From: [email protected]
Date: July 10, 2003

Dear Safe Schools Coalition members and friends,

Include gay contributions in history texts


Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 2003; PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA, 19101
(Fax: 215-854-4483 ) (E-Mail: [email protected] )
( )

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Is Lawrence v. Texas the Brown v. Board of Education of gay Americans?

After the Supreme Court declared that states could not prohibit gay sexual conduct, jubilant gay and lesbian activists replied "yes." Just as Brown paved the way for black freedom, they predicted, Lawrence would trigger a new era for homosexuals.

But if gays want that to happen, they would do well to focus their energies on the same institution Brown examined: the public school.

Our schools remain our central mechanism for transmitting social knowledge and values to our young. And until we change the message we send about gays, we'll never achieve the equality and tolerance that the Lawrence decision enshrines.

How can schools change this culture? Several localities and at least one state - Massachusetts - have passed measures barring discrimination against gay students and teachers. That's a good start, but gays - and their straight allies - should also target a central source of that discrimination: history textbooks.

Until our young people learn to see homosexuality as a part of our past, they'll never accept gays in the future.

To see why, we might return to the example of blacks and Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, when the court handed down this decision, history books routinely denigrated African Americans. Even as they condemned the South for seceding in the Civil War, for example, most texts portrayed slavery as a kind, beneficent institution designed to "civilize" a backward race.

Listen to a best-selling 1950 textbook by two preeminent liberal white historians of the day, Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison: "As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy."

This was a book by liberals. The texts by conservative authors were even more repugnant, depicting blacks as beasts who raped a prostrate white South when the Civil War ended.

Reviewing these texts in 1955, a year after Brown, one black teacher warned that "real integration" of African Americans would require new historical accounts of them.

"Legal gains and favorable court decisions cannot complete the work that must be done," he underlined. "We need accurate knowledge about ALL peoples, ALL races, and even ALL classes and branches of human society."

Even as blacks pressed courts and legislators to enforce Brown's promise of integrated classrooms, they lobbied publishers and school boards to revise textbooks. By the early 1960s, their effort was already bearing fruit. A 1962 edition of the Commager and Morison book omitted their notorious "Sambo" passage, substituting material about slave revolts. Other books opened their pages to Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and dozens of other African American freedom fighters.

Open up a standard history text today, though, and you'll find almost nothing about homosexuals. Sure, the books are replete with important figures who were gay - Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman. With very rare exceptions, however, you won't see these individuals identified as gay.

More important, you won't find any discussion of the gay struggle for freedom. The labor movement, the women's suffrage movement, the civil-rights movement: all very much accounted for. But try locating anything about gay rights, surely one of the most significant social reform campaigns of our time. Aside from a line or two about the Stonewall Riots, perhaps, you'll search in vain.

Like other Americans, gays deserve to have their distinctive voices included in our national story. Even more, though, the rest of us need to hear them. I'm not gay (in case you were wondering), but I do believe in equal rights - for everybody. And that's precisely why I hope we alter our history, again and again, until all of us are free.

. Jonathan Zimmerman ([email protected]) teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."


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