Integrating Queer Voices into the Curriculum
It may seem like a minor adjustment for a teacher to mention a queer figure in history or analyze a queer character in a work of literature. But affirming an LGBTQ student’s existence helps them feel more connected to their school work and school community.
Help forge that connection with these classroom practices.
Assess Your Texts
Teachers send a powerful message with the resources they choose. Students undoubtedly perceive highlighted texts as representations of what is valued and celebrated in our culture. Omission sends an equally loud message. Including the voices of LGBTQ people supports students’ abilities to affirm their identities and cultivates empathy for those experiences that differ from their own.
In selecting the texts and books students will find in their curriculum or class library, educators should keep a number of questions in mind, including:
- What voices does this text include?
- Does the text include stereotypes or misrepresentations of people? How are those stereotypes or misrepresentations treated?
- Does the text accurately reflect lived experiences and cultures?
- Are certain people or groups glaringly absent or given an insubstantial role?
- Are certain questions or issues related to the topic left out/glossed over?
- Does this text promote a healthy self-concept?
- Does this text foster intergroup understanding?
- How might this text motivate, engage or enable my students?
Educators can answer these questions and more with TT's Reading Diversity tool.
If you find that none of your current texts include the perspectives of LGBTQ people, look for options that are relevant to your students’ lives and that pair well with other texts your students will encounter. For a list of children’s and young adult books featuring LGBTQ characters and themes, download Appendix A.
Remember: Students benefit from seeing their experiences reflected, or mirrored, in a text, and from empathizing with perspectives different from their own—using the reading as a window to better connect with and appreciate others. Students can also practice their literacy and analysis skills by determining if an author or narrator in a text echoes their own experience (mirror), or illustrates the perspective of people whose identities differ from their own (window). Do not undermine this positive representation by labeling the texts as "mature" or "controversial."
The TT Perspectives Text Library offers a selection of readings that address LGBTQ experiences, including photos, cartoons, fiction stories and informational nonfiction, all accompanied by discussion questions.
Teach Queer History
Integrating LGBTQ history into existing units—as opposed to doing stand-alone units—serves to normalize it, rather than presenting it as an add-on to “real” history. Here are four ways to do this in your classroom:
- Capitalize on historical eras during which LGBTQ figures played a prominent role. These include: the suffrage and women’s rights movements of the 1800s; the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age; the Frontier West; and the civil rights and social movements of the 1960s.
- Look at LGBTQ movements within the context of different social movements: the black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, or Latinx labor and civil rights activism, for example.
- Cover LGBTQ rights history by beginning with the 19th and 20th centuries, then teaching about Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society, Stonewall and the gay rights movement of the 1970s, HIV/AIDS, and marriage equality.
- Ask students to contrast the LGBTQ rights movement with other movements, such as those of African Americans, women, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, disability rights advocates, Japanese Americans and others. Compare the goals, strategies and support for each movement, as well as their historical efficacy in promoting civil rights.
Our podcast Queer America offers tips on teaching these topics and more. Listen for more ideas, and more details, from experts in the field.
To supplement these lessons, consider these recommendations from “Putting Ideas into Practice: High School Teachers Talk about Incorporating the LGBT Past,” a chapter from Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History:
- Look for opportunities to inform and improve understanding of current events through this history.
- Use historical information that confronts enduring stereotypes and narrow perceptions of what it means to be gay, bi, trans, intersex, and other identities. Highlight successful, proud or powerful figures, as well as those—from warriors to emperors to cowboys—who bucked expectations of masculinity or femininity. Allow students the space to connect historical anti-LGBTQ rhetoric with examples of the opposite.
- Tell more than just the story of oppression. Include the histories of coherent culture, strong identity, celebration, agency and resilience.
Teach LGBTQ history with these TT lessons on LGBTQ historical figures.
- Pauli Murray: Fighting Jane and Jim Crow
- James Baldwin: Art, Sexuality and Civil Rights
- Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights
- Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights
- Role of Gays and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement
Set Ground Rules
Creating a classroom contract from the beginning gives your students a structure that can help prevent inappropriate comments or interruptions when you introduce LGBTQ perspectives. Here are tips for making sure those ground rules foster an LGBTQ-inclusive environment:
- If possible, create community agreements with student input to inspire personal investment and relevance to students’ lives.
- Open the community agreements process with discussion prompts, such as “What rules would help you have a productive, respectful conversation?” or “When someone disagrees with you, how can you stay engaged in that conversation while still being respectful of the other person?”
- If you suspect that LGBTQ perspectives will be new territory for some students, begin the discussion with a statement about the importance of being open to ideas that may be unfamiliar.
- Make sure ideas of identity and difference are discussed explicitly. Make it clear that any derogatory, dismissive or purposely hurtful remark directed at any of a person’s identities or differences is never OK.
- Post these community agreements in a visible location and refer back to them often.
Lead Discussions With Courage and Care
Broaching topics about LGBTQ people may lead to discomfort, disagreement and/or even dehumanizing words from students. If that worries you, we recommend reviewing the strategies in our Let’s Talk! guide.
But there are key strategies specific to LGBTQ students’ experiences that should be noted here—and employed by educator allies.
- Never let a homophobic remark go uninterrupted. Prepare for the possibility that students will have strong reactions and make hostile or hateful comments. Intervene. Refer back to your classroom contract and explain why certain terms or phrases are inappropriate and how they can be hurtful to LGBTQ students. For strategies, refer to our Speak Up guide.
- Prepare for the possibility that religion will arise as a topic. Do not send the message that a student’s religion does not matter or that they are not welcome to discuss this aspect of their identity. Rather, remind them that they cannot use their religion to justify the harassment of another student or a violation of your classroom contract.
- Never present LGBTQ identities as up for debate. A classroom debate on whether sexual orientation or gender identity is innate, by definition, violates a community agreement not to attack someone’s identities. Similarly, do not label conversations or content about LGBTQ people or issues as "controversial," as this suggests people's identities are on the margins of acceptable conversation or that such a conversation carries risk.
Respond to Common Myths With Facts
Misconceptions about LGBTQ identities and communities may present roadblocks to creating an open classroom and queer-inclusive curriculum. If students derail discussion or fellow educators push back against your classroom practices by reinforcing these myths, be ready to intervene with facts. For a list of common myths and ways to respond, see the “What do I do if… the community pushes back?” section of this guide.
Respond to Current Events and Contemporary Issues
Keep an eye out for current events or news articles that can be used for staff and classroom discussion. Educators who are allies use teachable moments to build student capacity for empathy and understanding across lines of difference. Remember: Political events or legislation that limit the rights of LGBTQ people may leave queer students and their allies feeling disappointed and threatened.
Here are some suggestions for responding to current events in a way that lets LGBTQ students know they have space to be who they are in your classroom.
- Encourage discussion instead of silence. Unwillingness to engage in conversation about the lives of LGBTQ people validates the belief that such experiences should be whispered about. Use political events as opportunities to encourage queer students to speak their truth and as opportunities for all students to understand the consequences of court decisions and legislation. The question “What does this mean for me and the people I know?” deserves a thoughtful, nonpartisan response.
- Bring LGBTQ role models and public figures into your classroom. Take time to learn and teach about strong LGBTQ public officials in contemporary history, such as Mark Takano, Deborah Batts and Tammy Baldwin.
- Take inventory of the stories and messages you share while discussing current events. Craft a positive narrative of inclusion. Many students will look to their social context for their sense of approval and belonging. As an authority figure, everything you say carries weight and influence. Even if you unintentionally model negative or biased messages, students may conclude: My identity is abnormal. I do not matter here.
"Being seen—truly seen—is to feel that all parts of who I am are recognized not as compartmentalized pieces of myself, but blended truths of my identity." —Renee Watson, Black Like Me
Teach With Intersectionality In Mind
Adopting an intersectional approach means understanding that everyone has multiple identities—some visible and some invisible—and acknowledging that some people experience multiple forms of oppression. Make sure your curriculum does not present a narrow or one-sided story about the queer experience by leaving out certain aspects of multifaceted identities and groups.
Contemplate your personal teaching practice. Ask yourself questions such as:
“Does my curriculum include a diverse array of stories and combinations of identities?”
“Am I allowing for a multiplicity of narratives about what it’s like to be LGBTQ?”
“Am I highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ people of color?”
"An intersectional approach to LGBTQ youth advocacy means taking young people—with numerous identities, all of which needs to be validated and supported." —Giovanni Blair McKenzie, HRC Foundation Youth Ambassador
Teach the Gaps and Silences
It is no accident that so few historical records preserve the lives of queer individuals. History does not remember what it does not value. This is particularly true of individuals who experience intersecting oppressions, such as enslaved LGBTQ persons.
To teach the gaps and silences is to acknowledge the places LGBTQ people likely existed and to acknowledge the reasons why there is little to no record of them.
When there’s a lack of queer representation, teach the context:
- For the given era, explain the laws, culture, power structures and societal values that may account for the erasure of queer people.
- Explain why queer people would not have used modern-day identifiers such as “gay” or “transgender” and how this makes it easy for historians to ignore queer identity.
- When possible, point out the exceptions. For an LGBTQ student who has been made to believe that queerness is an aberration or a 20th century invention, evidence to the contrary is validating. From cave paintings to Ancient Egypt to indigenous American cultures and beyond, queer people have lived and even been celebrated.
"I couldn't find myself in history. No one like me seemed to have ever existed." —Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors