Teaching LGBT history complicated by historical figures who didn’t ‘out’ themselves

November 29, 2017

New history and social studies texts and materials from various publishers are on display at the Santa Clara County of Office of Education, where the public can examine them.

By next fall, millions of K-8 students in California schools may be learning from history textbooks that astronaut Sally Ride was a lesbian, Walt Whitman was gay, and a Gold Rush era stagecoach driver named Charley Parkhurst was born a woman, but lived as a man.

California earlier this month became the first state in the country to adopt textbooks that highlight the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender to the development of the state and country.

As education officials debated the content of the books, LGBT advocates clashed with some publishers about how to describe the sexual orientation of people who in the past did not “out” themselves. With the adoption of the books, California set a precedent, one historical researchers continue to wrangle over. 

While it could take years for other states to formally pass a law like California’s or to adopt similar textbooks, educators throughout the country are already incorporating LGBT lessons into their classrooms, said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a national educational organization based in New York that works to make schools “safe and affirming” for LGBT students.

“For some states, California can be an example of what is possible,” she said referring to the textbook approvals by the State Board of Education. “For others, I hope their commitment to good education and the health and well-being of every child would lead them to have a more inclusive curriculum.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the publishers who submitted California textbooks for review, said it would add some LGBT content to its national editions as a result of its participation in the process.

The textbook changes grew out of the passage in 2011 of the FAIR Education Act proposed by then-state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. The law mandated that history books include “fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful” representations of LGBT Americans, as well as people with disabilities.

Leno, who was one of the first two openly gay men elected to the state Assembly in 2002, said he authored the law primarily because LGBT people and those with disabilities were conspicuously absent in the state’s law governing what must be included in history textbooks.

After a seven-month process of study and review involving the nation’s top textbook publishers, along with some smaller publishers, the board adopted 10 sets of instructional materials for students in grades K-8 and rejected two sets proposed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Local school districts are not required to use the textbooks, but they must teach history and social studies based on the California History Social Studies Framework — or blueprint for teaching — adopted by the board last year. The framework requires publishers to “include the roles and contributions of people from different demographic groups” including LGBT Americans. In addition, the state’s Social Content Standards — adopted by the state board in 2013 to ensure that instructional materials “reflect a pluralistic, multicultural society composed of unique individuals” — require LGBT contributions to be “discussed when it is historically accurate to do so.”

The state board’s approval of the new textbooks on Nov. 9 followed an eight-hour hearing, hundreds of comments by members of the public at board and commission meetings and thousands of written comments. In the end, the board opted to endorse the recommendations of the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, whose members had worked closely with LGBT activists and publishers.

Districts must now decide whether to order the textbooks — which are expected to be finalized by February — or choose other instructional materials.

The National Center for Law and Policy — a nonprofit legal organization that focuses on religious freedom and traditional marriage, among other issues — is urging parents to object to the books by contacting their local school boards.

Reflecting the controversy regarding content, the state board rejected a set of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt middle school textbooks in part because the publisher refused to label some notable Americans in U.S. history as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource

California-aligned 6th-grade history and social studies texts and teacher editions from the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The state Board of Education did not recommend that districts use the materials.

The publisher said it did not label historical figures LGBT who had not themselves publicly described their sexual orientation. However, it did agree to add biographical information about speculation related to their sexual orientation in the teachers’ guide.

Bill Honig, chairman of the Instructional Quality Commission, said that some review panels went “back and forth” in their discussions about labeling some historical figures LGBT and that the commission accepted most of the panels’ recommendations for changes. The review panels included teachers and content experts appointed by the state board.

The commission’s report rejecting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s texts for grades 6-8 cited the publisher for not including the sexual orientation of Parkhurst and Whitman, along with Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, President James Buchanan and Jane Addams, the pioneer social worker who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In its response, the publisher pointed out that none of these figures self-identified using the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. 

While omitting their sexual orientation was a factor, Honig said the main reason the commission rejected the books was because they didn’t include enough LGBT references overall and because there were too many proposed edits and corrections, which would amount to “rewrites.” Although the review panel said the sexual orientation of those named was established through “current historical research,” Honig said the commission might have scrutinized the list more carefully if it had intended to recommend the books. 

Each textbook publisher handled these issues in their own way based on guidance from the California History Social Studies Framework and the commission’s recommendations.

In one notable example, Parkhurst presented a dilemma to review panels and publishers, resulting in inconsistencies regarding how they described the stagecoach driver’s gender.

The commission told the publisher Pearson to change its headline leading into a section on Parkhurst from “Women During the Gold Rush” to “Gender During the Gold Rush.” The commission wrote: “This revision reflects the consensus of historians about the gender of Charley Parkhurst. Parkhurst may have been a transgender man, a woman who dresses as a man to participate with social benefits, or any number of identities. Because of this, discussion of Parkhurst should not be located in a section about women.”

However, the commission did not require the same change in a recommended text by Mark Jarrett, who runs a small publishing company that won state approval for an 8th-grade textbook he wrote that includes a two-page spread on several historical figures thought to be gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender.

Below are excerpts from Jarrett’s book highlighting LGBT historical figures (scroll down or click arrows to move from one page to the next).

Jarrett, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University, shied away from using labels to describe their sexual orientation. Instead, he chose to describe facts about their lives that could indicate that they were LGBT.

He referred to Parkhurst in two different parts of his book. In the LGBT section, Jarrett wrote: “Some women and men, such as Charley Parkhurst, chose to spend their lives as a different gender than the one with which they were born…Women who dressed as men to fight in the American Revolution or the Civil War may have been simply patriotic or they may have also been lesbian or bisexual — but the truth cannot be known. Gender confirmation medical operations were not possible at the time because medical knowledge was too limited.”

Jarrett also included Parkhurst in a section titled: “Some Notable Pioneer Women,” where he wrote that “…She adopted the name of Charley and assumed a new identity as a man….”

The state board rejected other Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books, for K-6 students, in part because they did not include enough mentions or images of LGBT families, as part of showing the diversity of family life in America. 

Although Houghton Mifflin Harcourt could still make the recommended edits and offer the textbooks directly to California schools and districts, a spokeswoman said it does not plan to do that.

“The review period in California provided an additional opportunity to look closely at our programs and make changes that strengthened our content,” said Leah Riviere, senior communications manager for the publisher. “The national editions will reflect this process, continue to align with our goals and embody the spirit of the FAIR Act for students across the country.”

A K-5 text by McGraw-Hill won approval in part because the publisher agreed to most of the corrections suggested by the commission. But it balked at some of the requested LGBT references to historical figures, saying “they raise complex issues related to academic integrity, including factual verification, language and readability.”

Instead, the publisher reworded a few of the suggested edits to avoid placing an LGBT label on some historical figures and to make them more understandable to young children.  

Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and creator of a popular podcast In the Past Lane on American history, said it is important that students — whether children of immigrants, gay children or disabled children — “see themselves in history” and understand people’s differences in the context of the times. 

Even with the emergence of “the quintessential family life” in the late 19th century, he said, textbooks should point out there was no single American lifestyle and that nontraditional arrangements developed as the nation urbanized.

Although O’Donnell did not review the California textbooks, he said in the case of more contemporary figures, like astronaut Ride, who chose to be silent about her sexual orientation, how to characterize her is more of “an ethics question, and the answers are far from settled.”

Editor-at-large John Fensterwald contributed to this story.

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