Kat Howard is a history teacher in a secondary school. Here she writes about her recent experiences in diversifying her school curriculum to include overt gay and lesbian history including an accurate account of the Stonewall Riots and the Lavender Menace protests. Kat explains why lesbian and gay historical representation in education matters.
It took perhaps 10 minutes, from the end of my assembly about LGBT History Month, for the student email to arrive in my inbox. Politely worded, this student had some very big concerns about my presentation. Had I forgotten to mention that actually it’s ‘LGBTQIA+ Month’? Had I deliberately excluded such important identities as demisexual, agender and panromantic from my assembly about some of Britain’s gay and lesbian icons? Did I not realise the importance of being inclusive of the genderflux and sapiosexual communities? I admittedly did not respond, I struggled to find the words needed to express both my amusement and my irritation at being ‘educated’ by a student alive for less time than I’ve been out of the closet. However, this email did reaffirm my view that unless schools begin to teach our gay and lesbian history, we risk losing it.
I began revamping my school’s history curriculum in the middle of last year. The Black Lives Matter protests in America and subsequent global conversation reopened the question of diversity in school curriculum in schools up and down the UK. I took this role within my department very willingly, wanting to write a curriculum that took students away from the endless wars of the Middle Ages and the battle stats of World War 1, and instead delve into black British history, women’s history, and gay and lesbian history. It was a curriculum my Head of department had never seen before, but a curriculum I am grateful to say he let me create.
Gay and lesbian history in a traditional history curriculum is incredibly minor. At best, there will be a cursory mention to the arrests of gay men in Nazi Germany, and perhaps a reference to Alan Turing whilst studying World War 2. Lesbians are always left out, being both women and homosexual, traditional history curriculums gave them very little space. At worst, gay and lesbian individuals are wiped entirely, and students could easily leave the classroom believing that gay and lesbian individuals only came into existence in the 1960s.
These aspects of the curriculum, focusing on gay and lesbian history outright, I hope will show students of the realities of the fight for gay rights in both America and Britain, of the strength and bravery it took, and of the fact that these people faced discrimination for being homosexual, not queer, and that is how they should be remembered.
In my new curriculum, I have sought to take a two pronged approach to developing students’ knowledge of lesbian and gay history. To begin with, I have included gay and lesbian history as standout topics. Students now, alongside looking at the American Civil Rights Movement, also look at Second Wave Feminism and the Lavender Menace protests. They are taught about the existence of lesbophobia, even within a women’s movement, and question its existence still in everyday life. To follow this, they look at the Stonewall Riots: causes, events and aftermath. Students are taught about the role of Storme DeLarverie in starting these riots, challenging the frequently misheld belief that the riots began with Marsha P Johnson.
Students are also asked to consider the importance of bars and other spaces for gay people, and consider why these spaces reserved for gay and lesbian individuals are so culturally important. Students in upper years look at the decriminalisation of homosexuality within Britain. These aspects of the curriculum, focusing on gay and lesbian history outright, I hope will show students of the realities of the fight for gay rights in both America and Britain, of the strength and bravery it took, and of the fact that these people faced discrimination for being homosexual, not queer, and that is how they should be remembered.
Alongside this, I have ensured that we teach gay and lesbian histories throughout the other modules that we cover. Lesbian and gay individuals are interwoven within the lessons we teach. Students learn about lesbians such as Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper within the Suffrage campaign. Whilst studying the Industrial Revolution, they read about the increase in an underground gay culture in London, and the lesbian salons of the upper class. They are taught about the experiences of gay soldiers during World War 2. It is this aspect of the history curriculum I believe to be more impactful in showing students the reality of gay and lesbian lives in British history. Of course, students should know about the fight for gay rights, but they also need to see lesbian and gay experiences in all they are taught. They need to be shown the complex lives of gay and lesbian icons. In an age where sexuality and gender labels are used seemingly as substitutes for personality traits, showing individuals not defined by their sexuality is a political necessity if we want students to understand the reality of homosexuality. In an age where cancel culture rages online, and gay people are told they cannot be part of the LGBT if they have any thoughts deemed ‘anti-woke’, teaching students that even immoral people can be gay as well is something they genuinely struggle to understand.
I would love to expand my curriculum further. In my ideal World, we’d teach about women like Anne Lister, understand both her lesbianism in an era where the punishment for male homosexuality was still death, as well as her fierce ambition and business aptitude. We’d teach about the relationships of monarchs like James I and Queen Anne, in the way we do with the heterosexual relationships of Henry VIII, and the political implications of these. But the focus regardless would always be on helping students understand that labels did not oppress people in history, oppression was a result of disgust at the reality of homosexual relationships. These people were not ‘queer’, their lives were not defined by active attempts to subvert their era, or to seek attention, but merely live the lives they wished as gay men and lesbians.
The drive to include all labels pulls attention from the fact that it was not how people ‘identified’ that caused them to be ostracised, arrested, imprisoned,and even killed for centuries in British history, but their homosexual practices and relationships This is why we need inclusion of gay and lesbian history within our schools, to help push back against a queer movement obsessed with labels over reality.
The current generation, Gen Z, have situated themselves in a peculiar place in terms of LGBT acceptance. On the one hand, never before has there been a generation with so much understanding of sexuality and gender labels and identities, with so many identifying as part of the LGBT community. They all seem to attend Pride. They all watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. And yet, despite this, they have no understanding of the reality or importance of lesbian and gay history and culture. In fact, their actions actively threaten the memory of such history.
Gay and lesbian historical inaccuracies run rampant, from claiming the Stonewall Riots were started by Marsha P Johnson, to suggesting that any woman in trousers was actually ‘trans’. In addition, changing LGBT history month into LGBT+ history month means focus is taken away from the individuals in our history who experienced life as a gay man or lesbian under historic homophobia, and instead cast on any individual deemed ‘queer’ by today’s standards. The drive to include all labels pulls attention from the fact that it was not how people ‘identified’ that caused them to be ostracised, arrested, imprisoned,and even killed for centuries in British history, but their homosexual practices and relationships This is why we need inclusion of gay and lesbian history within our schools, to help push back against a queer movement obsessed with labels over reality. And it is, of course, important to remember that no-one was arrested under laws against homosexuality for being an ‘allosexual aromantic’.
Kat Howard is a history teacher in a secondary school.