Monday, July 25, 2011

Queer History is Not Optional

"I always wanted to leave something important behind. Remember the history book you gave me for Christmas?... I've been going to the library, looking up our history. There's a ton of it in anthropology books, a ton of it, Ruth. We haven't always been hated. Why didn't we grow up knowing that?... It's changed the way I think. I grew up believing the way things are now is the way they've always been, so why even bother trying to change the world? But just finding out that it was ever different, even if it was long ago, made me feel things could change again. Whether or not I live to see it. At work, when everyone else is at lunch, I've been typesetting all the history I've found, trying to make it look as important as it feels to me. That's what I want to leave behind, Ruth - the history of this ancient path we're walking. I want it to help us restore our dignity."
- Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

Forgive me for including such a long quote at the top of the piece here, especially given that we'll be talking about Stone Butch Blues on the blog soon. But that quote (and the book itself) is really important to me. Leslie Feinberg really hits the nail on the head with that quote. They clearly understand the importance of queer history - the novel itself is queer history - and the part of that quote that really gets me is when our protagonist, Jess, asks, "Why didn't we grow up knowing that?"

That's the question I ask myself all the time, it's why I study queer history, and it's why I have been cheering on the California legislation (called the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act) to include queer history in public schools. But, of course, that's going to turn into a big fight, Prop 8-style, even though California Governor Jerry Brown already signed it into law.

Queer historians of education have made excellent cases for the inclusion of queer history from many different angles. Jackie Blount writes about how educational institutions have regulated sexualities and gender. Roland Sintos Coloma looks at the ways heteronormativity replicates Western concepts of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Catherine Lugg writes about the ways laws and policy have impacted educational practice. Karen Graves examines how culture has resulted in the persecution of queer teachers. As Karen wrote in And They Were Wonderful Teachers, "Schools are prime sites for cultural reproduction, contested terrain for those who wish to preserve or challenge the status quo."

The way FAIR works is that it will turn all the kids gay. Jaykay, y'all! Actually, it requires social studies classes to teach about queer civil rights movements and the historic contributions of queer people, and it adds sexual orientation and gender identitiy to existing anti-discrimination laws.

So there are, of course, those who oppose the bill, and in many cases those people are the usual players in the usual games. The California Catholic Conference opposes it for all the usual reasons having to do with hatin' on the gays. And the Capitol Resource Institute has started up the familiar shenanigans trying to overturn it.

It is vitally important that we win this fight. As Scott Bravmann said in Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference, "In addition to its critical, descriptive, explanatory, and strategic uses... history also helps circumvent the censorship, denial, and amnesia that have continued to inform so much of lesbian and gay existence." Queer people need to see ourselves in history, lest we believe the stories that we are just deviants, that we have never contributed anything positive to society, that we aren't fully human. Queer invisibility in history is an actual problem for people, not just an academic point.

The historical study of queer people is relatively new, largely because queer people have increased their own visibility in the last few decades. The homophobic oppression at the government and grassroots levels in the mid-20th century has kept queer people, and therefore queer studies, repressed. Anti-sodomy laws rendered homosexuality illegal in most states until the 1990s, and times of intense persecution, especially in the Cold War, prompted people to stay closeted and invisible. Invisibility of queer people in the historical record, then, mirrors the problem of queer invisibility in mainstream society in general.

We all know that bullying of queer kids in schools is a problem, as is suicide by queer teenagers. Increasing queer visibility through the curriculum can only help, I think. If people feel more connected to their history, and if schools can demonstrate that we really are here and everywhere - and, indeed, anywhere - we will be that much closer to achieving full equality in the United States. Queer people are part of the past, present, and future of American and world history. As Marlon Riggs said, "When the existing history and culture do not acknowledge and address you - do not see or talk to you - you must write a new history, shape a new culture that will."


  1. Great post, and I agree completely that a presence and a voice needs to be incorporated into the curriculum. I just wonder how effective it will be. As one of the participants in my dis research pointed out concerning minority representation in the american history textbook, the 'yellow box phenomenon' will be a big problem.
    There will need to be a great many online resources and lessons made available. The textbooks will do a lousy job. Hell, half of them are written with the Texas standards in mind, so this supplement is vitally necessary. No way Texas allows what is necessary into the books.
    As with everything, however, the Internet will be a big help, and I am excited to see what resources will be made available to teachers.

  2. Well, California is a huge textbook market, so it doesn't necessarily use Texas textbooks. It's nearly as influential, which makes this fight all the more critical.

    It's not going to be perfect to start - the yellow box issue is of course a problem, and I agree with you about the necessity of internet sources. I'm guessing some teachers will be really creative in finding cool ways to incorporate this stuff into the classrooms despite shitty textbooks. There are lots of queer teachers, after all. Thank goodness.

  3. I would normally agree, but unlike Texas, California cannot afford new texts for now. They have had to use Internet supplements as it is. This came during the Texas standards debate;folks were looking to Cali to offset Texas, but the state is broke. From what I have read, you can expect another three to five years on the current texts at least, especially since it is literally impossible to raise taxes of almost any kind there.
    I believe it takes a 2/3rd majority in the legislature, and they essentially banned property tax increases some years ago.
    A nice project might be to compile a series of resources for teachers. Hmmmm...want to write a useful paper with me? :)

  4. Hahaha, totally. We should talk.