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Tips on Teaching K-12 LGBTQ+ History

Map showing policies related to LGBTQ inclusion in and exclusion from U.S. school curricula standards. Courtesy of Movement Advance Project, “Equality Maps: LGBTQ Curricular Laws,”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of The American Historian.

With all of the headlines about Republican-dominated legislatures passing “Don’t Say Gay” curriculum censorship laws and white nationalist militia groups threatening Drag Story Hours at public libraries around the country, one could be forgiven for imagining that LGBTQ-inclusive education is much more widespread than it is. Otherwise, one wonders, why the backlash? And why now? Perhaps more importantly, how can teachers respond with courage and honesty rather than fear?

A small minority of history, social science, and English-language arts teachers have been quietly incorporating LGBTQ content into their classrooms for decades. State policies that protect and encourage educators’ and students’ access to accurate history education, however, are barely a dozen years old. In 2011, when California passed the FAIR Education Act, it became the first U.S. state to mandate that the roles and contributions of LGBT Americans, along with people with disabilities, be incorporated into K–12 history education. This followed education codes passed since the 1960s that had done the same for women and people of color.

California’s Department of Education put the law into practice in its groundbreaking 2016 History-Social Science Framework. Among many other revisions, it incorporates scholarly-driven, developmentally appropriate LGBTQ content seamlessly into existing subject matter themes in grades 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. In 2017, the state aligned its approved textbooks with this framework and law.

From 2019–2023, a handful of states have passed similar laws and are in the process of aligning their education standards, including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon. Other places, such as Massachusetts and New York City, are resourcing teachers and districts with high-quality LGBTQ history education professional development and curricula.

In some ways, then, these are the best of times for teachers wanting to end the systematic erasure of LGBTQ lives and themes from the ways the past is taught. If you teach in a state with laws that encourage and protect this inclusion, you have an opportunity to demonstrate how it can be done. Help usher an end to the scapegoating of our contemporary culture wars with the support of laws, policies, and an unprecedented array of accessible resources.

Perhaps you work in one of the thirteen states with “Don’t Say Gay” laws–which take the form of either outright censorship or requiring advance parental notification when teaching LGBTQ-inclusive content. We stand in solidarity with you, your students, and their families, all of whom deserve a full, contemporary, and scholarship-based history education. Take time to understand what your state’s educators organization, district leaders, and administrators consider to be in violation of these laws. What forms of education can still occur, in the classroom, through student groups (such as Gay-Straight Alliances), or through community-based educational efforts (at, for example, LGBTQ Community Centers, faith organizations, or public libraries)? Learning how inclusive history education is being done well across the country and showing through example what this looks like serves as a powerful corrective to those who seek to silence the truth.

Many educators work in the 30 states that represent where most of the country was before the FAIR Education Act: No gag order in place, but no clear mandates or protections for teaching inclusive history. You still have the opportunity to incorporate LGBTQ lives and themes into your classrooms, just as you would the histories of African Americans, Indigenous peoples, religious minorities, immigrants, women, men, and everyone else that make up our nation’s rich past. You can exemplify how K–12 history education continues to prepare our young people to become active citizens in their diverse local communities, states, our democracy, and the world. Teaching the past honestly equips students with the tools they need to understand their present and guide our collective futures.

Parents, voters in school board and state elections, and professional historians, our teachers, students, and families need your support. Make your voices heard. Get informed on educational policies and legislation. Where you can, provide training and guidance. Some day, this current history war will subside. For now, you need to take a stand.

Wherever you are, you have a role to play in making LGBTQ-inclusive history education the accurate, important, and, hopefully, just plain ordinary curricular experience it should be in schools across the nation. How, exactly, can educators do this?

At the Organization of American Historians annual meeting in April, a series of roundtables addressed this very question. Below are some of the key takeaways and resources that were discussed:

  • Create a welcoming and inclusive classroom for all students, including LGBTQ+ students. Foster a classroom environment that demonstrates respect for all people. Develop classroom policies that prevent bias, bullying, and harassment. Cultivate a culture of kindness.
  • Learn and model LGBTQ+ inclusive language. Gender and sexuality have always existed on a spectrum, although categories, rules, and identities have changed over time and across cultures. Students will represent a range of genders and sexualities. Use their chosen names and pronouns. Avoid making assumptions.
  • Ensure that the materials and images you use in your lessons and post in your classroom reflect diverse individuals and families. In analyzing historical documents, include material that amplifies historically marginalized voices, including LGBTQ+ ones.
  • Integrate LGBTQ+ history into many of your units, rather than teaching it as a “very special episode.” There is no need to entirely revise your existing curriculum. Better to choose examples of LGBTQ+ people, events, and places that highlight and enhance your already amazing lessons.
  • Tap into the excellent LGBTQ history primary sources, biographies and lesson plans that other teachers have created. In the past decade, educators have curated amazing collections of resources that you can easily adapt and tailor for your students.
  • Teach inclusive history through continuity and change. Clarify that history is nuanced and complex and is not a singular linear, triumphant pattern of progress. As you teach about the history of LGBTQ+ oppression, remember to also teach about queer resistance, resilience, joy and love. Empower your students to be transformational agents in their own communities.
  • Showcase history as mirrors, windows, and doors that reflect our own experiences and the experiences of others. Remind students that education should include ways to both understand ourselves more deeply and open our minds to cultures outside our own. In a nation with such a diverse past, present, and future, history education is vital to the hope that we can learn how to better coexist and live our best lives together.

Get Started with Recommended Resources:

Hidden Voices: LGBTQ+ Stories in United States History, New York City Department of Education, Lesson Plans.

LGBTQ+ History Through Primary Sources, curated by Wendy Rouse, edited by Don Romesburg and Katharine Cortes, California History-Social Science Project.

LGBTQ Lesson Plans, ONE Archives.

Teaching LGBTQ+ History, Our Family Coalition

LGBTQ History Primary Source Sets, GLBT Historical Society.

Teach the History of LGBTQ+ Joy, California History-Social Science Project.

LGBTQ Curricular Laws, Movement Advancement Project.

Don Romesburg is professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University. He is editor of the Routledge History of Queer America (2018) and was the lead scholar working to bring LGBT content into California’s 2016 K–12 History-Social Science Framework and subsequent textbooks. He now trains educators on implementation. His related forthcoming book is tentatively entitled Contested Curriculum: LGBTQ History Goes to School.

Wendy Rouse is professor of history and program coordinator of the Social Science Teacher Preparation Program at San Jose State University. Her scholarly research focuses on the history of women, gender and sexuality during the Progressive Era. Rouse’s most recent work, Public Faces, Secret Lives: The Queer History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (2022), explores the ways that suffragists challenged norms of gender and sexuality in their era. Rouse is also the author of Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement (2017) and Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1880–1920 (2009).