Leslie K. Morrow is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, which conducts workshops on sexual diversity issues and classroom management. Morrow spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about a bill in the Illinois Legislature that would require history curricula in Illinois public schools to include discussions of prominent people who had disabilities or were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
If the bill, which has been passed by the Illinois Senate and is now in the House, were signed into law, how significant would that be in terms of promoting an inclusive climate in public schools?
Very significant. Illinois would be only the second state, after California, to require primary schools to teach about the contributions of historical figures who were LGBTQ or had disabilities. Although California passed its bill in 2011, they found out that schools weren’t enforcing it and took a harder stance within the past year. Massachusetts has a similar bill; however, the curricula is not required there.
A bill like Illinois’ has the potential to promote learning about the LGBTQ community. I say “potential” because the bill is just a bill – words on paper, if you will. In order for it to be effective, teachers will need access to resources and training so as not to miss out on the nuances of teaching about LGBTQ individuals, especially as it relates to gender and sexuality.
What historical events might exemplify an inclusive curriculum or how might discussions of events that are studied currently change under such a curriculum?
The Harlem Renaissance movement in the 1920s and 1930s is a wonderful addition to an inclusive history curricula. But so often history lessons about it are stripped of the queerness within that time and that community. Learning about those aspects of it would have really helped the younger me.
The continued omission of LGBTQ history by default rewrites and sanitizes history, miseducating our students. This is damaging to all students and negatively impacts school climate because LGBTQ issues remain underexamined and misunderstood.
Growing up, I was desperate for images and information about LGBTQ people to figure out who I was. I wasn’t able to read a textbook or sit in a class and hear positive things that reflected all aspects of my identity – black, female, queer. I didn’t encounter an inclusive curriculum until I was in graduate school.
Critics of the proposed law say that children are already learning about the accomplishments of prominent people who were or may have been LGBTQ, so why the need to bring their sexual orientation into the conversation?
We’re not providing a complete picture of these individuals if we’re not talking about all aspects of their identity, including their sexual and gender identity.
Students learning about amazing women such as poet/feminist/civil rights activist Audre Lorde or writer/activist June Jordan are not seeing the entire person if we’re rendering their sexuality invisible. That takes away the opportunity for a student to think “I can dream, I can achieve and be queer.”
That’s missing for many of our young LGBTQ students. They’re stumbling and suppressing their identity because they either received no information or it’s shrouded in negativity.
In working with young adults on campus who are LGBTQ, what do you observe about the impact of inclusive educational environments?
A student once walked into my office and was shocked to see me sitting behind the desk. She said that had she known that the director of the LGBT Resource Center was someone who looked like her, a person who reflected aspects of her identity, she would have come in much sooner.
She had professional aspirations that she chose to suppress because she did not think graduate school was possible or that the legal profession would be accessible to her due to her racial and queer identities.
We’re failing all of our students if that’s the sort of message that we’re circulating about who counts and who is more deserving based on normative identities, whether it’s race, gender, sexuality, religion or ability status. That’s shameful, but unfortunately, it’s happening.