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‘Angry they haven’t learned it sooner,’ advocates want more LGBTQ curriculum in Tennessee schools

Jake Hesselbein came out as gay in eighth grade, but he didn’t learn about the history of the LGBTQ activism movement until his junior year at Central High School in Memphis — long after bullying had driven him from his first school.

Seeing himself reflected in the school curriculum helped soothe some of his pain. “Talking about it even a little bit in school made me feel more represented,” Hesselbein said.

If Hesselbein lived in California, New Jersey or Colorado, his experience would soon be unremarkable. Those states have recently passed laws requiring teaching about LGBTQ history. But in Tennessee, there is no such law, leaving a student’s chance of encountering inclusive curriculum up to the discretion of districts, schools, and individual teachers.

There are signs that LGBTQ history may not be a priority for state education officials. When they updated the state’s social studies standards earlier this summer, they asked teachers to include more information about world religions, the Holocaust, racial justice, and feminism. Scant, if any, information was included about the contributions of LGBTQ people.

This matters because students who identify as LGBTQ face discrimination and discomfort in Tennessee schools, as they do across the country.

As one of the 1.3 million U.S. high schoolers who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, Hesselbein is also one of the 76% of students in Tennessee who, in 2017, experienced at least one form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, according to a climate survey.

“I experienced a lot of bullying — name-calling. I got called the F-A-G word. I didn’t feel very accepted,” said Hesselbein, who recalls one instance at Houston High School in Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, in which a group of students booed him off stage during a pep rally.

A lot of that changed after he switched schools.

“When I went to Central, the curriculum was so different than we learned at Houston,” said Hesselbein, who is about to start his freshman year at the University of Memphis. “At Central it was all there. We talked about [LGBTQ activist movements] in class and did a project on it.”

Learning about it made Hesselbein one of just 11% of Tennessee students who said they were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events.

An inclusive curriculum is seen as one tool to make school climates more comfortable for all students.

“At the very basic level, representation matters,” said Kayleigh Bondor, a teacher who co-leads the Gender-Sexuality-Alliance at Central High School. “The reality is that LGBTQ issues, history and contributions are just the fabric of human studies … Safety resides in acceptance and acceptance can only be gained with exposure.”

Building a diverse curriculum is integral to making that happen, and it “doesn’t just end with history,” said Justin Sweatman-Weaver, who helps lead teacher trainings all over the state.

“We can also talk about it within the context of art, health, and even in simple ways such as integrating diverse family structures or identities into word problems in a math class,” said Sweatman-Weaver, co-chair for GLSEN’s Tennessee chapter, which provides resources for educators.

“There’s a lot of ways to do that,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be super explicit, or in-your-face. What we’d really like to see is the normalization of LGBTQ people and experiences in the everyday curricula.”

Normalizing LGBTQ experiences is not just for the benefit of students who identify as part of the community, but rather it’s key to creating a positive environment for the whole student body.

“We often think that the [curriculum] is indirect. We might ask ourselves, ‘Does this really affect kids’ day-to-day lives?’” said Stephen Russell, a professor of child development at the University of Texas-Austin. After 20 years of researching that question, Russell and a number of other scholars have found that it matters more than most other strategies designed to foster inclusivity.

“Kids who reported learning about LGBTQ issues in schools reported less bullying and said they felt safer in school,” Russell said. “We know that those things are all related to mental health and academic achievement.”

Despite the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and shifting public sentiment, LGBTQ youth are about twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to experience homelessness and substance abuse. They are nearly four times as likely to attempt suicide. “Young people are dependent on their parents, guardians, schools and faith communities,” Russell said.

This June, Shelby County Schools joined other Memphis-area businesses and agencies to celebrate Pride Month, posting a rainbow flag on its social media accounts accompanied by this message: “In honor of #PrideMonth, we celebrate the diversity that makes both our city and schools great. Our LGBTQ+ staff, students, parents, and friends are an important part of who we are and we are proud to call you family.”

But beyond the fanfare, the school board’s non-discrimination policy does not explicitly mention safeguards for LGBTQ students. The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any plans to amend that policy. Last year, at a school board candidate forum hosted by Chalkbeat, participants struggled to answer questions about how they would protect LGBTQ students.

While research shows that an inclusive curriculum deeply influences school climate, Central High’s Bondor said state-level attitudes present some of the biggest hurdles to making that a reality. “Students have noticed,” she said. “They’ll come and say, ‘We just talked about Oscar Wilde and none of the homosexual context was presented.’ The internet, I think, has made them more aware.”

It was a television show that introduced Justin Hill to LGBTQ history. “People just don’t know how long and deep this history runs,” recalled Hill, who recently graduated from White Station High School and identifies as an LGBTQ ally.

“For me personally — being black — people just don’t understand how much people of color were involved in the LGBTQ rights movement,” said Hill, who said he never learned about any of that history from his teachers. “All people see in the media is the white side of the movement.”

Shaping a multifaceted approach is a priority for advocacy organizations, too. “It’s impossible to talk about the LGBTQ rights movements without talking about the intersections of race and class and gender,” Molly Quinn, executive director of OUTMemphis said. “It’s like teaching the history of the South without teaching about Mississippi.”

Often, college lecture halls are the first setting in which students engage with such material at all, let alone to that degree of nuance. “Almost every student I teach has almost zero background in LGBTQ history. What they learn in my class is completely new to the vast majority of them,” said Ariel Eisenberg, an assistant professor of history at Rhodes College.

Those realizations elicit a broad spectrum of emotions.

“Generally they express surprise and delight. They are receptive to learning this history and happy about it. They are often angry they haven’t learned it sooner,” Eisenberg said.

But when that history and those experiences are included in the K-12 curriculum, even on the most basic level, it has the potential to create a more welcoming vibe at schools. “When I transferred over to Central High School, people were nicer,” said Hesselbein, the student who left his old high school because of bullying. “When I told them I was gay people weren’t like ‘ew gross,’ they were accepting.”