LGBTs Gain New Chapter In History Books

Originally published on July 20, 2011 12:27 pm

Calif. public schools are now required to add accomplishments and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in social studies curriculums. To learn which parts of LGBT history might be included and how religiously conservative individuals might address this addition, host Michel Martin speaks with Don Romesburg, an assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, chances are you know someone who has a car that looks like it's seen better days. And yet for whatever reason, your friend or neighbor or relative can't quite ditch that jalopy for an upgrade. We'll talk with a writer who's delved deep into the reasons why some folks just love their junky old rides. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, we're going to talk about a big change in the history books. These days it's pretty common for students to learn about the contributions of feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton or civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., or labor leader Caesar Chavez. But awkwardly left out are the accomplishments of people like former San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk and other gay activists.

A new law in California will soon change that. California has become the first state in the country to require that all the state's public schools include the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. So just what does this mean for the nation's largest school system and how might school districts implement these changes?

For some thoughts on why and how, we've called upon Don Romesburg. He's an assistant professor in the women's and gender studies department at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. He founded that school's queer studies minor and he curates exhibitions for the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. He was also a consultant to the Gay-Straight Alliance that advocated for the new law. He's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

DON ROMESBURG: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So talk to me about what this law would mean. Like, what kind of lesson might we now hear that we would not have previously?

ROMESBURG: Sure. So certainly when I was going to high school a million years ago - I'm 40 - there was no mention at all of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people or lives in social science classrooms or in history classrooms. And even today you're very lucky if there's even a passing reference to either the Stonewall riots of 1969 that are often thought to kick off the gay liberation movement, or the impact that AIDS and HIV has had on gay and lesbian people.

But what this would do is put the contributions and the role of LGBT people into curriculum that already exists and already includes, for example, the contributions of women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans and others.

MARTIN: So you feel that this is giving people a more accurate picture of history. It's just more - it's just - people are arguing it's politically correct. You are argue it's editorially correct.

ROMESBURG: Well, yeah. I argue that it's actually correct.


ROMESBURG: That we definitely need to recognize that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans and their issues have been a core part of certainly 20th century American history.

MARTIN: A lot of the focus of reporting on the bill has been the bill's call for the inclusion of gay and lesbian contributions through the country's history, but it also adds religion and physical disability to the list of characteristics for which instructional materials must not, quote, unquote, "reflect adversely." And apparently current law prohibits schools from making negative portrayals on the basis of race, gender or national origin.

Even though that is adding this list to settled law, there are those who say, well, this is the problem. That it's actually intended to suppress rich discussion, as opposed to enhanced rich discussion. What would you say to that?

ROMESBURG: Well, I would say that it's important to add as much to the discussion as possible and that the roles and contributions of LGBT people are part of the social fabric of our history. And as a teacher in college, as a professor who teaches history, I can tell you that students are stunned to learn, for example, that when the Red Scare happened in the 1950s and McCarthyism and all of that, that actually there was a much broader suppression or policing that happened at that time called the Lavender Scare, which went on from the 1950s through the 1970s, targeted people on the basis of whether or not they were perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

And, ultimately, 10,000 people lost their jobs because of the Lavender Scare. It was actually a far bigger witch hunt than the Red Scare was in the first place. So that's the kind of thing that I think would be important for high school students and middle school students to be grappling with when they think about what is important to understand about American history.

MARTIN: And to that point, I was going to ask you this, because you're a college professor. The law doesn't specify the grade level for the curriculum to be introduced. What's your idea about the best level for this and why?

ROMESBURG: Well, it's supposed to, as I understand it, be brought in at an age appropriate level at everywhere from K through 12. So at the elementary level, I think that, for example, you have children's books that are biographies of people like Ronald Reagan or Martin Luther King, Jr. You also have books out there that are about Harvey Milk, for example, the San Francisco businessman and politician who was active in California's politics and got elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors in 1977 and then was tragically assassinated a year later.

So there are ways that that could happen at the elementary level. I think at the middle school and high school level there can be a lot of very robust discussions about, for example, the role of the policing and marginalization of LGBT people in the military and the long history of that dating back certainly to World War II where there was an aggressive policing and expunging of gay people right through "don't ask, don't tell" and then finally "don't ask, don't tell's" repeal.

So that would be, I think, a very interesting discussion for people to have and also interesting to think about in relationship to other peoples who have found inclusion in American society through the military and through fighting their way into the military, African-Americans and women, for example.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about a new law in California that will require public schools to include the contributions of LGBT people in the history books. We're joined by Don Romesburg of Sonoma State. He's an historian. He was also a consultant to a group that advocated for the new law. And he's telling us what kinds of things might be studied under the new law.

To those who do come from, say, religiously conservative backgrounds, for whom it is a core value in teaching that same-sex relationships are not to be sanctioned or shouldn't be sanctioned, how would they address this? I mean, obviously one approach to this would be to go to a private school or parochial school. But if you wanted to continue to be part of the public school experience, but you had a core belief based on, perhaps, your religious values, what would you recommend to school districts on how they would address that?

ROMESBURG: Well, I think that you can talk a lot about the civil rights issues of LGBT people as a sexual minority without going into the question about whether or not someone individually feels that lesbian and gay relationships, for example, are morally right or wrong. There are many people of faith who may not feel comfortable with their religion sanctioning a religious ceremony for same-sex marriage.

But at the same time recognize that the struggle for the civil rights of same-sex marriage are about civil equality and not about some sort of moral principle. So in that sense I think that certainly, even if teachers or others felt uncomfortable with LGBT people because of some sort of faith-based background, they would be able to recognize that, for example, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s were the first lesbian and gay political organizations to organize around the idea of gay people as a civil rights minority that needed to struggle for its own equality.

MARTIN: Well, finally, before we let you go, and I know this is a totally unfair question, you've been doing this for some time. As we mentioned, you're a professor, you curate exhibitions for the LGBT History Museum in San Francisco. And is there a favorite unit or exhibition or person that you really hope will be taught right away or just something you're just really excited to see?

ROMESBURG: Sure. You know, the person that I'm sort of always most excited to teach in history is Bayard Rustin who was an African-American civil rights activist and antiwar, and peace activist, who is largely credited as the chief organizer of the 1963 march on Washington. He was someone who was openly gay and was targeted by people who opposed the civil rights movement because of his homosexuality.

So those who oppose the African-American civil rights movement would attempt to use his sexuality against him and therefore against the movement. And there were times at which the civil rights movement and its leaders backed off of Rustin in fear of being associated with homosexuality. And then there were other times where they recognized that they needed to stand with Rustin against hate and against discrimination.

And so he, I think, is a great figure for showing the way in which the history that we thought we knew is different when you bring LGBT people into the story.

MARTIN: Don Romesburg is an historian. He's an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University. That's in Northern California. He's also a curator at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Museum in San Francisco. He was also a consultant with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network that supported the legislation we've just been talking about. It was signed by California Governor Jerry Brown, last week.

Don Romesburg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROMESBURG: Happy to do it.

MARTIN: He joined us from member station KPLU in Tacoma, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.