Thursday, March 7, 2019

Op/Ed: Follow CA and NJ’s Lead: Teach LGBT History in Schools

By Perry N. Halkitis

In the musical “Hamilton,” my former sixth-grade student, Lin Manuel Miranda, muses, “Who tells your story?”

His words are significant and meaningful to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, whose health and wellbeing are dependent on living our lives and telling our stories openly and without judgment. For too long, the majority has silenced or marginalized our stories, negating our role in history and perpetuating the stigma that undermines the physical, emotional, and social health of the LGBT population.

Stigma prevents LGBT people from seeking healthcare — even when they are in need of services. For decades, we have known that discrimination and homophobia leads to poor mental health, including heightened suicidal ideation, greater reliance on avoidant coping strategies, heightened alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, as well and more pronounced risky sexual behaviors. Conversely, research has documented improvements in LGBT health when laws are enacted that bestow LGBT individuals these same rights as their heterosexual peers.

Recently, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took an important first step in guaranteeing the LGBT narrative is told by signing a law requiring public school students be taught the societal contributions of notable LGBT people throughout history, making it the second state in the nation after California to legislate such a curriculum. Other states should follow suit since LGBT history is history.

Because of Gov. Murphy’s initiative, New Jersey students we will be able to learn about and honor our LGBT heroes and their accomplishments, including the father of the modern computer, British mathematician Alan Turing; tennis great Billy Jean King, who equalized the playing field for women in the sport; and James Baldwin, a black gay man whose brilliant writing gave voice to the African American experience. By including LGBT history as part of the history we teach to the children of New Jersey, we will also bring to light the wrongs faced by so many LGBT people who have been forced to remain in the closet and hide their identities at the cost of their own health, such as was the case with Turing, who was subjected to chemical castration because of his sexual identity. Perhaps with these lessons, we will avoid making the mistakes of the past.

This is not the first time New Jersey has sought to affect change for underserved and marginalized groups. In the 1960s, it was one of the first states to require that black history to be taught in public schools. New Jersey’s legislation, while not perfect, makes strides toward destigmatizing LGBT people and honoring their lives. It has the potential of improving the health and wellbeing of the population, something my own research has studied and fought for nearly two decades.

Members of the LGBT community are often victims of vitriol and violence at the hands of perpetrators who have deep-seeded hatred toward this segment of the population they don’t know and don’t understand, which is the direct result of societal stigmatization of the LGBT community. Since 2017, under the Trump administration, LGBT hate crimes have been on the rise — after reaching an all-time low in the Obama administration.

It is within this climate that President Trump has stated he plans to end the HIV epidemic in the United States. While a noble and lofty aspiration, HIV — a disease that disproportionately affects gay men and trans women — is not simply a biologically produced disease. It is an epidemic driven by societal stigma, poverty, racial discrimination, and homophobia — social conditions that under the Trump administration have heightened with their attacks on people of color, immigrants, the poor, women, and the LGBT population.

Gov. Murphy’s legislation may have a more powerful effect on curbing the epidemic by normalizing and celebrating the lives of LGBT people. Stigma has been shown to be a driver of HIV, and reducing it through initiatives such as LGBT-inclusive curricula is a significant step in ending AIDS.

Other states should follow New Jersey and California’s lead to make LGBT history a standard part of their public school curriculum to ensure the stories and contributions of LGBT individuals are heard. Such storytelling can inform the ignorant and perhaps dampen the hate and stigma that undermine the individual and collective health of this population.

If the sharing of our experiences is undertaken thoughtfully and honestly throughout the nation, our stories will reveal the social and emotional paths that we as LGBT people have taken, the challenges we have faced at the hands of an often-hateful majority, and how, despite these conditions, we have shown resilience while contributing to the building of American society.


Perry N. Halkitis is Dean and Director of the Center for Health, Identity Behavior & Prevention Studies (CHIBPS), School of Public Health, Rutgers University and between 1986 and 1992 was a teacher at the Hunter College Campus Schools. His book Out in Time: From Stonewall to Queer, How Gay Men Came of Age Across the Generations will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019.  

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