Lambda Lore

Promote LGBT History Month

I was talking to a young friend who didn’t know who Matthew Shepard was. Taken aback, I realized that this man was born in 1989 and was only 9 years old when Shepard was beaten and left to die on a cold October day near Laramie, Wyo.

We are failing our youth by not teaching about the significance of Stonewall, or Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Harvey Milk in our public schools. However, in Utah it is illegal to promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, so it will be decades before we are as progressive as California. In July of this year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making California the first state in the nation to add lessons about gay people to social studies classes in public schools.

While there are many queer-straight alliance clubs in our high schools throughout the state, I wonder how many schools promote October as LGBT History Month?  Are the QSA club advisors making certain that our local schools are aware that October is LGBT History Month, and requesting to celebrate it just as they would celebrate other history months around the year?  I doubt it.

Heterosexuals cannot be relied upon to examine and explain us. We must be the interpreters of our own realities.  We need to tell and preserve our stories.

We can do a lot of things for our gay youth outside the confines of schools. Request that a local library order books on queer history. Make certain that libraries are aware that October is LGBT History Month and ask for a display of books. Request the Chelsea House teen series on “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians,” A series for teens which includes the following subjects: James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson, John Maynard Keynes, T. E. Lawrence, Liberace, Federico Garcia Lorca, Martina Navratilova, Sappho, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

The idea for LGBT History Month was first proposed in 1994 as a way to increase appreciation for our own history and as a way of making clear to our friends and fellow citizens the contributions we have made to our common culture. Too often we are portrayed in the media as buffoons or villains, the victims of some crime or even a social threat. Seldom are we treated as “a community growing into self-consciousness, making a contribution to the common culture.” We can change that and it can start with one person.  Rodney Wilson, a high school social studies teacher in Missouri, was just one person who thought schools should teach gay history and promoted the idea of a LGBT History Month.

The idea quickly drew the attention of a small group of advocates who promoted it and wrangled endorsements from major organizations such as the Human Right Campaign, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.  Later that year, official proclamations from sympathetic political officials were given. In 1995 the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon, as well as the mayors of Boston and Chicago declared October as National LGBT History Month. In July of the same year, the National Education Association passed an amendment supporting the month to be modeled after, and similar in purpose, to Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

October was selected as LGBT History Month because it didn’t conflict with the more celebratory pride events of June and it falls during the academic calendar year, when educational institutions are able to participate in related activities. National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), which was a product of the 1987 March on Washington, also provided an additional reason for choosing October.

Coincidentally, the original Utah Gay Liberation Front was formed in October 1969 by a hardy band of radicals and the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society was founded by Connell “Rocky” O’Donovan and Ben Williams on Halloween, 1998. The Historical Society was later revived by Williams and the late Chad Keller in October 2002 as the Utah Stonewall Historical Society.

What can you do for Gay History Month? Read books on lesbian, gay and trans history. Now would be a great time to begin keeping a journal, writing your memoirs or organizing your memorabilia. Talk to someone older or younger than yourself about queer history. Remember, you are a time traveler and you need to keep a paper trail, as well as photographs to know where you have been and where you want to go.

Promoting LGBT History Month will be controversial, but as freedom fighter Frederick Douglass stated, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom and yet renounce controversy are people who want   crops without plowing the ground.”

Selected readings for LGBT History Month:

  • John Boswell: Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity
  • George Chauncey: Gay New York : Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
  • John D’Emilio: Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970
  • Martin Duberman: Stonewall
  • Judy Grahn: Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds
  • Richard Plant: The Pink Triangle : The Nazi War Against Homosexuals
  • Randy Shilts: The Mayor of Castro Street : The Life and Times of Harvey Milk
  • Merlin Stone: When God Was a Woman
  • Stuart Timmons: The Trouble with Harry Hay:Founder of the Modern Gay Movement

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One Comment

  1. History is usually the only thing that can’t be changed, but it is true that winners write the history. So, like liberty, eternal vigilance is the price of accurate history.

    Thanks to Ben and other gay Utah historians, that vigilance continues.

    Utah does, indeed, enjoy a law (Utah Code Section 53A-13-101(1)(c)(iii)(A)(II)) which requires the Utah Board of Education to prohibit curriculum instruction in “the advocacy of homosexuality.” But, the restriction doesn’t appear to violate the U.S. Supreme Court opinion about Board of Ed. v. National Gay Task Force, 470 U.S. 903 (1985) that determined that state laws which prohibit “advocating, […] encouraging or promoting public or private homosexual activity in a manner that creates a substantial risk that such conduct will come to the attention of school children or school employees” are unconstitutional.

    So, advocacy inside a classroom is prohibited, but advocacy outside a classroom is protected. Good thing, then, that we have gay-teacher groups and gay-student clubs.

    Utah also enjoys another law (Utah Code Section 53A-13-302(1)(c)) which prohibits a school district from asking a student without the prior written consent of the student’s parent or legal guardian about the student’s or any family member’s “sexual behavior, orientation, or attitudes[.]”

    Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka and I supported the bill in 1999 that became this law to protect the privacy of students and their families.

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