Though same-sex sexuality and gender non-conformity has probably always existed in human and most non-human species, the concept of “homosexuality,” “bisexuality,” and “transgender” identities, in fact, sexual orientation in general and the construction of an identity and sense of community based on these identities is a relatively modern Western invention.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBATIQ) people, as is still often the case for many other minoritized communities, grow up in a society without an historical context in which to project their lives. They are weaned on the notion that they have no culture and no history.
In the famous words of African American social activist Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
The lives, stories, and histories of LGBATIQ people have been intentionally hidden by socially dominant individuals and groups through neglect, deletions, erasures, omissions, bans, censorship, distortions, alterations, trivialization, change of pronouns signifying gender, and by other unauthorized means.
Examples of these erasures abound. Historian John Boswell cites an example of censorship in a manuscript of The Art of Love by the Roman author Ovid. A phrase that originally read, “A boy’s love appealed to me less” (Hoc est quod pueri tanger amore minus) was altered by a Medieval “moralist” to read, “A boy’s love appealed to me not at all” (Hoc est quod pueri tanger amore nihil). In addition, an editor’s note that appeared in the margin informed the reader, “Thus you may be sure that Ovid was not a sodomite” (Ex hos nota quod Ovidius non fuerit Sodomita).
One of the first instances of an unauthorized changing of pronouns signifying gender occurred when, according to Boswell: “Michelangelo’s grandnephew employed this means to render his uncle’s sonnets more acceptable to the public.”
We know about the figure of Sappho and her famed young women’s school on the Isle of Lesbos around the year 580 BCE, where we find the earliest known writings of love poems between women, and other important writings. Unfortunately, only one complete poem and several poem fragments survived for us today after centuries of the Catholic church’s concerted effort to extinguish the works of these extraordinary women.
An order in 380 CE of St. Gregory of Nazianzus demanded the torching of Sappho’s poetry, and the remaining manuscripts were ordered by Papal Decree in 1073 CE to be destroyed.
Throughout the world, on university and grade school campuses, in the workplace, in communities, homes and in the media, issues of sexual identity and gender identity and expression are increasingly “coming out of the closet.” We see young people developing positive identities at earlier ages than ever before. Activists are gaining selective electoral and legislative victories.
October is now Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) History Month. It originated when, in 1994, Rodney Wilson, a high school teacher in Missouri, had the idea that a month was needed dedicated to commemorating and teaching this history since it has been perennially excluded in the schools. He worked with other teachers and community leaders, and they chose October since public schools are in session, and National Coming Out Day already fell on October 11.
- National Day of Silence: a day in mid-April each year when students across the nation take a vow of silence to call attention to the epidemic of oppressive name calling, harassment, and violence perpetrated against LGBATIQ students in schools and in the larger society.
- National Coming Out Day: October 11 each year in the U.S., October 12 in the United Kingdom, set aside to take further steps in “coming out of the closet” of denial and fear around issues of sexual and gender identity as a personal and community-wide effort to raise awareness.
- National LGBT History Month: Originally proposed in 1994 by Missouri High School teacher, Rodney Wilson, it has become a nationally-recognized observance of LGBT history (October in the United States, February in the United Kingdom).
- Bisexuality Day: September 23 to commemorate bisexual awareness and the accomplishments of bisexual people.
- Transgender Day of Remembrance: November 20 to commemorate the estimated one person killed every 2-3 days somewhere in the world for expressing gender nonconformity.
- No Name Calling Week: Based on an idea proposed in the best-selling young adult novel, The Misfits by James Howe, in which four seventh grade friends suffer the daily effects of insults and taunts.
- National Gay/Straight Alliance Day: January 25 meant to strengthen the bond between LGBATIQ people and straight allies, and, in particular, to recognize and honor gay/straight alliances (GSAs), which work to educate peers in stopping heterosexism and cissexism in schools and colleges.
- National LGBATIQ/Queer Pride Month: June each year when members of gay/straight alliances join in annual pride marches and other festivities throughout the month in their local communities throughout the country.
- Lavender Graduation: Annual ceremony on campuses to honor LGBATIQ and ally students to acknowledge their achievements and contributions to their colleges, universities, and high schools. Created by Dr. Ronni Sanlo, a Jewish lesbian who was denied the opportunity to attend the graduations of her birth children because of her sexual identity. Encouraged by the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan, Dr. Sanlo designed the first Lavender Graduation Ceremony in 1995 with 3 graduates.
The California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, SB48, the first in the nation statute requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other educational materials in social studies courses that include contributions of LGBATIQ people. Other states are following this emerging and important trend.
Primarily in academic environments, greater emphasis and discussion is centering on what has come to be called “queer theory” (an area of critical theory), where writers, educators, and students analyze and challenge current notions and categories of sexuality and gender constructions.
For LGBATIQ people and allies, this information can underscore the fact that their feelings and desires are in no way unique, and that others like themselves lead happy and productive lives. This in turn can spare them years of needless alienation, denial, and suffering.
For heterosexual people, this can provide the basis for appreciation of human diversity and help to interrupt the chain of bullying and harassment toward people based on sexual identity and gender identity. For all students, this content area has the potential to further engage students in the learning process from multiple perspectives.
California was also the first state to ban so-called “reparative” or “conversion therapy” in August 2012; it is a cruel and oppressive pseudo-therapy intended to change a client from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, or transgender to cisgender.
Though the inclusion of LGBATIQ history we have seen so far has established a good beginning, we see it as only a beginning, as only a meager supplementary or additive measure of history that belongs to everyone regardless of sexual and gender identities and expressions.
In actuality, LGBATIQ history must be viewed as a historical canon that transforms and infuses the curriculum, one that needs to be taught and studied all year, every year, age-appropriately across the academic and non-academic disciplines – pre-kindergarten through university graduate studies.
We are increasingly seeing an emphasis within the schools on issues related to bullying and harassment prevention. Current prevention strategies include investigation of issues of abuse and unequal power relationships, issues of school climate and school culture, and how these issues within the larger society are reproduced in the schools, among other concerns.
Often missing from these strategies, however, are multicultural curricular infusion. Unfortunately, today educators still require some amount of courage to counter opposing forces.
For LGBATIQ violence- and suicide-prevention strategies to have any chance of success, in addition to the establishment and maintenance of campus GSA groups, on-going staff development, written and enforced anti-discrimination policies, and support services, schools must incorporate and embed into the curriculum multicultural perspectives, age appropriately from preschool through university graduate-level courses, from the social sciences and humanities, through the natural sciences and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).
LGBATIQ experiences stand as integral strands in the overall multicultural rainbow, and everyone has a right to information that clarifies and explains these stories.