Anti-Homophobia Education: Predicaments and Possibilities

Rachel Mattson, May 2010

It is no secret that homophobia runs rampant through U.S. middle and high schools. According to a recent study, 75.4 percent of students can recall hearing “faggot” or “dyke” used derogatorily at school; nearly nine out of ten have heard their peers use the word “gay” as a synonym for stupid or worthless; and over 37 percent of queer youth report that they have been physically attacked in high school as a result of their sexuality or gender expression. LGBT youth are also five times more likely to skip school because of safety concerns than other students; and they are three or four times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.1

In the past 20 years, activists and educators—most notably under the auspices of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)—have developed clubs, legal policies, and curricula to address school-based homophobia and to support queer students. These interventions have been critically important in opening up new kinds of conversations about the difficulties that queer youth face in U.S. public schools. But important as they are, many of these educational efforts deploy a narrow definition of homophobia, and bury their instructional goals inside lessons that teach students to become more “tolerant” of gay people. Despite the production over the past several decades of a rich and exciting body of literature in the fields of gay and lesbian history and queer studies, most K–12 anti-homophobia curricula fail to engage with complicated historical ideas or layered questions about gender. Popular anti-homophobia education also often misses opportunities to provoke conversations about culture, politics, and history; to invite students to critically read historical and contemporary texts; or to introduce students to broader ideas about gender and the disciplinary effects of heteronormativity.2 One standard lesson in GLSEN’s anti-homophobia toolkit, for instance, simply informs students that some well-known “historical figures” “had same-sex relationships at some point in their lives and/or transgressed society’s gender norms.” Another uses an incident from U.S. bombing of Afghanistan—in which the Navy dropped a bomb inscribed with the phrase “high jack this fags” (sic)—to raise a narrow set of questions about hate speech, without the least mention of the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East or the complex relationship between militarism and masculinity.3

Because I work both as a historian and a teacher educator, I have frequent opportunities to consider (and to lament, and to attempt to repair) the divisions that separate historical and cultural inquiry at the university and high school levels.4 Recently, I have also grown interested in, and concerned about, the absence of historical inquiry in high school-level programs meant to address questions of “diversity”—especially in those programs meant to combat homophobia. Queer theorists have long noted that many of the things that we often label “homophobia” are actually meant to discipline the gender expression of both gay and straight individuals alike. Recent studies of high school culture suggest that there is a real need for broadly drawn investigations of gender, sexuality, and history that take this insight into account.5 My own experiences with public school teachers and students likewise suggest that in order for anti-homophobia education to be effective at the high school level, it needs to make better use of both critical historical, and queer theoretical, methods. Thus, in the past several years, I have begun to envision—and to develop—a set of historically grounded anti-homophobia educational materials that ask students to grapple with the complexities of how power works, how change happens, and how each of us relates to these larger historical processes. These materials also ask students to consider how heteronormativity, as a historically produced set of power relations, endangers and impoverishes all of us.

Among the materials I have begun to develop is a set of lessons organized around Strom Thurmond’s homophobic attack on Bayard Rustin and the 1963 March on Washington.6 Many Americans remember the 1963 March on Washington only as the moment when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. But there are dozens of other stories about the march that have fallen off the radar of popular U.S. memory; the story of Thurmond’s last-minute attempt to derail it is one of them. In early August 1963 (the march was scheduled for August 28), Thurmond, a Dixiecrat Senator from South Carolina, assembled a stash of documents detailing the biographies of the civil rights leadership, focusing his attentions on the man who was quite visibly the event’s lead organizer—Bayard Rustin. When Thurmond’s first attempt to smear Rustin (by calling him a communist) failed, he made a second attempt. He published documents indicating that Rustin was a convicted “sexual pervert”—a homosexual. This time, Thurmond’s efforts bore fruit; newspapers across the country carried the story. But in a remarkable show of unity and clear-headedness, the civil rights leadership—including members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—spoke out in support of Rustin. As historian John D’Emilio puts it: “Because the accusation was so public, because it was leveled by a white supremacist, and because it came just two weeks before an event on which the movement was banking so much, civil rights leaders had to rally to Rustin’s defense.”7 Thus the march was held on schedule—and this near-catastrophe largely disappeared from memory.

The lesson I designed draws heavily from D’Emilio’s 2003 biography of Rustin, and makes use of a range of primary source documents—excerpts from Rustin’s writings about nonviolence and civil rights, copies of newspaper articles detailing Thurmond’s accusations, and photographs of Rustin with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.8 It requires students to examine these texts in an effort to determine who Rustin was, what his story might suggest about the historical relationship between homophobia and racism, and how Rustin’s story might challenge their pre-existing ideas about the civil rights movement. In teaching this material to pupils in New York City high schools, I found (to my great delight), that learning about this event invites students to wonder both about the relationship between homophobia and other forms of power specifically, and about the production of norms generally speaking. During one workshop, for instance, a high school sophomore raised a question about the logic of Rustin’s original arrest and conviction. In doing so, he provoked a flurry of comments from his peers about the criminalization of homosexuality—a conversation that, in turn, became a debate about the historical construction of crime and the criminalization of entire groups of people. Who decides what a crime is, students asked. Are the police always right? Overall, in order to understand how, in 1963, a white supremacist U.S. Senator used an anti-gay slur in his attempts to discredit and derail the efforts of the civil rights movement—and how, in response, a group of straight Christian ministers and labor leaders defended the privacy and integrity of their gay colleague, and decried the practice of homophobia—students had to engage in a set of intellectually complex historical investigations.

The idea of using Thurmond’s attack on Rustin’s work in this way does not break completely from the aims of traditional anti-homophobia education: organized around the life experiences of one gay individual, the story (and the classroom lesson that it inspired) centers on an attack based on hatred of queer people and stigmatization of their sexual desires. Teaching about this event likewise asks students to take queers seriously, and to understand that they have always been part of U.S. life, contributing their talents to a range of fields and endeavors. But teaching with this story also challenges some of the premises and traditional methods of anti-homophobia education. It introduces young people to the idea, for one thing, that homophobic attacks have the power not only to injure gay men and lesbians, but also to threaten the liberties of straight people. It suggests that homophobia has worked in tandem with other forces—such as white supremacy and electoral power—to uphold a wide range of traditional hierarchies. And it offers an opportunity to teach not only against homophobia narrowly defined, but also gendered and sexual norms broadly stated. In short, it provides a way to understand and teach about “homophobia” as an expansive category, one that not only motivates violence against queers but also helps construct a range of identities, masculinities and femininities, and one that disciplines the behaviors of gay and straight folks alike. These are not new ideas at the university level—they are standard fare for cultural historians and queer theorists. But these sorts of ideas—and practical methods for teaching with them—are largely missing at the secondary level.

My experiences teaching about Strom Thurmond’s attack on the March on Washington demonstrates, on the one hand, the important role that historians can play in reforming public education—and in expanding the possibilities for critical inquiry at the K–12 level. The work also suggests that it is possible to develop new ways of teaching history—even at the secondary level—in a way that asks young people to grapple with the complexities of how power works, how change happens, and how each of us relates to these larger historic processes. Historical ideas and queer theory offer important tools for this work, tools that can help us teach students to think critically about the world that they live in and the categories that they deploy on a daily basis; to ask questions about “normal” as a critical category; and to do this in a way that sees the past and present as interconnected and mutually constitutive. And if, as sociologist C.J. Pascoe has argued, homophobia and hierarchical ideas about masculinity and femininity are central to “the making of contemporary American adolescent masculinity,” then developing newly effective models for high school anti-homophobia education carries a great urgency.9


1.This data comes from the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Network’s 2005 National School Climate Survey ( and

2. Robert Corber and Stephen Valocchi—editors of Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003)—offer a useful definition of heteronormativity: “the set of norms that make heterosexuality seem natural or right and that organize homosexuality as its binary opposite.” p. 4.

3. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, History Match-up: A GLSEN Lunchbox Resource and Lesson Plan: What do ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ mean? retrieved February 3, 2006, from

4. I have written in greater detail about the divisions between K–12 and university-based history education—and the important role that historians can play in repairing these divisions—in “Theater of the Assessed: Drama-Based Pedagogies in the History Classroom,” Radical History Review 102 (Fall 2008), 99-110.

5. See, for instance, C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

6. For a more detailed account of this lesson, and the theoretical and historical ideas that inspired it, see my essay “Against Tolerance: Critical Historical Literacy Methods in Antihomophobia Education,” Laraine Wallowitz, ed., Critical Literacy as Resistance: Teaching for Social Justice Across the Secondary Curriculum (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 87–99.

7. John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2003), 349.

8. In designing and initially teaching this lesson, I benefitted enormously from the collaboration of Laraine Wallowitz, Lezlie Frye, and Devin Murphy.

9. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag, 53.