Law requires LGBTQ+ history to be taught before high school

Sam Malone

DeKALB — A turbulent time in American history, the 1950s were shrouded in pure terror. People lost jobs. People lost family. This shade of fear was not just the red of McCarthyism but lavender as well. Commonly taught in schools, the Red Scare looms over American history, obscuring the Lavender Scare all together. It is left out of history books and the minds of students. But that won’t be the case in Illinois anymore.

Effective July 1, House Bill 246 will mandate that students be taught LGBTQ+ history prior to graduating eighth grade, and among that history will be the Lavender Scare — the story of an intoxicating homophobia that cost many their lives.

“The 1950s is something we need to talk about,” Amanda Littauer, associate professor for the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, said. Her office is filled with books. “Queer There and Everywhere” and “Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America” are among the titles stacked floor to ceiling.

“All students need to see people they identify with, and that’s not a problem for straight white kids, but it’s a problem for nearly everyone else,” Littauer said.

The Inclusive Curriculum Bill was introduced by State Rep. Anna Moeller of Elgin and was passed Aug. 9 by the Illinois General Assembly. In public schools, “the teaching of history of the United States shall include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the history of this country and this State,” the synopsis of the bill reads.

Littauer, who is often the first to teach her college-aged students anything about LGBTQ+ history in a classroom setting, said it’s crucial that the bill mandates education at an early age.

“Not having it implies that the LGBTQ+ people don’t exist or aren’t important and feeds homophobic culture,” she said.

For many students, such as Cris Rojo and Christopher Adams this has been the case.

Neither of them knew they were gay until the term “gay” was used against them as a slur in high school. That is how they learned who they were — bullying.

“I remember growing up confused,” Rojo said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “I had so many questions about what was right and what was wrong because I got called ‘gay’ behind my back and then started thinking ‘maybe that is me.’”

Rojo attended Clinton Rosette Middle School and has been a resident of DeKalb his whole life. Growing up he was made fun of for the way he dressed. His pants were “too tight,” his mom told him. It made him different — feminine.

Today, he defines himself by his style, which he describes as flamboyant with masculine undertones. He is confident and paints who he is with clothing.

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Rojo was not immediately accepted by his parents and said it would have been helpful for him to have a teacher to talk to at the time. Feeling desperately alone, he needed a safe space.

What Rojo needed, Adams found by a stroke of luck at Hinckley – Big Rock High School.

“When my parents found out I was gay they told me I was ruining my relationship with God and that I was a terrible son,” Adams said. “I cried and told my teacher, and she really supported me.”

Adams grew up in a sheltered household, not knowing what it meant to be gay until high school. He struggled with feelings of being different and alone. Kids talked behind his back, making him feel like it was a problem to be gay.

“I knew I was different,” he said. “I felt like I was off or wrong. But this teaches kids that it’s OK to be gay, straight, bisexual, queer or whatever else you want to be. You are who you are, and that’s OK.”

Support and understanding are two things Littauer, Rojo and Adams all believe will come out of the passing of this bill. They also believe it will help to start a much-needed conversation for those who do and do not identify with the LGBTQ+ community.

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GLSEN, a national network for LGBTQ+ youth advocacy, has conducted research that says inclusive curriculum could positively benefit all students. Through an analogy using mirrors and windows, GLSEN says the mirror effect of inclusive curriculum benefits those who do identify with the LGBTQ+ community, while the window effect benefits those who do not. This is because including LBGTQ+ history in textbooks allows students to see a reflection of themselves if they do identify with the community and promotes understanding in others. 

“If you teach it, you have these conversations,” Littauer said. “Curriculum cultivates inclusive attitudes.”