Complete story of ‘We the People’ requires LGBT+ people in history lessons

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In the nationally televised LGBTQ Town Hall, Pete Buttigieg, the second openly gay presidential candidate, said, “There is no right or wrong way to be gay, to be queer, to be trans. I hope that our own community, even as we struggle to define what our identity means, defines it in way that lets everybody know that they belong among us.”

The first three words of the United States Constitution — “We the People” — proclaim who is enacting the nation’s most important document. Yet as I progressed through my education, the “people” read about, the “people” who belonged in society, were lectured upon, revered, and who shaped the nation as I knew it, did not include people like me or Mr. Buttigeig, members of the LGBT+ community.  

Since the ratification of the document 232 years ago, history lessons have missed the inclusion of LGBT+ people and other marginalized cultural groups, causing a deep, dangerous flaw in students’ world views. 

I now know that all of us have not been taught an accurate portrayal of America’s story, or history in general. LGBT+ people, as we label and understand today, have always existed. 

When LGBT+ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide as heterosexual youth, school systems need to respond. Some of that responsibility is showing children an honest reflection of history that mirrors a variety of identities and life experiences.

As a rising generation of students are surrounded by LGBT+ topics in pop culture and politics, providing them with balanced and accurate social studies lessons is critical.

To be sure, four states — California, New Jersey, Colorado and Illinois — are now mandated to teach LGBT+ history… Oregon and Maryland will soon join the ranks. It is encouraging to see, but policy shifts do not necessarily equate to transformed classroom practice.

For 10 years, I taught at a diverse public high school in Lowell, Mass. The lack of information about LGBT+ inclusive history became a glaring and harming gap, and the need to work towards advancing LGBT+ social studies curriculum became a dire and personal goal. I co-founded the education nonprofit History UnErased so schools would have a curriculum that presents LGBT+ history through an academic lens as diverse and complex as the world we live in. 

All children in K-12 classrooms benefit from learning that the human experience is much broader, more interesting and more complex than what has previously been presented.  

In countless historical eras and throughout the culture — from the Revolutionary War to the space program, from WWII to the Harlem Renaissance, the Cold War to the struggle for civil rights, LGBT+ people contributed to and changed the trajectory of this country. 

Students studying early colonial America can explore how gender and legal status affected rights and membership in the English colonies. When studying the Civil War, students can explore motivations for female-bodied people to pass as soldiers and how they in turn provided suffragists with proof that women should be afforded the same rights as men because they too were defenders of the Republic.

The most important learning outcome is that the advancement of time does not always advance “liberty and justice for all,” underscoring the responsibility of each generation to be well-informed civic participants.

When minorities are erased from the historical narrative, it conveys a message that particular identities are “other” — and that makes it easier to enact discriminatory laws, policies, and cultural practices. “Unerasing” minorities in the historical narrative not only presents a more complete and accurate history, it teaches the ideals of American democracy — and that “We the people” includes everyone.

As we are witnessing in the political climate, policy is capricious. Discriminatory policies and cultural practices are rooted in fear of the “other.” Historically oppressed groups who continue to fight for extensions of liberty are united in their goal of seeking equal access and opportunity in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, civic participation, and citizenship. Education is a method we can use to remove fear and shape behavior of the next generation of Americans.  

We the LGBT+ People of the United States are part of the true, complete and complex story of this nation. Real history reflects that. So should the lessons taught to our kids.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct that Buttigieg is the second openly-gay candidate for president.

Debra Fowler is co-founder of History UnErased and a former classroom teacher

Tags American history Education LGBT LGBT history Pete Buttigieg Suicide among LGBT youth

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