In Which I Return To Dangerous Territory About Which I Am Admittedly Ignorant
Here in California, Governor Brown has just signed a law mandating that the history curriculae of the public schools include coverage of “the contributions of gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans.” Below the fold, I have some thoughts about this but if you want to skip directly to the comments, my question is “Who should be on the curriculum?”
In my own education, both elementary and secondary, the subject of historical figures’ sexual lives was used as salacious bait to keep students from falling asleep in class — usually quite unsuccessfully. I frankly don’t know that I can point to all that many GLBT people in history and say, “That person is a hero.” Now, there must be gay heroes to teach about; I’m just ignorant of them.
As to the new law, I’ve nothing but support and praise for that part of the law that prohibits negative references to such people in educational material. Nor do I have any quibble with the idea that a state curriculum can legitimately and should normatively teach tolerance for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.
And I find rather obnoxious the reaction of social conservative groups who urge parents to take their children out of public schools for fear of their being instructed that gays are human beings too. I presume that whatever curriculum is developed will be age-appropriate; no one will be distributing Dan Savage columns to first-graders. I’ve no time for fearmongering of that sort or the motives underlying it.
What grade level would you aim the curriculum at? Are we going to spend a lot of time questioning the personal sexuality of people like Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover? Neither of them ever came out of the closet. We often assume Ms. Roosevelt had a longtime woman lover, and rumors of Hoover’s transvestism have become something of a pound-on-the-coffin joke. We have no idea and no way of knowing if James Buchanan and William Rufus King were lovers, although that seems a credible theory. But, Buchanan shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a heroic President; the only significant legacy of his Presidency was a Civil War he did nothing to prevent. The evidence for Abraham Lincoln’s purported affairs with men at various points in his life strike me as rather sketchier than the evidence for Buchanan. [Post-publication edits in blue – BL]
To this notion, it seems to me that Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, J. Edgar Hoover, and Eleanor Roosevelt are all worthwhile enough historical figures to study for their public lives and public achievements, and by comparison thier private lives are relatively uninteresting. The rebuttal is, “It’s useful to teach our kids that it’s fun speculate about the sex lives of powerful people long dead. Gets them interested in history!” but whether J. Edgar Hoover liked to get his frack on with other dudes or wear pantyhose under his dickies is frankly not nearly so important as his fifty-year history of blackmailing the entire U.S. government into keeping him in his role as America’s top cop.
Of course, there is the actual history of the gay rights movement and actual people to look at in that. This is relatively recent history, though, history that will have occurred during the lifetimes of many of the teachers. We’re pretty much starting in 1965, so far as I can tell. So at what grade level is it appropriate to teach children about the Stonewall riots? By high school, likely; maybe to middle-school kids? Harvey Milk is of particular importance in California, so I’m guessing he’ll almost certainly be featured in the curriculum.
And, gays have been heavily represented in the ranks of our artistic and cultural elites for at least a century now, so I guess that’s a place to look. Walt Whitman comes immediately to mind here; one of America’s great poets.
If asked to name a particularly notable gay war hero, I would point you to Alan Turing, but he was British.
I am simply at a loss to think of any specific transgendered people I’d name as having made important contributions to our society. Not that I’m saying they are incapable or that they have contributed nothing, I’m just admitting a lacuna in my knowledge. The most prominent transgendered person I can think of, just off the top of my head, is Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski and I don’t really know (or much care, it’s her business and not mine) whether “transgender” or “transvestite” is more appropriate.
But at the end of the day, I must admit that I am largely at sea about this. Which is why I hope that the Readership here is able to point me in the direction of things I might look into further, and offer their ideas about what kinds of heroes or even interesting figures might appear in this new curriculum.