The Republican Plot to Ban LGBTQ History in Public SchoolsHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, teaching history, LGBTQ history
This Pride month, as revelers hit the streets to celebrate LGBTQ history, Republican state legislatures are hard at work trying to erase it. And it’s not just epochal events like the Stonewall riots, or towering figures like Harvey Milk, that could be wiped from classroom instruction. In public schools in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Montana, it may soon become illegal even to mention Bayard Rustin, the openly gay co-organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, or educate kids about the AIDS crisis.
In May, Tennessee became the first state to pass what queer-rights advocates have branded as “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which either forbid the teaching of LGBTQ history in K-12 schools outright or allow parents to choose whether their children participate in lessons that include it. Within days, Montana followed suit. Yet another bill in Arkansas awaits the signature of the state’s Republican governor. Similar bills have been considered in West Virginia, Iowa, and Missouri, and even more proposals are percolating through red-state legislatures.
Akin to bans on the teaching of critical race theory, these laws seek to preserve the myth that the story of America is one of inexorable progress and unblemished virtue, that we stand exceptional among nations as the gleaming embodiment of democracy; they also imply that a great number of us don’t matter. In particular, legislation forbidding the teaching of queer history aims to ossify what remains of society’s moral disapproval of LGBTQ people and endangers queer youth susceptible to suicide.
“It is a false representation of the past, one in which LGBTQ people are imagined never to have existed,” said Anthony Mora, associate professor of history and Latinx studies at the University of Michigan. “The hesitancy to open up questions about the failures of the past—of not living up to the goals of the republic—is less about the past than about not wanting to change the present, to hold in place the status quo and not allow for real moments of debate and change.”
Mora’s group, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association released a joint statement in May condemning the recent spate of “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which the organizations say perpetuate homophobia, distort the historical record, and deprive students—queer and not—of a complete education. “Among the many dangers of these laws is that they will create a two-tiered system,” Mora said. “These bills would harm students by keeping them from learning about the complexity of our larger society and their place in it, depriving them of a fully rounded education.”
Politically, the bills reflect the resurgence of culture-war politics at the state level now that Republicans are out of power in Congress and the White House, and the religious right’s expanding moral panic over the advancement of LGBTQ rights. The laws in Tennessee and Montana, as with the bill in Arkansas, are in one sense narrow—designed, it seems, to invite legal challenges at a time when an overwhelmingly conservative Supreme Court is inclined to grant religious exemptions. In Tennessee, parents must now be given 30 days’ notice to examine any curriculum materials related to sexual orientation or gender identity, and can request their children be pulled from such instruction. Montana gives parents 48 hours to “withdraw the child from a course of instruction, a class period, an assembly, an organized school function regarding human sexuality.” A similar notification law in Arkansas requires school districts to tell parents in writing about “instruction of any kind” about “sex education, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
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