Controversy in the Classroom
Teaching LGBTQ History: Two Situations
Vicki L. Eaklor, May 2010
I teach courses primarily in American history at a small university. I am one among four historians who are part of an interdisciplinary division. Our classes are small (30–50 students in surveys, 6–25 students in upper-level courses) and we know our students and they know us. I begin the essay with these details because they are among the factors that probably shaped my experiences teaching LGBTQ history over the past 20 years. Add to this the fact that I am openly lesbian and for years was the only visibly queer faculty/staff member. I have taught this history in three venues: the upper-level “era” or topic course designed for majors, but rarely exclusive to them; the U. S. survey since 1865; and a course I introduced around 1990 entitled “Gay American History.” For this essay I am treating only the latter two; and I proceed on the assumption that the “controversy” involved is not in a specific topic for discussion (“Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Legal?”) but is embedded in the effort to include any queer material anywhere, much less teach a whole course around it.1
The survey course, dominated by lectures with some discussion, presents probably the biggest challenge. This lies not in difficulties of finding information to use, but in considering the contexts, the relative amount of time to spend (within a lecture and within the course), and even the “tone” with which to discuss it. My practice is to begin early in the course and insert tidbits where possible, not as salacious gossip but rather to introduce, and periodically reinforce, the idea that queer history and U. S. history are symbiotic. Too often we historians “ghettoize” experiences of less visible or powerful people into the single lecture or two, but in doing so we reinforce their otherness even as we claim to be inclusive. To mention the debates over Lincoln’s (or Buchanan’s) sexuality, or women who cross-dressed to fight in wars, for example, is to show students something of the complexity of the past, and introduce the arguments over how and why history is done in the first place. I have found students as interested in the uncertainties of history as in yet another recitation of the “facts” they heard in high school. The years from Reconstruction to World War II offer plenty of reminders of queer existence, but again it is their perceived purpose and the tone in which they are mentioned more than the number of examples that will convey the constant (and surprisingly visible, until World War II) presence of queer Americans. After the Second World War it would be hard to imagine discussing the Cold War and the Red Scare without some attention to the Lavender Scare, and even more difficult to justify ignoring the evolution of queer rights movements in the context of civil rights generally and the various movements revived or begun since the forties. That it helps to have a supportive textbook, inclusive of more queer people and issues than just the Stonewall rebellion or gay liberation, probably goes without saying.2
By the end of the semester, the groundwork is laid for the lectures devoted to postwar queer movements, and the discussion flows more naturally out of previous material and as a “natural” part of any presentation of rights movements. Lest I paint a too rosy picture, though, it is the time spent at the end of the course that reminds me how controversial anything related to queer people continues to be. This makes it unlike teaching other loaded topics, because usually they are just that—topics. In the case of LGBTQ history, it is the very existence of the “different” people that generates the “controversy,” as does any insistence on being visible, in the past or in the present. Despite a good rapport built over a dozen weeks or more, I have had students “shut down” while I lecture on LGBTQ rights movements: not looking at me, refusing to raise hands, or participate in discussion, and so on. For some I think it is discomfort over the degree to which I am out/come out at this time (I’ve assumed they know I’m queer, but I place myself in the story at some point to make sure they know; invariably, some do not until then, reminding us all how powerful is the heterosexist assumption). For others, I discovered later, it was not hostility toward me and my queerness but instead their reluctance to show interest in the material in front of others (“If I know this or ask a question everyone will think I’m gay”): a sad commentary on the level of homophobia still present in our society, but verified in numbers compiled by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network) on the harassment of queer public school students.3 At the next lecture, however, things are back to normal: most students are no longer threatened, it seems, by the topic. Some may remain unsettled—not a bad thing in education—the queer students will be grateful, and all will come away with a more solid basis upon which to form thoughts and opinions.
Teaching the course devoted to queer history is similar in some ways but different in most from the survey. Because it is an upper-level elective for the history major and serves two minors (Critical Discourse and Women’s Studies), we avoid the “captive audience” phenomenon of those fulfilling a general education requirement. The students enrolled for this course thus show little or no resistance to the course materials. However, students will arrive with a variety of motives in tow, motives more charged than those of the students taking, say, Modern Europe or the Civil War Era. One year this was made vivid when taking roll the first day: as I called names I invited each to say why they chose this course (something I do in all my courses). Responses quickly settled into a pattern alternating between, “because I’m gay” and “because I’m a history major.” One or two of the latter would quickly add that it was the only advanced course that fit her/his schedule (so much for the “everyone chooses to be here” theory). Because students in each “group” already knew each other, their seating arrangement concretely reinforced the sense of two “types”: majors on one side, LGBTQ students on the other. To their credit, this amused them, even as they helped create it as it unfolded by what they chose to say, and I did remark that the two “conditions” were not mutually exclusive. Within days some brave queer sat with the majors (note that it wasn’t the other way around) and others on both sides followed.
Returning to those responses, what issues and challenges are implied in the situation? One is that some LGBTQ students who enrolled in the course to learn “their” history might be less academically prepared for upper-level work. On the other side are the majors who enter a little skeptical about the validity of the course and/or suspicious of its “agenda,” especially as taught by an out professor. Interestingly, what often draws them together is not only the novelty of the material to everyone but also its complexity. They soon learn that even while we pursue a particular narrative in the classroom, we are questioning it as we go and most students become excited about previously ignored material on the one hand and an intellectual project that raises questions central to doing any history on the other: Is history progressive? How much do things really change? Why has this and so much else been omitted, and by whom? What are we looking for, and what constitutes evidence? Even their struggles with various theories of history and of sexuality offer them common ground through a common ordeal.
In both the survey and the topics courses the “controversy” associated with queer material cannot be separated from recent and current debates about such topics as employment discrimination, same-sex marriage, harassment and violence toward queer people, and the role of government generally. Whether majors or non-majors, queer or non-queer, students are usually intrigued by the obvious links between past and present, and by the idea of information deliberately omitted. As a result many will exhibit that sense of excitement in discovering that history is always controversial when enough of it is told.
Vicki L. Eaklor is professor of history at Alfred University and author of Queer America: A GLBT History of the Twentieth Century (Greenwood Press, 2008).
2. For a list of survey texts and ratings on their treatment of queer topics see my article, “How Queer-Friendly Are U.S. History Textbooks?” History News Network, http://historynewsnetwork.org/articles/3200.html.
3. In its 2007 National School Climate Survey GLSEN reported large majorities of LGBT students experiencing verbal harassment (86.2 percent because of sexual orientation, 66.5 percent due to gender expression), and alarming numbers harassed or assaulted physically (44.1 percent physically harassed due to sexual orientation; 30.4 percent because of gender expression; 22.1 percent assaulted because of sexual orientation; 14.2 percent because of gender expression), www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/001/1306-1.pdf.