Publication Date

April 9, 2024

Perspectives Section



  • United States


LGBTQ+, Public History

In the eight years since this magazine published a special issue on teaching LGBTQ+ and sexuality history, the political landscape for many history educators has dramatically changed. As of March 1, eight states have passed laws targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices and programming at public institutions of higher education, and nearly half of the state legislatures have considered similar bills. Supporters of anti-DEI legislation explicitly argue that these laws sustain broader efforts to “oppose modern feminism and the radical homosexual and transexual rights movements.”

Painting of three trans individuals in 19th century clothing with the middle person faceless.

Students in the course The Queer South presented their historical research in a class exhibition, which included creative projects like this painting depicting trans individuals in the 19th century. Mak Kovar

Legislative efforts to silence sexuality—a key engine of historical analysis—threaten to impoverish our history classrooms by narrowing the horizon of what was possible in our riotous, complex past and what is possible in our shared future. As Samantha Rosenthal writes in Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City, “Through the work of unearthing the city’s queer pasts and staking claims for the survival of our own spaces of belonging, we do the important work of exerting our right to be here, of making and remaking this city as our home.” There is an urgent need—and an inspiring opportunity—for educators to prioritize teaching LGBTQ+ histories that foster community in places that are both hostile and home.

In fall 2023, in the shadow of the passage of Texas Senate Bill 17 (SB 17)—the state’s DEI ban in public higher education that took effect in January 2024—I piloted a new undergraduate public history course, The Queer South, at the University of Texas at Dallas. Academic instruction is technically protected from the incursions of SB 17, but this chilling context shaped how I understood the relationship between classroom-based learning and community formation on campus. The students offered a stunning vision of what is possible when they are empowered to study histories that are directly relevant to their worlds and to share those histories with audiences outside the classroom. Across the semester, the students built a warm community through mutual support as they shared books, primary sources, and many pictures of their pets. From this place of collective commitment, they produced remarkable work and organized a final exhibition, Ecstatic Time: Here in the Queer South, which was hosted by the Galerstein Gender Center on campus.

Legislative efforts to silence sexuality threaten to impoverish our history classrooms.

On the morning of the exhibit’s launch, our university president announced the enforcement of SB 17 and the elimination of all DEI offices, including our beloved Gender Center. That evening, 130 community elders, faculty, staff, parents, kids, and students packed the center’s rooms and hallways, exploring the students’ projects and chatting with new friends about enduring struggles. Historical research had made possible the learning—and the love—in the Gender Center that night.

Ecstatic Time was my last programming partnership with the Gender Center, which has since closed. Staff can no longer generously fund books for students, host future exhibitions of student work, or provide space for students marginalized by their sexual or gender identities. As historians know, specificity matters: to help build community on campus, we must attend to the distinct identities that shape our histories and lived experiences. Below, I offer three lessons I learned during my Queer South semester for educators who want to strengthen the community and connection on public campuses that legislatures are actively trying to dismantle.


Building Community in the Classroom

Power dynamics are built into the classroom, with an educator as authority figure who has an institutional mandate to enter grades for the students’ permanent transcripts. In this way, the classroom cannot replace a site like our former Gender Center, which was designed intentionally so that students could relax in a protected (and ungraded) space of love and care. For educators seeking to repair legislative harm and build community in the classroom, it is important to design a course that gets students talking to each other and promotes students’ sense of ownership over the outcome of the class.

Throughout the semester, I tested strategies to decentralize my authority in the classroom. I invited students to make collaborative decisions on the exhibit planning and the rubric to evaluate a successful project. They decided which guest speaker to invite to our class, what food we served at Ecstatic Time, and how the event would be set up. By giving them ownership over the course, students were motivated to offer their time, resources, and labor. One volunteered to serve as “exhibit coordinator,” and another recruited his father, a theater set designer, to help us stage Ecstatic Time. Through their planning deliberations, the students decided to create a website to house digital versions of their projects, and one student—a double major in history and computer science—volunteered to develop the site. The students’ shared authority in the classroom strengthened their community. “I appreciate how we make decisions together as a class because it gives us more collective autonomy,” one student wrote in their course evaluation. Ultimately, as the students glowed in the triumph of Ecstatic Time, the event was more meaningful because they knew that, together, they had made history.

Teach the Local

Amid rising attacks on queer life, history provides a clear message that LGBTQ+ students are not alone, especially when educators spotlight local stories from their region. The history of sexuality in the United States overwhelmingly focuses on the urban North and West, and many students outside coastal cities are still shocked—and energized—to learn that queer people have existed for centuries in the places they live, work, and play. I organized this course around our region, where a surge of scholarship has restored queer southerners to the historical record. In a shared resource document, I linked to every Texas and southern digital queer archive I could find online, as well as broader local and regional databases that contain queer sources (such as the Dallas Morning News archive) and large nonsouthern queer archives that include Texas or southern sources.

By keeping the course’s scope regional, students searching for elusive sources on gender nonconforming people in the 19th century, queer zines, LGBTQ+ civil rights activists, or lesbian mothers’ custody battles could cast a wider research net. At the same time, the geographic focus enabled students to find meaning and purpose by merging their interests with their city. For their projects, students created liner notes for a compilation album of women’s music presented by Little Feather Productions, a volunteer-run concert promotion group in Dallas from 1979 to 1992; a documentary about the gay Dallas activists who waged a successful battle to expand care at a local hospital for people living with AIDS; and two exhaustive maps, both digital and hand-drawn, of lesbian bars in Austin, which are now extinct in the city so famous for its inclusive vibe. The key takeaway is to strike a balance in the research scope for students: broad enough to ensure availability of historiography and primary sources, while offering a frame tight enough to encourage students to start where they are in their search for as-yet-untold queer pasts.

The Power of Public History

I am not a public historian by training, but the thrilling field of queer public history inspired me to experiment with this class. Queer public history is specifically designed to promote community through engaging, accessible, and interactive projects. By providing access points to the past, queer public history ignites new connections in the present that can change our future. Southern queer public history specifically is a vibrant and growing field of study, and southern scholars of sexuality have tapped into the power of public history to bring their research to wider audiences.

Through scaffolded assignments that broke down each step of the research and production process—identifying a research topic, finding and analyzing a primary and a secondary source, and writing and workshopping a final project proposal—the students prepared all semester for the public exhibition of their work. They took great pride in creating Ecstatic Time and directly experienced the bridge-building work of public history in action. For example, the students presenting their project on the Dallas 1992 Lesbian and Gay Film Festival were delighted to meet a visitor who had acted in a queer movie from that period. As another student walked new users through “GayOS,” a web program that mimics the 1990s-era Windows operating system to narrate how queer workers shaped the southern tech industry, he met a queer elder who had worked in tech during that time and had stories to share.

Students directly experienced the bridge-building work of public history in action.

One group in particular showcased the power of queer public history to forge community: they recorded an oral history with Chwee-Lye Chng, the founder of the Dragonflies, Dallas’s first organization for gay Asian men. The Dragonflies hosted potlucks and pageants through the 1990s. Many of the original Dragonflies and their friends came to Ecstatic Time, where they munched on Asian snacks the students offered in the spirit of the original potlucks; pored over the photograph gallery the students had curated from Chng’s archive; and read the students’ special November 2023 issue of the Dragonflies’ newsletter, the Buzz, which included a transcript of the students’ conversation with Chng.

We face an uncertain future for LGBTQ+ life at public schools across the country. Precisely because of this context, students are determined to dig deep into the archives and responsibly interpret queer histories in order to claim belonging in their institutions, towns, and regions. As the exhibit coordinator wrote in the Ecstatic Time welcome pamphlet, “Queer people have a past, a present, and they will have a future in the South.” When students are equipped with the research skills, analytical tools, and educational space to study the LGBTQ+ histories that surround us, they are inspired to see themselves in a larger genealogy of struggle and to affirm their commitment to each other.

Anne Gray Fischer is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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