A historical perspective on the 'Don't Say Gay' bill

For two of the nation's most renowned LGBT historians, Lillian Faderman and Ian Lekus, Senator Campfield's bill may not be as harmless as some might think.

Dr. Lillian Faderman, author of many books including Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Bird and Twilight Lovers, believes there is ''a moral obligation to tell the truth.''

Similarly, Dr. Ian Lekus, a History Professor at Harvard University who specializes in LGBT history, thinks the bill encourages a ''dishonest'' behavior on the part of educators.

''Ending prejudice is multi-generational work," he says. "But one critical step towards creating an LGBT-affirming culture is being honest about all the LGBT people in our history books, the LGBT characters in our literature, etc. Visibly including LGBT people in the diverse landscape of our culture is critical to reassuring LGBT youth that they are just as valued members of our society as anyone else.''

Both historians seem to agree that the bill is not the right path to take when it comes to curtailing bullying. 

''Statistics show that LGBT youth often grow up in confusion and depression because of societal rejection inside the classroom," Dr. Faderman explains. "I believe that for them to know that the role models they admire were gay, for example Walt Whitman or Willa Cather, will reduce the likelihood of suicides among LGBT youth. Similarly, when heterosexual students realize the people they admire were gay, they will be less likely to bully other children for being gay.''

Dr. Lekus adds, ''Moreover, bullies thrive on the assumption that they can get away with harassment and violence without being challenged, and that their victims are isolated and alone. LGBT-inclusive curricula, along with anti-bullying policies and legislation, will help rob bullies of their power to intimidate, as we make it clear that all people are valued regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.''

Asked when students should be taught that a given historical figure was LGBT, Dr. Faderman says, ''whenever those people come up in class.''

''We are not talking about the graphic details of what they did in their bedrooms," she adds. "We are talking about their identities as gay and lesbian human beings. Young children should know about close, loving, lifetime bonds with people of the same sex. This is not about the genital component.''

Dr. Lekus echoes those sentiments: ''We don't have a minimum age when students learn that historical figures were heterosexual, so why should there be a fixed age when students learn that some of our forefathers and foremothers were LGBT? Without question, students need age-appropriate curricula, but our youth are a lot smarter and more clever than this bill's sponsors presume, and this measure patronizes our youth rather than protects them.''

Asked if this bill runs counter to American freedom of speech, Dr.. Faderman concludes, ''This is about truth and justice, not necessarily freedom of speech.'' Indeed, she echoes Sen Campfield's concern that teachers could use free speech to ''spew all the homophobic venom they like.''

For Dr. Lekus, freedom of speech remains a core value in American life. Still, he adds, the bill is not necessarily un-American because ''we also have a long history of politicians, ministers, and other leaders who make a name for themselves by warning of all the dangers to our youth, and who proclaim -- very loudly -- that if we don't speak about something, it doesn't exist or it won't happen. This bill's supporters appeal to the darkest and most fearful strains of American history rather than the best aspects of being American.''


Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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