EDITORIAL: Give school kids the facts about prominent LGBT people in history

SHARE EDITORIAL: Give school kids the facts about prominent LGBT people in history

The Legacy Wall, displayed this week at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, is an art installation that highlights contributions to U.S. and world history by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. | Marlen Garcia/For the Sun-Times

When history teachers in Illinois talk to students about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leader’s March on Washington in 1963, they also should mention the march’s chief organizer, Bayard Rustin.

They should tell students that without Rustin there wouldn’t have been a march. And they should tell students that Rustin was gay.

Bayard Rustin in 1974. | File photo

Bayard Rustin in 1974. | File photo

It is not an irrelevant fact. Rustin’s sexual orientation, at a time when most gay men felt the need to be deeply closeted, no doubt gave him an even greater understanding of what it was to be oppressed.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have made significant contributions to U.S. and world history. We should say so. It’s as simple as acknowledging that astronaut Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space, was a lesbian. Or that Alan Turing, considered to be the father of computer science, was gay.

We urge the Legislature to pass a bill, which the Illinois State Board of Education supports, that would require such acknowledgments in Illinois public schools.


The Illinois school code already requires that when teaching history, contributions of African-Americans and people from 15 ethnic groups must be included. It is not at all a stretch to include LGBT people.

The lessons can help remove stigmas and cut back on bullying. People who left their mark in the arts, science or civil rights movement and were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can become role models for kids who identify as LGBTQ.

For people who grow up and live most of their lives without ever learning anything positive about people like themselves, I can tell you it’s a game changer,” said Victor Salvo, founder and director of The Legacy Project, which commemorates historical contributions by LGBTQ people. “It’s going to save a lot of lives for kids.”

A survey three years ago of some 10,500 students across the United States, by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that in schools with LGBT content, kids heard far fewer derogatory remarks aimed at gay, lesbian and transgender students. Where there was no LGBT content in schools, almost 63 percent of LGBT students said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. The number dropped to 40 percent in schools with LGBT content.

“Students are better off when they have facts,” Brian Johnson, CEO of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Illinois, told us. “The knowledge helps them be compassionate, knowledgeable individuals.”

The bill has opposition from conservatives, including the Illinois Family Institute. “Where’s the protection for students and parents who have a religious belief?” Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the group, told the Chicago Tribune. “Which has always been the case, this is not a new, avant-garde thing that they find this behavior to be against their religious beliefs and their churches’ or synagogues’ beliefs. No one seems to be mindful of that. They don’t care.”

Sorry, Mr. Rivera, but history is history, and it cannot be shortchanged in the service of religion.

Acknowledging that a person of historical significance was gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual makes no value judgment except to say the person existed and made contributions. These are historical facts. Teachers have an obligation to tell history accurately. That’s what schools are supposed to do.

We often talk about the whole lives of people who have made history. It’s common to mention Barbara Bush when talking about George H.W. Bush, or about Abigail Adams when talking about John Adams. References to Martin Luther King often include mentions of his wife, Coretta Scott King. It should be no different for LGBT folks.

When talking about Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her contributions in social work, it is relevant to add that her partner of more than 40 years was Mary Rozet Smith, who was involved at Hull House. Their relationship is framed as a queer relationship at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at 800 S. Halsted St. because of a lack of progressive verbiage in Addams’ era, Hull-House education manager Michael Ramirez told us. “They had a strong emotional connection that had romance in it,” he said.

A change in the school code does not have to create new costs for school districts, state Sen. Heather Steans, the bill sponsor in the Senate, said. Only new books bought by school districts would have to include historical achievements by LGBT people.

Schools could try to opt out of the curriculum by applying for a waiver through the Illinois State Board of Education, according to Steans.

That would be a mistake. Bayard Rustin, Jane Addams and Sally Ride made history in this country. Mentioning they were gay harms no one but could help a whole lot of kids.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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