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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Carving out a slice of history

Back when I was in high school in the mid-'70s there was a movement in education to make what was taught in school "more relevant." Students, so the idea went, aren't interested in learning when they can't personally relate to the lesson.

Almost overnight schools began to offer courses in African American history and native American history. Some offered courses in women's history. Oh sure, traditional courses in American and world history were still mandatory, but students could choose to take elective courses to learn about the parts of history that got left out of or mentioned only in passing in the traditional history texts.

When it came to blacks, history texts mentioned Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, but few other names of African Americans were mentioned ... unless you count all the references to the slave trade which lumped all blacks together under the category of "slaves." The treatment of native Americans was even worse. Texts glossed over massacres carried out by white soldiers, broken treaties and such shameful episodes of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans seldom got mentioned as individuals and when they were they were presented as obstacles in the way of America's manifest destiny to expanded from one ocean to the next. And women? Well, apart from Betsy Ross and a few first ladies, it almost seems as if the founding fathers reproduced by some unknown method.

Since the 1970s history text books have tried to be more inclusive of the American experience. Now, with a law being considered in California, students may one day be learning about the contributions of gay and lesbian individuals to America's history.

Sponsored by openly lesbian Sen. Sheila Kuehl, the bill would add LGBT folk to the list of minorities California requires its schools to include. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article:

State law now requires that "men, women, black Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, Asians, Pacific Island people and other ethnic groups" be included in textbook descriptions of "the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society."

"This is simply adding the LGBT community to the groups that the state has said must be included in the curriculum," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, which backs the bill. "There's nothing special or different.

As you can imagine, the fun-D'uh-Mental-ists are going bat-shit crazy over the bill. That should come as no surprise. They make it clear they'd like to wipe the LGBT community off the face of the earth. But they'll settle for erasing them from the history books. At least for now.

Why should we care about teaching "gay history"? The article in the Chronicle makes it clear.

Researchers at San Francisco State University studying gay youth and their families have found that not teaching about gays and lesbians affects adolescent development.

"It's very important for self-esteem and for (gay youth) feeling their lives matter and are important," said Caitlin Ryan, who leads the Family Acceptance Project at the school's César E. Chávez Institute.

An American Academy of Pediatrics policy states that environments critical of gay people interfere with the development of gay youth. And a 2003 Preventing School Harassment Study by the California Safe Schools Coalition found that school climate improves and students feel safer and experience less name-calling and other harassment at schools where gay and lesbian issues are taught.

Growing up gay in a small, rural Midwestern town, finding the tantalizing hints that there were others like me out there made a difference. I can still remember an English class in which we read portions of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." (If you don't know who Walt Whitman was or why he is a major figure in gay history, put on a lavendar dunce hat and go sit in the corner.) The teacher mentioned in passing that Whitman was considered gay and had written poetry that seemed to indicate his interest in men.

That was all it took. I bought a copy of Leaves of Grass and devoured it for clues to myself. That lead me to other writers such as W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, A.E. Houseman and the like. I read the section of Moby Dick in which the narrator shares a bed with Queequeg with new insight.

A couple of years later Jonathan Ned Katz published his groundbreaking Gay American History, a thick book that found hints and clues about gay culture from the early days of exploration of the New World to the modern day. Other books followed the trail blazed by Katz and made it clear that there - between the words of the dry, academic history books - was a whole culture lying undiscovered.

I've long said that one of the major obstacles to the LGBT community advancing in society is our need to re-invent ourselves with each passing generation. Because we lack a shared history, each generation must discover itself anew and the accomplishments of the past generations are lost. That's one of the ways a dominant culture keeps subcultures oppressed.

When we moved native Americans onto reservations, we taught them English and punished them for speaking in their own tongue. We obliterated their history and replaced it with "Great White Father" George Washington bringing a "superior" culture to their land. We stamped out their beliefs and forced them to convert to Christianity.

By denying gays and lesbians their own history, the dominant culture is repeating the same sort of cultural elitism.

But now maybe GLBT youth will be learning something about their past. Maybe they will encounter people like Alan Turing, the British code-breaker during World War II who is the father of modern computers. Or maybe they'll learn that Jane Addams wasn't just single because she was totally dedicated to helping the poor. Or perhaps they'll learn that the struggle for gay rights in America didn't just start with the Stonewall riots in 1969, but was preceeded by the formation of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s (and even that was preceeded by the short-lived Society for Human Rights in Chicago in the 1920s).

We need our own heroes and our own history. Kuehl's bill in California is a first-step in that direction.