Shoving it down your throat: why LGBT History matters

Juliette Moisan 25 February 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of LSE Library on Flickr

In school, the stories I heard about queer people all featured harassment, depression, or death. While it never went into the specifics, history class taught me about the AIDS epidemic, about the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust and the pink triangle. These two occurrences were the only times I heard about the lives of queer people and even then, it was only about the terrible things that had happened, and how tragic their lives had been. There was no real sympathy in how their stories were taught, and there was definitely no desire nor possibility to identify with these tragic lives.

And it's true. The persecution, the death, all of these things happened, and the heart-wrenching stories should be told because it is a constitutive part of our past. However, teaching exclusively the gruesome parts can lead to dehumanisation and othering: queer people of our past are no longer individuals with their own lives, they are reduced to a few lines in history textbooks. Children are taught queerness is inherently negative and that queer people are bound to a life of suffering and difficulty. It is a pretty heavy burden on young shoulders. Talking about positive role models and uplifting stories is just as crucial, and perhaps even more important, as it creates a positive framework.

The main problem is that, currently, there is no comprehensive education regarding LGBT issues in school, almost 20 years after the repeal of Section 28. Queerness is also often taboo at home, so the conversation is inherently limited. Education has to be done by yourself, with what little information is readily available online or in books.

There is, then, an evident need for teaching children about all the parts of history, and not just the comfortable ones. Some people have argued that children should be taught about ‘queerstory’ but that they should have the option to opt-out of it, just like White children in a school in Utah, US were allowed to opt-out of black history, a decision that caused a massive uproar. All the children have to be educated in the same way, regardless of their sexuality and gender. To become well-rounded people, able to understand the world they live in and respect the people they interact they must be given the keys to do so early on. There is a dire need for a curriculum that applies to all schools and all children indiscriminately.

Despite what the commonly taught historical evidence may suggest, queer people didn't suddenly appear in the 20th century. The lack of historical artefacts and writings to back it up doesn't mean that their existence is up for debate. It means that, for most of history, queer people were not allowed to exist freely without fear of persecution; they were murdered and silenced just for their identity. They could not document their history: having one's photograph taken was a complicated and very expensive process, which also implied trusting the photographer enough to allow oneself to be free, keeping written memoirs meant exposing oneself to potential harm if they were found as well as needing a place to store them safely.

Most of the traditional ways in which history is passed down through generations were simply unavailable to queer people. They had to rely on oral history to have their stories remembered and their lives, their fights and their dreams not be swept under the rug.

What rare trinkets, letters and writings of queer history were allowed to exist were often deemed unworthy of being kept and preserved as historical documents, and museums refused them. This process creates a vicious circle, with queer people not having any cohesive history to hold onto and build themselves upon. Subsequently, and understandably, they cling to whatever they can. Even so, questions that might sound harmless can also set back the process of normalising queer history: are you sure they were really gay, though? Weren't they just really good friends? This constant obfuscation of queer history gaslighting means that even reliable primary sources become up for discussion, and this further obscures what queer history encompasses.

Even then, when, finally, we do hear and learn about queer people, it’s overwhelmingly cases of gay men: Harvey Milk's activism, Alan Turing's inventions, Oscar Wilde's poetry… While they were truly important figures, who contributed much to society, other figures are obscured to allow space for them. Marsha P. Johnson, despite her key role in Stonewall and her activism, is never mentioned in schools. As a whole, queer figures of our past tend to be hidden in the shadows, contributing to society, to science and to the fight for equality but having to shrink themselves at the same time. Shedding light on their lives is crucial, as not only does it allow children to hear about the great people of history, it also serves as a homage to those who paved the way to equal rights.

Today it might feel like having a whole month dedicated to a celebration of LGBTQ+ history is unnecessary and over-the-top; "they're shoving it down our throats", they say, but when queer history has been left out of the narrative for so long, how can they do anything but? Queer people are not silent anymore, and they will fight for their voices to be heard in the news, in the streets and in the shows and movies you watch.

Maybe queerness is being shoved down your throat; truth is, it’s about time.

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