Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman defend the importance of learning queer history to navigate the present. A newly updated second edition of their book, Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, is published this week by the University of Wisconsin Press in The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History. The first edition won the Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Anthology.
Given travel restrictions on Muslims, a promised wall to the south, and, as one protest sign put it, “better cabinets at IKEA,” why does queer history matter at this contentious political moment?
We are not so naïve as to believe that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but we are convinced that those who don’t learn about the past may not be wary enough about what could be coming. Which is precisely why we think that learning and teaching queer history is so essential now. We set out to revise our book, Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History after just three years in print because of the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage, increasing trans visibility, and backlash to both in the form of “Religious Freedom” laws and “Bathroom Bills.” And, now we face even more uncertainty about the fate of same-sex marriage and the movement to win basic right for trans people, given the future of the Supreme Court.
So how can history help? It can give us perspective, it can give us confidence that change is not only possible but inevitable, it can give us courage. Our goal is to provide the resources for teachers at the high school, community college, and university level who want to integrate queer history into social studies or U.S. survey courses. Our goal is to help educate new generations of students to understand that same-sex desire did not always mark one as a different kind of person, that people did not always have to hide their same-sex love and relationships, that changing gender and changing sex are not just recent possibilities, and that our history is not just a steady march from the bad old days to the better recent ones. Perhaps most important at this time, history shows us that alliances across the lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, ability—across all kinds of lines of difference—have the potential to make a difference. Queer people have been deeply involved in many social and political movements and continue to make history in our time.
If younger generations don’t know about the past, will they feel hopeless? Will they feel complacent? History tells us that neither is a good option. Resistance does matter, it does change the course of history, as we learn from the difference that the homophile, gay liberation, lesbian feminist, anti-AIDS, and queer movements have made. And complacency is dangerous, as we learn from the post-World War II Lavender Scare and the New Right’s anti-gay backlash in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Queer history does matter. The state of California—site of “Calexit,” a progressive movement advocating secession from the United States—recognized that queer history matters by legislating the inclusion of the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the K-12 curriculum. In the face of new challenges, we have even more work to do. We should all take courage, and caution, from the past.
is the author of many books, including A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America and Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. She is a professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at Western Michigan University. She is the author of Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s.