Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Stories Matter

"History is written by the victors" -Winston Churchill

A very effective piece of anti-gay talking points is that "radical homosexual activists" want to teach homosexuality in schools in order to recruit a new generation of of gays.....(as if gay men and women would just die out if this was prevented). We saw this talking point used to good effect here in California during the Prop 8 elections when the National organization used the children's book "King and King" to threaten that homosexuality will be taught in schools. The homo hostile hysteria this induced in the public was significant to the outcome of the election.

Why am I discussing this now?....well...What if the history of real gay men and women was taught in schools as an effort to eliminate bullying? It might happen here in California and the Fundies are crying foul...

Democratic Senator Mark Leno, Equality California, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network are sponsoring a bill that would require that textbooks in the state be rewritten to include positive examples of LGBT people throughout history. It is called the FAIR education act(fair, accurate, inclusive, and respectful) This bill was meant to be a tool to help reduce the bullying and stigmatization of gay youth that can lead to suicide and is actually based of the successful efforts of a of a North London secondary school teacher by the name of Elly Barnes. Barnes worked to educate students at her school about famous Gay men and women throughout history in an the hopes that teaching people about real gays would curb homophobic bullying...and it worked.

None of this well documented information however, has stopped conservatives from decrying this as an attempt to "teach homosexuality" in schools in much the same manner as NOM's scare ad about "King and King". The mildest of detractors claim that this is an attempt to rewrite history  in an attempt to legitimize homosexuality...as you can pick up all to clearly in the condescending eye rolls in this Fox News clip:

The WORST of criticisms are the accusations that this is an attempt to brainwash a generation of kids into becoming gay by teaching them about gays. Its ridiculous. No one is teaching HOW to be gay, only that gay men and women existed through time and have contributed to our society in a remarkable number of ways. This is no different than teaching about the roles of women or African-Americans through history. But to be fair..they didn't want that either.

To grow up gay, is to grow up in a vacuum. We come from every culture and nationality that is and yet often we grow up alone. We may know ourselves with a strong racial or cultural identity...but once we start to realise we are gay then we feel as if we are the only ones. And yet how different would our lives be if we could know that we weren't the only people to love those of the same sex and live remarkable lives. As GLBT community our sense of history and culture doesn't come until much later in our lives  and if often limited to modern culture.. To learn anything at all about the history of gay men and women is no easy task for the everyday person.

A while back I attempted to write a series of posts on the subject of gay history. The problem I ran into is that you can get to a certain point in time and you practically have to be Indiana Jones to piece together a coherent narrative. Ancient History contains a fairly clear record of attitudes to same-sex love and relationships. It wasn't until the I reached the 4th century and the  rise of Christianity as a political body that the narrative drops off into shadows. Gay men and women learned in short order to hide who they were or be burned at the stake...or much worse. No more poems to beautiful men would be sung...instead we have to find out history in the eyes of the figures created by Michelangelo and shrouded in religious subtext. Its as if the common thread of history was utterly severed. It was with great sadness that I realised what this meant...it was nearly an extinction event. As the Church rose to power in the world it rewrote history and when they did not burn us, they often wrote us out of existence.

To read online resources revealed nothing more about gay men and women than a succession of laws passed to either ban homosexuality and punish it by death/life imprisonment...or to give it a temporary reprieve until the next wave of religious conservatism banned it again. There are no face or names to give to this era of history until the founding of America and only then do begin to pick up the thread again....never as a group, but in the stories of individual men and women who lived lives of secrecy, like Eleanor Roosevelt or Alan Turing. To uncover their stories is to reweave the strands of a gay history and give us back a past...as much to let us know that we are not alone as to let the world know that are not random aberrations but a part of the fabric of human existence.

Being the deeply closeted and homophobic teen that I was in high school, I no doubt would have jeered at the thought of gay men through time but those histories would have been invaluable to me then whether I would have appreciated them or not....I still would have listened. Perhaps knowing that being gay is a naturally occurring part of human life would have made my eventual coming out a little easier and minus a little of the shame. Perhaps a gay teen who see's themselves as alone with a secret self will instead learn that this part of who they are puts them in some amazing company. Maybe they would understand that who they are is valuable and that they have NEVER been alone.

Will including gays in the history books teach kids to be gay?...hell no. Those who have sat on the winning end of history for centuries want to keep our histories from reaching the light of day. They prefer a world in which they never have to acknowledge that we exist but that will never make it so. To know the stories of actual GLBT people may not only save a life, it will help reweave a thread broken long ago and restore to us all, a common past.

Until next time dear readers....


  1. Of course those who ferment hate and intolerance will decry education of an opposing view. To keep a populace ignorant and uninformed allows one to maintain control.

    The true test of an ideology is under the light of examination. However those who work with fear and deception can not allow that for they will be discovered for what they are.

    To combat such people we must strive to educate people and raise social awareness of exactly who and what we are, which is not so different than them. Only our details change.


  2. This is interest group politics. No denying that. Fox News is right in recognizing it as such.

    Unfortunately, history in schools is a touchy issue, and as an educator and a historian I think there is a slope here that has to be cautiously climbed or else we may fall and realize that we've screwed up.

    Because "gays" are not the only people who are wanting to get written into history books. So are many other minorities - people wanting to have their stories included so that they "feel good".

    I would argue that most of those stories, particularly those associated with race, ethnicity and heritage, are shared within the family and maintained through an oral tradition. That does not make them any less important in a broader social context, but does highlight an important difference between homosexual history and the history of other minorities: gay history is very, very rarely shared in advance of one's coming out. It is completely lost on most heterosexuals - missing from their collective knowledge. And, studies have shown that including people groups in history makes it relatable, even if it is not done so in a feel-good manner. For example, the sudden inclusion of females in history books starting in the 1970s and 1980s. Weird, huh? People argue that the result of this is a generation (or two) of women with higher standards of education, a higher rate of post-secondary graduation, a higher rate of self-confidence than their male counterparts.

    And, most importantly, including gay people in history is not telling anything other than "what happened." Finding out that Benjamin Britten was gay, or that gay soldiers were allowed to serve in the Second World War, or that Drag Shows were common in the first world war as a form of entertainment. This tells us nothing but the truth. It just isn't the truth that is in the curriculum.

    But Americans need to really think about the history that they are learning in their schools - because there are a lot of lies in it. There is a book I read for one of my History Education for High School students courses at University called "Lies My Teacher Told Me". It is about the failures of American history curricula to include factual history.

  3. I'm currently most of the way through reading 'Born to be Gay: a history of homosexuality' by William Naphy, who is a senior lecturer and director of teaching and learning in the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. It's rather a whirlwind tour of how same-sex activity has been viewed in various cultures throughout time. From the Ancient Egyptians, through various areas of China, India, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Truly fascinating! I had no idea that Shaka Zulu was gay, or that a lot of mainstream early Islamic poetry focussed on the beauty of young men... Perhaps it might fill the gap you found, or at least provide a starting point.

  4. Great article Bryan! I am STILL trying to figure out who indoctrinated me into this "lifestyle??" in a small Ohio town raised by two devout Catholic parents. I am guessing it must have either been Paul Lynde on "Bewitched"...or Liberace. Those were about the only two "sort of" gay men in the media when I was a kid....

    I wonder when our population will listen to "knowledge and fact" rather than FEAR from crazies??? Hate groups still, sadly to say, make money from fear. I hope before I go to the "great beyond" I see change. Too many young people are still ending their lives because of these horrible people...

  5. Great entry. Coming to terms with my own sexuality has been a long process, and only since my late 20s have I started truly accepting it in being more willing to accept being gay as a lifestyle not just a closeted identity. The main impetus for this change was definitely education especially in the form of role-models (such as you guys). I'm still not even out, but I'm like *right there* almost

    Like you brought up, a few of the biggest things I've learned is how history is written from certain perspectives and the surprising notion that facts can be hidden, misrepresented, and entire histories can be marginalized and/or revised. It would seem like a conspiracy theory if it weren't totally true and seen in a variety of circumstances. Learning about other historical gay figures definitely helped me appreciate my sexual identity better. Like learning about Alexander the Great possibly being gay or bi and I think some of the Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci. All very eye-opening and exciting/inspiring to me

    As for the idiotic dogma that gays are converting people to be homosexual with some sort of agenda *eyeroll*, it's just another example that there are some evil and/or misguided people out there. I was raised in a pretty good environment, so when I was younger and naive I thought people were mostly good. It's not that I think people are inherently bad, I just realize now you can't be giving the human race too much credit. I'm sort of like, well if we're going to get accused of agenda, hell we should at least come up with one and get organized so at least we'll deserve the lies. At least then we'll get something positive out of the maligning, as it seems a lot of the public did end up believing we had an agenda due to the fear politics. So if they're going to think we have an agenda, we should at least be able to fight back against the attack with an actual agenda. What are they going to do blame us for having an agenda? Oh wait they already did that back when we didn't. I'm glad to hear about the efforts to educate people on gay history. It's inspiring, and I've always believed education and understanding is one of the best tools to combat hate and fear.