignity and respect. Anything that helps people accept people and cuts down on teen suicide is a good thing.
Parents will still be free to raise their children in whatever religion they choose. Parents may choose to home-school or send their children to private schools to avoid gay material. This is America, where it’s still legal to believe what you want. Many people still don’t agree with interracial dating. Some men cling to old views about a woman’s place.
But just as we don’t let someone’s religious views stop us from teaching evolution or sex education, schools need to instruct students with facts. And if you’re teaching history, the gay struggle and movement is a part of American history whether some like it or not.