By Sarah Prager
LGBTQ+ history education is absolutely vital for LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ K-12 students alike to understand our community’s undeniable contributions to society. From Alan Turing’s invention of the computer to Glenn Burke’s invention of the high five, there is no field or culture untouched by our input.
Youth have a right to grow up knowing that queerness has existed as long as humankind, and we were often revered as special and holy in cultures around the world prior to colonization. We have overcome the worst that humanity has thrown at us to thrive despite the odds. Through the many storms, we gave the world music, art, and technology. Imagine where we’d be without the writing of James Baldwin, the aviation of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the paintings of Lili Elbe, or the political advocacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Without a mandate, inclusive curricula may not be taught to those who most need it. A requirement with no opt-out option is the only way for a more complete version of history to be taught. While the entire way we teach history needs an overhaul, at least including the basic fact that LGBTQ+ people existed throughout history needs to be a first step in the interim while we continue to dream bigger for the future.
This history can be woven into the classroom in many ways. There are picture books about historical figures’ stories or the meaning of the rainbow flag for young children and curricula using audio and video from GLSEN from grades 6-12 and History UnErased for grades 3-12. Teachers could also use historical fiction like All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages to open discussions about how queer people lives in different times. Teachers of any subject can and should mention the LGBTQ+ identities of people they are discussing, from poets in English class to scientists in Biology class.
I often present to youth on LGBTQ+ history, and their reactions to first learning about this too-often-hidden past are complex. Often there is amazement at the courage and brilliance of our queer forebears. Sometimes there is frustration and anger that these stories had been previously withheld from them. The most touching reaction is when a young reader can see themself reflected in a historical figure, like Christina of Sweden. Christina abdicated the throne in 1654 because they refused to marry. Trans men, nonbinary and genderfluid people, lesbians, bi and pan people, asexual people, and others have all related to this daring person’s biography; when a reader sees that someone like them did amazing things hundreds of years ago, it helps them believe they, too, can do amazing things. They realize they’re not the only person to ever feel like this, and their identity is not trendy, but timeless. More than one student has told me after a presentation sentiments along the lines of, “I never heard of a nonbinary politician, now I feel like I can do that, too.”
Every student in our country deserves access to these emotions. Ask your state representatives to introduce this topic to the local legislature this year, showing all students their history—and therefore their present and future—are valued.
Online resources on LGBTQ+ education:
- Equality Forum’s YouTube channel: educational videos profiling LGBTQ+ historical figures
- GLSEN’s resources: an important collection for students and educators including fun products to order online
- History Is Gay: a podcast for adults (but could be relevant for teens too)
- History UnErased curricula: LGBTQ+ history lessons for grades 3-12
- Making Gay History: another podcast for adults (but could be relevant for teens too)
- Mombian.com: database of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books
- OutHistory.org: the premier academic website on LGBTQ+ history
- Quist: a free mobile app with daily LGBTQ+ history tidbits for ages 12+
K-12 books about LGBTQ+ history written by LGBTQ+ people:
- A Queer History of the United States for Young People by Michael Bronski
- Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess
- Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights by Jerome Pohlen
- Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders
- Queer Heroes: Meet 53 LGBTQ Heroes from Past and Present! by Arabelle Sicardi
- Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager
- Rainbow Revolutionaries: Fifty LGBTQ+ People Who Made History by Sarah Prager
- Sewing the Rainbow: A Story about Gilbert Baker by Gayle Pitman
- Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders
- Stonewall: Our March Continues by Olivia Higgins
- Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution!: The Story of the Trans Women of Color Who Made LGBTQ+ History by Joy Ellison
- The Fighting Infantryman: The Story of Albert D. J. Cashier, Transgender Civil War Soldier by Rob Sanders
- The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History & Handbook by Ashley Molesso and Chessie Needham
- The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle Pitman
- When You Look Out the Window: How Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Built a Community by Gayle Pitman
Sarah Prager is a writer and speaker on LGBTQ+ history who lives with her wife and two children in Massachusetts. Her 2017 young adult book Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World and her 2020 illustrated middle grade book Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History teach mini-biographies of LGBTQIA+ historical figures. Her third book, an illustrated children’s picture book Kind Like Marsha: Learning from LGBTQ+ Leaders, will be published in 2022. She is available for school, library, or other group presentations online.