ARTICLE

Black LGBTQ History: Teachers Must Do a Better Job

Our curricula should not present a narrow, monolithic narrative about black history that omits certain voices and identity groups, such as LGBTQ individuals. 

It is important for educators to combat the tokenization of Black History Month. Students deserve to learn about and engage in black history and narratives throughout the year, not just encounter them in supplemental material relegated to one month. Equally important: ensuring that our curricula do not present a narrow, monolithic narrative about black history that omits certain voices and identity groups. One way to avoid such neglect is to teach about black LGBTQ people’s lived experiences, stories and contributions to our nation.

As educators, we must do a better job. For instance, teachers need to allow Bayard Rustin to ascend to his rightful place in the civil rights pantheon. Several texts, such as this moving BuzzFeed article and this PBS special, are engaging pieces that educators can use to teach about Rustin’s activism and life. Another classroom resource is Teaching Tolerance’s four-part lesson series for grades 9–12 on Rustin, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Pauli Murray.

Other activists also deserve their place in our historical narrative. From Stonewall to Black Lives Matter, black LGBTQ people have played a crucial part in shaping the discourse around justice and belonging in the United States.

Although he is straight and cisgender, it is important to note the historical and unprecedented role President Barack Obama played in advancing LGBTQ rights, both domestically and abroad. President Obama appointed black LGTBQ judges Darrin P. Gayles and Staci Michelle Yandle to federal judiciaries. His State Department univocally declared that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights once and for all.” President Obama also presided over the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and played a pivotal role in the litigation of marriage equality. Our nation’s first black president should be taught as the advocate for LGBTQ rights his legacy presents.    

Social studies curriculum is not the only discipline in which black LGBTQ people should be highlighted. English teachers need to deepen their reservoir of black authors to disrupt single stories and expand students’ understandings of intersectional identities. Jacqueline Woodson’s The House You Pass on the Way and After Tupac and D Foster are excellent young adult pieces that explore the intersection of race and sexuality in nuanced and powerful ways. High school teachers have some of the finest writers in James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde to explore with their curricula. The recent documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, would make an excellent resource in a high school English classroom.  

Contemporary black LGBTQ individuals also deserve their place in our classrooms. Frank Ocean’s highly lauded album Blonde features several songs that deserve to be explored from a critical literacy perspective. Memoirs such as Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness offer accounts of how racial identities intersect with sexuality and gender identity, respectively. Finally, the award-winning film Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about being black and gay in Miami, could be used to explore visual literacy and narrative.    

As educators, we must make sure our students understand how black LGBTQ people have shaped and continue to shape our culture and society. And we must acknowledge that a myriad of figures who are not commonly taught exist throughout our history. It’s time to bring their experiences and stories to the forefront of our own and our students’ understandings of American history.

Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.