Chris Parkes

In the bleary morning hours on day two of the 129th American Historical Association Conference five teachers and scholars treated the twenty or so occupants of Concourse Room F in the New York Hilton to a seminar entitled “Teaching Queer History”. Despite nearly half a century of research on queer history, teaching the subject still poses challenges to academics. Mindful of the scepticism of other historical subfields toward studying sexuality at all, and the occasional backlash from students, administrators, and the wider community, scholars of queer history have had to tread lightly. Given the reputation of the AHA as the premier event for professional historians in the United States it was perhaps surprising that this panel, convened by the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching Committee on LGBT History, would focus nearly all its attention on secondary schools. However, as the ensuing papers attested, teaching LGBT history is far more than the quixotic interest of a few isolated intellectuals. LGBT history is at the forefront of American educational reform and an integral part of teaching practices for educators at all levels from grade school to grad school.

Panelists contributed to a new book on how to teach US LGBT history.

The panel started off with remarks from the venerable John D’Emilio on how teaching LGBT history to undergrads has evolved over time. D’Emilio divided his recent cohorts into the “Pre-Ellen” and “Post-Ellen” generations. Familiar with the oppression LGBT people faced in the past, the undergraduate students of the “pre-Ellen” generation (before 2001 or so) were thrilled by the stories of resistance to that oppression. By contrast, D’Emilio found the “Post-Ellen” generation (undergraduates coming of age after 2001) more normalized to the idea of LGBT people and less comfortable with the narratives of oppression and resistance. Because of ongoing cultural normalization, LGBT oppression and the resistance movements they spawned seem distant and foreign to these recent students. This shift, D’Emilio noted, is reflected in the students’ own involvement with and awareness of LGBT politics today: while many students know of or attend pride parades, few of them have heard of Stonewall or know its significance.

D’Emilio ended hopefully, adding that while these somewhat more disengaged Post-Ellen-ites were unaware of much of LGBT history, they were nonetheless keen to learn. The clear solution was greater exposure to LGBT history earlier in their education.

To that end, Emily Hobson, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Felicia Perez, a high school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, stepped in to offer their insights into how LGBT history could be integrated into curricula. Hobson’s presentation focused on the institutional barriers to including LGBT history in California high schools. Besides the prejudices of individual administrators and parents, and the chilling effect this can have on teachers who wish to speak about LGBT issues, Hobson identified the privatization of education as a key obstacle to wider discussion of LGBT history. Outsourcing of course preparation to private companies, decreasing teacher pay, the rise of charter schools, MOOCs, over-administration, and the adjunctification of faculty all place growing pressure on teachers to streamline their classes, militating against new topics of conversation. Worst of all culprits is the standardized test. Besides giving virtually no incentive for teachers to include non-tested material, the form of the examination emphasizes rote learning, memorization, and the complete absence of writing skills and engagement with primary sources that are the lifeblood of any LGBT history class.

Thankfully, neither Hobson nor Perez felt the need to despair. “LGBT history,” Hobson argued, “offers a way to actively resist the pedagogy of high stakes testing” because it “asks unexpected questions about the past.” Because of LGBT history’s very emphasis on critical thinking and source-based learning, it provides an antidote to the overweening influence of privatization.

Perez echoed this sentiment by demonstrating the effectiveness of her own innovative techniques of introducing LGBT history into her classes. Asking her students to comment on a sequence of images related to LGBT history during the first week of her class (and getting little response), she taught her students over the course of the term to look closely at historical documents, to unpack the layers of meaning behind individual words or representations, and think about what was excluded from the images as well as what was shown. When she reintroduced the students to the images at the end of the school year she found they now had plenty to say.

Perez described her teaching philosophy as an extension of her own experiences of feeling excluded in her surroundings growing up and stressed the importance of mainstreaming discussions about LGBT people into lessons from an early age. This approach was seconded by the final two presentations by historians Daniel Hurewitz, a professor at Hunter College, and Don Romesburg, the Chair of Sonoma State University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Both historians had recently worked on efforts to introduce LGBT history courses into schools in their respective jurisdictions – Hurewitz in a small county of upstate New York, Romesburg to the entire state of California as part of a state-mandated project to incorporate LGBT history into grade schools.

For Hurewitz, his involvement with this issues stemmed from his concern for what his son might learn as he entered grade school, and what teachers would be prepared to discuss given their training. Hurewitz’s efforts involved a lot of reassuring: reassuring parents that LGBT history would not distract from other topics; reassuring teachers that they would not have to explain the mechanics of gay sex to their students. But the main effort was to identify those places in existing US history survey courses where LGBT history could be included. Among other suggestions, Hurewitz offered the social revolutions of the 1960s, the suffrage movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and the discussion of other minorities in US history as avenues for including LGBT topics. Including LGBT history in this way presented an added advantage, Hurewitz argued, as it would help turn historical actors from otherwise obscure references into more relatable and understandable figures for students. Echoing John D’Emilio’s observations, Hurewitz concluded that for most students today LGBT people have been normalized, and so the trepidation over forcing teachers to discuss something that dares not speak its name is largely overblown.

In California, the push for LGBT history came from the legislature after the FAIR Act was passed mandating the inclusion of LGBT topics in elementary and secondary school curricula. The state’s initial response was an underwhelming promise to discuss Harvey Milk in grades four and eleven and the Lavender Scare in grade eleven. Working with a wider group of activists, Romesburg pressured the state government to take seriously its directive with an impressive report describing where LGBT history could be included across grade levels.

The process was both thrilling and humbling. Romesburg’s efforts produced an enormous and overwhelmingly positive result from the wider public – nearly 25 percent of the thousands of public comments on the new teaching framework were about LGBT issues. But there were also challenges. Romesburg described how the state-mandated course prescriptions for each grade presented difficulties for including discussion of LGBT history. For instance, it was hard to find appropriate material for a colonial American history class intended for fifth grade students because nearly all the academic work on queer history in that period focuses on sodomy. (“Sodomy’s fine for high school”, Romesburg assured us).

The panel concluded on an optimistic note. LGBT history is a growing field in academia and has produced more than enough scholarship to justify inclusion in secondary and primary school education. More promisingly, LGBT history, and the history of sexuality more generally, have pushed the boundaries of scholastic inquiry. The questions historians of sexuality ask and the methods they use to answer them are now the tools required by a new generation of scholars to explore the world around them. In short, teaching queer history is important, worthwhile, and fun. As it should be.

Chris Parkes is a PhD student in the International History Department and LSE100 Fellow at the London School of Economics. He is a historian of American political, diplomatic, and LGBT history in the twentieth century. His doctoral thesis explores the life and career of former Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles as well as the role of sexuality in the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s. Chris tweets from @Parkesland


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