Members of the LGBTQ+ community, like many other target minority groups, often have to deal with a noticeable lack of representation in textbooks, classes, and other educational resources and settings. Most people can agree with me on this, but some go on to ask, “Why does it matter? Why does my child have to learn that this historical figure was a lesbian? Why do they have to learn about the gay liberation movement and gender studies?”
Those are all valid questions, and, inspired by my lovely friend’s presentation on this topic, I’m going to try to answer them. Here are four reasons why I think LGBTQ+ representation in school matters.
1. It Normalizes the Community
I’ve heard people say that they think being LGBTQ+ is a “liberal trend,” something relatively new to the history of humanity. And in an extremely cishet-normative society that has done an extraordinarily good job of editing and rewriting historical narratives, that kind of thinking is understandable. But it’s just not true.
Representation in school can mean a lot of things. It can mean lecturing on LGBTQ+ history, or just having a class about what it means to be LGBTQ+ and introducing students to our community’s terms and vocabulary. It can mean showing a documentary that illustrates the lives of some LGBTQ+ people, or just a film that includes a gay couple. It can mean having an LGBTQ+ student, staff, and faculty panel where they speak about their experiences, or just having gender-neutral bathrooms available. It can also mean that in class – any class, say, when you’re studying a historical figure in APUSH or reading some author’s book in English Lit – your teacher says, “By the way, this person was bisexual.”
It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But representation proves to society and individuals that LGBTQ+ people are capable of great things, that we’ve contributed enormously to human history, that we’re real people deserving of respect just as much as anyone else. It proves that we aren’t social deviants, that being cisgender and heterosexual isn’t the “norm”. We’re here, and we’ve always been here.
2. It Counters the Typical Narrative of LGBTQ+ History
I was lucky enough to have a social justice education. It was wonderful and eye-opening and it changed my life. But there was still a lot of room for improvement. We spent just two weeks on the LGBTQ+ community – two weeks that overlapped with AP exams, so many students weren’t even in class – and the history we learned was very, very limited.
The typical narrative of LGBTQ+ history goes something like this: “So there was a lot of persecution, then there was Stonewall, then we got AIDS and died tragically.”
For a questioning, closeted kid, this is extremely depressing to hear.
We need role models. We need hope, proof that we can be something other than dead, proof that we can change the world and leave behind a lasting legacy.
When teachers start saying “by the way, this author was lesbian, and that historical figure was gay, and that musician was intersex, and that artist is trans,” that poor closeted kid can start thinking, wow, that’s amazing. I can actually be something. I can be a great author or musician or scientist, I can make history, I can do something with my life and people will remember me.
This kind of thinking can change someone’s life.
Sometimes it can even save it.
3. It Helps People Who Are Questioning
The process of exploring your gender and sexuality is difficult and often isolating. It’s hard trying to find resources, it’s hard finding a label to describe who you are, it’s hard coming out (or not), it’s hard to learn to love yourself.
But when schools and teachers put in the effort to represent the community and be inclusive, all of this can become a little bit easier. I was infinitely thankful to discover a gender-neutral bathroom on my campus. And those two limited weeks of education on LGBTQ+ topics gave me the vocabulary to express myself and allowed me to reject much of the self-hatred that often comes with questioning your identity.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still hard. It’s so, so hard.
But representation makes a small difference, and that difference matters.
4. It Gives Hope to the Next Generation
We always say that our children are our future. So what do we really want our future to look like?
Like many people, I’m dreaming of a society where discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t exist. Of course this will be difficult to achieve, but one of the biggest changes we can make is restructuring our education system to include LGBTQ+ representation. Because the children who are in school right now will go on to become our next politicians, artists, scientists, lawyers, filmmakers… and many will go on to raise children of their own. If we can teach this generation to be loving and inclusive and to care about the rights and histories of LGBTQ+ people, they’ll teach the next generation to be that way, too. And it won’t be as difficult the next time around.