With millions across the United States calling for changes to our current institutions — be it health care, our political establishments, or most recently, the pattern of police brutality that plagues marginalized, especially Black, communities — it is worth talking about another institution in need of reform: our education system, and more specifically, the curricula we teach to our children.
Take, for example, how our history books frame the Civil Rights movement as simply a series of peaceful demonstrations, where people just marched for a few years and then everyone was equal, instead of the long, brutal war against oppression that it really was. In recent commentary, I’ve seen people point to figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and claim that he would somehow be disappointed or opposed to how some protests — including the current Black Lives Matter protests — are carried out (to the point of trying to white-splain his message to his own son). This sort of miseducation omits the reality that all types of protests — both violent and nonviolent — have contributed to the progress achieved by Black leaders. It is beaten into our minds from early childhood how “nonviolent protests” won the day, yet MLK’s statements about riots being the “language of the unheard” are never mentioned.
It makes sense that those in power choose to promote this exclusively non-violent messaging, not just for the Civil Rights movement, but for the suffrage movement, for the queer rights movement, and for all other social justice movements in our nation’s history. It makes sense that certain lawmakers and pundits — especially conservative ones — have placed so much emphasis on peaceful protests, going on Fox News or Breitbart and whining about how they would listen to the protesters, if only they were peaceful! “Where has the civility gone? MLK would never have done this!”
And yet, it seems more often than not that these are many of the same people who slammed Colin Kaepernick and others for kneeling for the national anthem, and who ridiculed the peaceful Women’s March and other recent protests across the country. They use this tactic because it is these protests that are often easier to ignore. It is these protests that can be much more easily contained, dispersed, and crushed by the police, which is what they want.
It is this edited, whitewashed, pacified history penned by the ruling class that allows members of marginalized communities, like the LGBTQ+ community and the Black community, to become disconnected and misinformed on the very ways their community’s freedoms and rights were won in the first place.
The Civil Rights movement that is taught in many of our history classes is a work of revisionist history, telling us what oppressive institutions want us to hear, but not what we need to hear. Within the context of omitting the stories of the marginalized, the history of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly Black LGBTQ+ history, is often left out of our school’s curricula.
Take a moment to think of how much information your teachers provided about LGBTQ+ people during your education. If you’re the vast majority of Americans, the LGBTQ+ rights movement was likely omitted from your history textbooks. Your family life or sex-ed teacher might have mentioned that gay people exist — usually only in the context of STIs and their greater impact on queer people — but likely didn’t elaborate upon queer health issues, instead focusing education on prevention of unwanted pregnancy and heterocentric relationships. If you live in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, or Texas, your teachers are either legally banned from discussing LGBTQ+ topics in the classroom, or are tasked with spreading queerphobic disinformation regarding health issues.
Efforts have been underway for some time now to make updates to our nation’s history and family life education standards, but are perennially frustrated by conservative policymakers and legislators who claim that these changes are just the Left’s way of advancing the “gay agenda” and assert that curricula that depict LGBTQ+ people and relationships in a positive light are harmful to young people. These claims could not be further from the truth.
In reality, it is the lack of adequate sex education and the poor support systems for queer students in schools that drive up rates of depression, drug use, and suicide — as well as other risky behaviors — in LGBTQ+ youth. Queer students in schools like these suffer academically and mentally, receive a GPA half a letter grade below LGBTQ+ students at more inclusive schools, and are more likely to be bullied. And shockingly, less than 1 in 5 report being taught positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, events, and history.
Conversely, queer students at schools that include positive discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and history report fewer homophobic incidents and feel safer, according to GLSEN's national school climate survey. Not only are inclusive school environments and curricula important for queer youth, they are also overwhelmingly popular among parents of middle schoolers (more than 7 in 10) and high schoolers (more than 8 in 10). Access to information regarding sexual health questions and education are also endorsed by numerous organizations, including the American Medical Association, the National Education Association, and the American Sexual Health Association.
So, setting aside the importance of these changes, their popularity among parents and teachers, and their support from medical professionals, why is now, during the COVID-19 crisis and uprisings of Black and other marginalized people, the best time to act?
Usually, reviews of learning standards only occur once every several years, but now, with no students in schools due to the virus outbreak, educators and policymakers have the time and space to develop and test new ideas for curricula.
However, as convenient as it would be to make these improvements to our current public school curricula — changes that would help bring our schools into the 21st century — very few states have taken the initiative.
Thankfully, we do have some examples to look to for guidance. In Maryland, Montgomery County high schools are rolling out a first-of-its-kind LGBTQ history elective available to all interested students. Last year, New Jersey passed a law requiring LGBTQ history education in all schools, as did Colorado, Oregon, and Illinois, following California’s lead with its trailblazing FAIR Education Act passed in 2011. Despite pushback from some conservative organizations and religious denominations, parents and students in these states are already expressing optimism and enthusiasm about these changes.
Clearly, the movement to create a nation with progressive public schools is underway, but there is much more work left to do. To do this, advocacy groups across the country — including the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN, GLAAD, and my organization Homoglobin — are working with professors, teachers, policymakers, and LGBTQ+ people across the country to make sure that queer issues are represented both accurately and proportionally, combatting ignorance and intolerance with science, facts, and an affinity for inclusivity.
If you would like to get involved and help push America towards public schools that are inclusive to all people, reach out to your local school board officials and state representatives and demand action, making sure that they support legislation and curricula changes that benefit the LGBTQ community. Speak out against the intolerance in your community, whether it comes from a politician, a fellow parent or student, or even your religious leader. Volunteer for and donate to any of the organizations I listed above, supporting the work they do to advance queer equality in education. Together, we can bring our schools into the 21st century, and have the honest conversations about race, gender identity, and sexual orientations that are necessary for creating an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding for the most vulnerable among us.
If you’d like more information about the work Homoglobin does, please visit homoglobin.org.
Austin Houck is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador.