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Opinion: Our History Classes Leave Queer Students Behind

10 mins read

Written by Katie Doran and Megan Lam

Illustrated by Katie Doran

The struggles and accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people are rarely honored in our classrooms, contributing to the quiet—and detrimental—erasure of LGBTQ+ history. Teaching queer history is required by law in California, but M-A’s history curriculum falls dismally short, not only failing to comply with our Education Code, but also failing to provide students with the inclusive history curriculum they need and deserve.

At M-A, few classes adequately represent LGBTQ+ people throughout history. One anonymous student said, “In my time here, I have learned about queer history maybe once. I feel like sometimes there are missed opportunities to talk about queer history.” Up until our junior year, neither of us learned about queer history beyond a couple sentences in a textbook or an allusion in a lecture. 

Teaching queer history is M-A’s legal obligation: the FAIR Act, which went into effect in 2012, mandates that California schools teach “Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR)” LGBTQ+ history. It requires “instruction in social sciences to include a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other cultural groups, to the development of California and the United States.”

Beyond just the law, inclusive curriculum is crucial because it helps queer students feel welcome, seen, and celebrated. An anonymous M-A student said, “I think a big reason it is important is to recognize that people with queer identities have always existed, and for queer students to know their history.” Sophomore Benji Weiss added, “It validates other people’s experiences and shows all sides of history.”

This year, as Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) leaders, the two of us compiled a Google Drive folder with dozens of resources and lesson plans on a wide range of queer history topics, sorted by M-A’s history courses for each grade level. We spoke to M-A’s history department in the fall about using these resources, and while teachers were open-minded and receptive—and some even shared their plans to incorporate the lessons we provided—students have not reported learning more LGBTQ+ history this year than in the past. 

Nationally, according to the 2021 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) School Climate Survey, almost three in four LGBTQ+ students said that “their classes did not include any LGBTQ+ topics” at all. Those who were taught “positive representations” about LGBTQ+ history reported feeling a greater sense of belonging at school and were less likely to hear homophobic and transphobic remarks. 

The 2022 Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that LGBTQ+ youth who reported that school was not an affirming space were 31% more likely to attempt suicide than those who reported it was. 

“It can be very lonely and very isolating to be a young queer person,” said junior Sasha Filippova, one of Nueva High School’s Queer Student Union (QSU) Student Leads. He continued, “Even if you have a support group in your generation, it can feel like you’re a small group of people battling against insurmountable forces. Learning queer history can really help you understand that, yes, there are incredible obstacles, but you’re not alone. People have been succeeding, living under pressure, surviving, and even thriving in the past.”

Allen Frost, who teaches a few queer history electives at Nueva, said, “Many queer teens feel, for good reason, totally marginalized. For our queer students, I think there’s a need to see how queer people throughout history have, in the face of all this opposition, persecution, harassment, and marginalization, been able to find and make their own communities, and been able to love, lead happy and joyful lives, and resist oppression. And I think that’s really, really powerful.”

Many queer teens feel, for good reason, totally marginalized. For our queer students, I think there’s a need to see how queer people throughout history have, in the face of all this opposition, persecution, harassment, and marginalization, been able to find and make their own communities, and been able to love, lead happy and joyful lives, and resist oppression. And I think that’s really, really powerful.

Allen Frost

Queer-inclusive curriculum also widens students’ perspectives on history, and is important for all students, even those who aren’t queer. Just as teaching about any marginalized group helps all students—not just those who identify with that group—develop nuanced, thoughtful perspectives, studying queer figures and events does too. Learning about activism in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, would be incomplete without mentioning the Civil Rights Movement, environmentalism, anti-war protests, or feminism; likewise, LGBTQ+ activism belongs on that list too. Teachers should acknowledge queer history in context across time periods, just as they do with other developments; without it, students are left with historical perspectives that don’t honor the truth or complexity of our past.

With little guidance from school leadership, teachers structure their classes differently, choosing which perspectives to include in their curriculum. An anonymous M-A student said, “I think teaching queer history depends on the teacher, because they can choose what to teach.” 

Our own different experiences with learning queer history during junior year reflect the inconsistency in both FAIR Act compliance and curriculum inclusivity between teachers. While one of us had occasional lessons throughout the year that centered on LGBTQ+ people and events, the other only had a single ten-minute powerpoint on queer culture in the 1920s. Whether or not students are adequately exposed to LGBTQ+ history is too important to be treated as simply a matter of teacher preference. 

With teachers choosing how much queer history to incorporate in their lessons—and most choosing to incorporate very little—students only learn this history by investing their own time and effort. Junior J Mandelstam said, “The only reason I know what I do about queer history is because I’ve made the effort to learn things by myself, gone to M-A’s GSA, or researched these topics for school projects. And that’s because it’s not taught in schools. What is taught is very surface-level, and for people who aren’t queer, that may be all they really know about our community. I wish it were more.”

Queer history should not be something that students learn only by taking personal initiative, whether through GSA, their own research, or topics they’ve chosen for class projects. Without guidance from their classes, most students, especially non-queer ones, will never explore this history. Frost added, “There’s a difference between letting queer students read queer history and actually requiring all students to read queer history. In the same way that I wouldn’t want just Black students in my class to read Toni Morrison, I would want all students to read that.”

M-A offers Gender Studies, a one-semester course that does incorporate queer history, like pre-colonial gender identities from around the world, texts by LGBTQ+ authors, and the successes of various activism groups. These lessons give students greater respect for the advocacy it’s taken to reach our current, hard-won progress towards LGBTQ+ equality. However, Gender Studies is not enough: most students will never sign up for this course, and some who do won’t be able to take it. 

Senior Mezzy Epidendio said, “People need to understand more about queer people and culture—there’s a lot of misconceptions and misinformation.” LGBTQ+ people have existed in every country and era that M-A history classes cover, but students and teachers at M-A are too often ignorant about the extent of this history. Many see LGBTQ+ people and activism as modern developments, but when students learn about the extent of queer history, it challenges the misconception that being queer is a recent fad or mental health crisis. 

Frost said, “For many teachers, this was not something that they themselves learned about when they were studying.” He added, “Terminology is constantly shifting, and so it can feel really scary for some teachers to be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to wade into this.’ I think I’m comfortable being in that space of ambiguity because I’ve read a lot about queer history. Also, I am gay, so I feel like I’m more empowered to talk about these things because it is my own identity. But I think some teachers who don’t know as much might be a little bit hesitant because it is such a politically charged topic, and I also think teachers don’t want to be in a place where they’re possibly offending students.”

Though teachers may initially feel uncomfortable addressing a topic that they haven’t previously learned about, that doesn’t justify continuing to exclude queer perspectives from their classrooms. Doing so only passes on their own gaps in knowledge to students, and reinforces a hesitant dynamic between students and educators whose ignorance makes them too afraid to broach the topic of queer history. It’s time for teachers to break that cycle, even if it means taking the difficult first step of educating themselves and initiating the conversation around queer history in their classroom. Being honest with students when they’re unsure about certain aspects of queer history is better than avoiding it altogether. 

It’s time for teachers to break that cycle, even if it means taking the difficult first step of educating themselves and initiating the conversation around queer history in their classroom.

Senior Abi Wee, another Nueva QSU Student Lead, said, “I think it’s irresponsible of teachers and educators to refuse to engage with content that is difficult to bring into the classroom for fear of getting called out. Resources for educators are definitely there.” Indeed, there are numerous resources available—from pre-made lesson plans to guides on terminology—that are designed specifically for teachers looking to craft more inclusive curriculums.

Limited time can pose another difficulty in including queer voices. Frost said, “Your English and history teachers are always going to run up against the problem that we only have so many days in the school year. Making those choices [on what content to teach] is always so difficult.”

Especially in AP classes, teachers may view queer history as a distraction, taking valuable time away from content more likely to appear on AP exams. However, queer history remains an essential part of students’ holistic view of history. Moreover, AP history exam questions are often open-ended, testing students’ abilities to draw connections and bring in outside knowledge—skills where knowing queer history is just as helpful as knowing other parts of history. 

There will certainly never be enough time for any high school survey history course—AP or otherwise—to incorporate all the content worth teaching and learning about. Still, at a school where LGBTQ+ stories are rarely even referenced, it’s time we start seeing queer history as an unexpendable part of our curriculum.

Lack of inclusive curriculum is a complaint shared around our school district, not just M-A. Junior and Sequoia High School GSA co-president Ethan Thacker said, “The majority of teachers don’t mention queer history at all, and even on the off chance that a teacher will mention queer history, it is never in depth.”

Our district hires staff specifically to design equitable professional development plans that help teachers comply with education laws while supporting all students; however, LGBTQ+ voices are too often excluded. Woodside senior Max Valdez, president of Woodside’s Alphabet Soup Club—their organization for queer students and allies—said, “One of my teachers told me that in all the years that she’s worked here, there hasn’t actually been a proper presentation on how to treat queer kids.” While M-A has provided at least some teacher training on supporting queer students in the last few years, these initiatives have largely been spearheaded by GSA and students, not school leadership. 

M-A needs stronger involvement and initiative from school administration and teachers on behalf of queer students. It should not be our job as students to ask—repeatedly, fruitlessly—for our school to provide curriculum that affirms us and complies with the law. 

The lackluster movement towards inclusive curriculum at M-A and in our district is depriving all students of the “Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful” history they deserve, and it leaves queer students without the valuable knowledge of their place in history. Junior Logan Greenbaum said, “It’s important for young queer kids to know that, despite how it may feel, they are not the first nor are they the last. They aren’t alone; queer people have always existed.” 

As students, we have advocated to teachers about creating FAIR Act-compliant curriculums, presented at professional developments about why this matters, and offered resources to the history department to lighten the load on teachers trying to make this transition, but little has changed. M-A needs stronger involvement and initiative from school administration and teachers on behalf of queer students. It should not be our job as students to ask—repeatedly, fruitlessly—for our school to provide curriculum that affirms us and complies with the law. 


These Queer History Topics (And More!) Belong in Your Classroom

  • Lavender Scare
    • Beginning in the 1950s, the Lavender Scare was a decades-long effort to fire gay and lesbian people from U.S. government jobs out of a supposed fear that they were communist infiltrators and a threat to national security. The history of the Cold War and the Red Scare isn’t complete without a discussion of the Lavender Scare and how anticommunism became legislated homophobia.
  • HIV/AIDS Crisis
    • The HIV/AIDS crisis disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ people, particularly gay men, and hundreds of thousands of people have died from AIDS in the U.S. alone. In the 1980s and 1990s, at the peak of the epidemic, politicians refused to speak out on the crisis—there were almost 25,000 deaths before President Reagan publicly addressed AIDS at all—and media coverage was minimal. Only when non-LGBTQ+ people saw the virus as a threat to themselves did the government take action. In the face of erasure and indifference, LGBTQ+ people formed their own organizations to advocate for and take care of each other, like ACT UP and the Blood Sisters. Learning about the HIV/AIDS crisis shows students the reality of a devastating time in LGBTQ+ history as well as how community members sought to uplift one another.
  • Gender Before Colonization
    • Especially before European colonization, many cultures had more fluid or expansive views on gender. From Hijras in Ancient India to Kitesha in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Two Spirit people in some Native American cultures, there are numerous examples of “third gender,” non-gendered, or fluid identities from around the world. Exploring global and pre-colonial gender norms helps show students that gender nonconforming people have existed and thrived for millennia. 
  • Queer Culture in the 1920s and 1930s
    • This was a formative time for modern queer culture in the U.S., as drag and LGBTQ+ nightlife blossomed around the country, from Harlem to Los Angeles. Studying this so-called “Pansy Craze” and the growth of queer culture, even at a time when being gay or dressing in drag were considered crimes, is a reminder of the resilience and joy of LGBTQ+ people.
  • Queer Victims of the Holocaust
    • Gay people were among the groups imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust and, after WWII, many were re-imprisoned as well. The Allies decided not to remove the German law criminalizing homosexuality, and Germany did not recognize gay survivors of the Holocaust until more than 50 years later. Now, the pink triangle—an icon that gay people in concentration camps were forced to wear—has become a symbol of queer pride and resistance. 

See GSA’s resources and lesson plans on teaching queer history here.

Katie Doran is a senior and an Editor-in-Chief of the M-A Chronicle. In journalism, Katie has enjoyed being able to direct their own research on issues and events related to the M-A community. She is also involved in M-A's debate team and is interested in law, politics, and social issues. In their free time, Katie likes to read, bake, paint, and hang out with friends.

Megan Lam is a senior and a first-year journalist. They are excited to further their writing skills this year and contribute stories about issues relevant to the M-A community. Megan enjoys spending time with friends in their free time, and they have been on M-A's badminton team since freshman year.

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